The National Security Hole at the Heart of the Trump Transition
Thousands of key policymakers — from State to the Department of Defense — still need to be appointed to new positions. But nothing’s happening.
Last year, I signed an anti-Donald Trump letter that circulated among national security types and made crystal clear, in numerous articles, my opinion of Trump’s quasi-isolationist, protectionist campaign rhetoric. So I was not exactly waiting by the phone after the election for the transition to call and offer me some plum post.
I had, admittedly, briefly entertained the hope that, for the sake of the nation, Trump would let bygones be bygones and would call not on me but on other national security professionals for help, even those who opposed him during the campaign. If that were to happen, I suggested right after the election, other Never Trumpers should be willing to serve for the good of the nation. It was not to be, with the Washington Post reporting that Never Trump Republicans are being blacklisted by the transition team. Rumors of enemies lists are circulating, and some of the erstwhile Never Trumpers are said to be chagrined at their inclusion.
While Trump is making a mistake in not seeking out his political opponents — as Richard Nixon did when he appointed Nelson Rockefeller’s loyalist, Henry Kissinger, as his national security advisor — Never Trumpers are also making a mistake if they cavil at not getting the call. There is nothing wrong with serving any president, even this one, but there is also an important role to be played by the loyal opposition, a principled voice to criticize Trump when he falls short of their ideals, which will be often, and to praise him on those occasions when he does something right.
The real problem is not Trump’s failure to summon Never Trumpers to his administration. The problem is that he has not, so far, announced enough capable replacements for the 4,000 political appointments that any president must make.
Already one of his few national security appointments — would-be National Security Council (NSC) staffer Monica Crowley — has been forced out of the White House even before starting her job because of the plethora of plagiarism revelations that have come to light thanks to digging by CNN and others. Only a handful of other hires have been announced so far at the NSC, and the most prominent one is, of course, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the national security advisor who does not inspire confidence with his tweets promoting discredited conspiracy theories.
But the NSC is actually doing better on the hiring front than the other major organs of national security decision-making — the departments of State and Defense. Less than two full working days remain until the inauguration, yet few officials have been named at either department beyond the cabinet secretaries: James Mattis as secretary of defense, Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Mattis breezed through his confirmation hearings by breaking with the president-elect to defend NATO and criticize Vladimir Putin. Rex Tillerson had a rockier time of it, refusing, under Sen. Marco Rubio’s skillful questioning, to criticize human rights abuses in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines and also showing a lack of knowledge about numerous areas he was questioned about.
Even if Tillerson is confirmed — no sure thing for someone who once won an Order of Friendship from Putin — he and Mattis will have few other political appointees to support them as of this writing. Not even deputy secretaries have yet been appointed at the State or Defense departments, much less the crucial undersecretaries and assistant secretaries who are responsible for fleshing out the broad parameters of the administration’s foreign policy. These are the obscure but important officials who do the real work of governing, teeing up the decisions that will be decided by the “principals” at NSC meetings and then translating policy guidance (which in this president’s case is likely to be quite broad) into specific actions.
It is curious that, so far, the picks for most of those posts have not even been leaked, much less formally announced, especially given that a few ambassadors have already been appointed: Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman is bound for Tel Aviv (or is it Jerusalem?), businessman William Hagerty for Tokyo, and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad for Beijing. Yet ambassadors are not policymakers, and the people who are supposed to give them marching orders on a daily basis so far are MIA.
The Post’s Josh Rogin reports that much of the delay at the Pentagon can be explained by clashes between Mattis and the transition team, with Mattis commendably wanting to recruit Never Trump Republicans or even non-Republicans like Michèle Flournoy — and the Trump partisans predictably balking. Tillerson also reportedly disagreed with some of the names floated by Team Trump for his deputy, including John Bolton, who may have been nixed by the president-elect in any case because of, believe it or not, his overly prominent mustache.
While Trump named cabinet members in a speedy fashion (in part, apparently, by not doing the full and necessary vetting), he is lagging behind in appointing lower-level officials compared with Obama in 2009. Even when appointees are chosen, the need for vetting and confirmation hearings could mean that it will be months before jobs are filled.
That’s not a huge problem in the Department of Education, where policy decisions can be contemplated in a more leisurely fashion. It is potentially a big problem for national security jobs, whose occupants will have to deal with numerous crises, known and unforeseen, that can have the most serious repercussions for the security and prosperity of the entire country. Career officials can occupy those positions for the time being, but the consequence of that will be to freeze policymaking.
On second thought, given how curious some of Trump’s instincts are (as he has just made clear again, he is anti-NATO, anti-EU, and pro-Putin), perhaps the incoming administration’s inability to implement new policies for now will be a saving grace. But the policy vacuum cannot last indefinitely. While the president-elect certainly isn’t obligated to appoint those who opposed him during the campaign, he is obligated to find high-quality people for crucial posts — and so far he hasn’t.
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