Trump Passes on Elliott Abrams for State Dept., Throwing Open Selection Process
The White House continues its search for an experienced hand after the president rejected a controversial neoconservative.
President Donald Trump is no longer considering Elliott Abrams to fill the State Department’s No. 2 slot due to critical comments the former Bush administration official made of Trump during the campaign, GOP aides said.
The turnabout, first reported by CNN, creates a surprise shakeup in a selection process for a deputy who is seen as key in providing a steady hand to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, an ex-CEO who lacks Washington experience and whose foreign policy credentials are thinner than many of his predecessors.
It also underscores Trump’s reluctance to bring into the fold GOP establishment figures who criticized his candidacy during the presidential race, despite their willingness to serve in his administration or the expertise they may provide.
Trump so far hasn’t tapped for key administration posts any of the more than 150 Republicans national-security professionals who signed onto so-called “Never Trump” letters during the campaign.
With Abrams out, the field is now reopened to previously-rumored candidates such as Paula Dobrianksy, a former Bush administration official, and Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Jim Jeffrey, who served as deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, was also under consideration.
Abrams, a controversial figure given his enthusiastic support for the Iraq War and involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, had nevertheless won the blessing of Tillerson and even some Senate Democrats given his deep knowledge of the State Department apparatus. (Abrams was convicted, and later pardoned, for withholding evidence from Congress during the Iran-Contra affair. He also supported repressive governments in Central America.)
Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, entered Foggy Bottom with no previous government experience. And given the forced departure of key management personnel at the State Department such as Under Secretary of Management Pat Kennedy, Republicans have urged the president to select a deputy with broad knowledge of the building.
That could have been Abrams, who had also reportedly earned the support of Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus. However, a GOP Senate aide noted that Abrams broke the golden rule.
“Outspoken critics of Trump and the ‘Never Trump’ crowd of the Republican party need not apply,” the aide told Foreign Policy.
Abrams did not sign two prominent “Never Trump” letters that have set back the careers of several national security Republicans now eager to enter the administration. However, he did harshly criticize Trump prominently in a May 2016 op-ed in the neoconservative magazine The Weekly Standard in which he declared that Republicans have “nominated someone who cannot win and should not be the president of the United States.”
Asked by FP on Friday if he regretted making those remarks, Abrams said he “won’t be commenting at all.”
Abrams’s fall from grace was mourned by fellow neoconservatives, such as Eliot Cohen, a former Bush administration official who called the snub a “deliberate humiliation.” Others noted that Abrams didn’t have an unblemished public record going into the selection process. “These are dark days when the foreign policy community’s best hopes — now dashed, yet again — were pinned on a convicted perjurer,” tweeted Andrew Exum, a former Obama administration official.
Republicans still enjoy a bench of foreign policy professionals with knowledge of the State Department, but there is no clear frontrunner for the position. According to State Department sources, the Trump administration is considering Beth Jones, a former acting assistant secretary for Near East Affairs, for the No. 3 position in the building, under secretary of state for political affairs. Jones, who remains somewhat controversial in Republican circles for serving during the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, also brings extensive knowledge of State Department operations, according to sources.
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