Trump Critic Poised for Senior State Department Job
Brian Hook, a former Mitt Romney adviser, is favored by Rex Tillerson to lead his foreign-policy brain trust.
A critic of Donald Trump and a longtime member of the GOP foreign-policy establishment is poised for a senior position at the State Department absent a last-minute veto from the White House, Foreign Policy has learned.
Brian Hook, a former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, is Rex Tillerson’s preferred choice for director of policy planning at the State Department, according to multiple GOP Senate aides. The policy planning director leads a strategic brain trust for the secretary.
Hook is the co-founder of the John Hay Initiative, a group of former Mitt Romney foreign-policy advisors whose leaders organized a prominent letter signed by 121 GOP national security luminaries refusing to support Trump last March because he would “act in ways that make America less safe.”
Hook did not sign that letter, but in previous interviews declared that he personally disagreed with the president on a range of policy issues, and noted his wife was firmly in the “never Trump” camp.
“My wife said ‘never,’” Hook told Politico in May. “Even if you say you support him as the nominee, you go down the list of his positions and you see you disagree on every one.”
Appointing Hook to director of policy planning would give him a direct line to Tillerson and put him in charge of a staff of specialists and academics in the department. Previous secretaries of state have used the policy planning director for tasks ranging from short-term crisis management to long-term strategic planning to outside-the-box thinking. Jake Sullivan, who held the post under Hillary Clinton, used the perch to help hatch the Iran nuclear deal among other things.
“This has the potential to be a very powerful position under Tillerson,” said a GOP Senate aide. “It’s a chief advisor position for someone who’s going to need help navigating the building.”
Following his work in the Bush administration, Hook served as a foreign-policy advisor to mainstream Republican presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. He and the John Hay Initiative embrace a hawkish foreign policy doctrine requiring a bigger defense budget, a tougher line against Russia and China and unflinching support for Israel.
Hook co-authored a book last year calling NATO a “bedrock of European security” and a crucial force in combatting “Russian aggression.” Trump has called the alliance “obsolete” and said it should be reoriented to the fight against terrorism.
Hook’s rising star could signal that Trump is now giving cabinet secretaries greater discretion for personnel choices or loosening his prohibition on candidates who harshly criticized him during the election. The administration has had difficulties filling empty positions.
However, one congressional Republican cautioned that the White House could still intervene against the appointment, which does not require Senate confirmation.
Hook did not respond to a request for comment.
In recent weeks, the White House has nixed the job prospects of a series of GOP establishment figures, including Eliott Abrams, a neoconservative who served under presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Tillerson wanted to offer Abrams the deputy secretary of state position, but his name was axed after the White House reviewed his blistering criticism of Trump during the presidential campaign.
Disputes over appointments have led to an ocean of vacancies at the State Department and a lack of guidance for career officials tasked with representing the United States abroad. Most senior jobs under Tillerson remain unfilled, including positions for deputy secretary, under secretaries, and assistant secretaries.
More than 100 ambassadorships and senior management positions at the State Department still lack nominees, who then require Senate confirmation, a process that is time-consuming and frequently contentious. The Trump administration has named three ambassadors — for China, Israel, and the United Kingdom. Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina, was confirmed for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations last month.
In the absence of political appointments, career officials are temporarily handling the responsibilities and duties assigned to those positions.