Elephants in the Room
Why I, an Anti-Trump Republican, Didn’t Sign the Anti-Trump Letter
Many former Republican national security officials just endorsed Biden. They will be hobbled in the fight for the party’s post-Trump future.
In 2016, I signed two high-profile public letters, in which senior national security professionals from various Republican administrations declared their opposition to a Donald Trump presidency (see here and here). I also organized a third anti-Trump letter signed by the country’s leading specialists in civil-military relations. I do not regret signing those letters. Trump’s destructive performance in office has entirely validated the concerns they raised.
There is now a similar letter endorsing former Vice President Joe Biden for president, signed by some 70 former Republican colleagues, many from the ranks of the 2016 signatories. Once again, I agree with its most important fundamental claim: It is not in the U.S. national interest for Trump to be given a second term. It is time for the country to move on.
Yet this time, I did not sign.
These letters are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be helpful for voters to hear how specialists who have devoted their professional lives to the United States assess the ability of a candidate to manage global problems. It is a striking fact that so many experienced professionals, even if they disagree on other issues, nevertheless come to the same conclusion: Trump was not fit to be president in 2016 and is still not fit in 2020.
But the 2020 letter has an unavoidable, if unintended, downside: It does not position the country well for what the United States needs the day after a possible Biden victory: a healthy opposition party. The Republican Party will need a reboot, a fresh start, a post-Trumpist identity—one that is anchored in those aspects of the conservative worldview that have produced the greatest successes of previous Republican presidents and is not tethered to the fiasco of the past four years. As president, Biden would be under enormous pressure from his own extreme-left flank to veer into new ditches. A principled opposition party engaged in constructive debate could help him avoid those mistakes.
The 2020 letter ably makes the case against reelecting Trump, but it does not help the Republican Party prepare for the struggles that will come after Trump is defeated. The letter may hobble Trump on the margins, but it may even more significantly hobble the influence of the signatories—some of the ablest Republican national security practitioners—on the forthcoming intraparty fight over the future direction of a post-Trump Republican Party. Some may be writing themselves out of this fight intentionally, having given up on a party that could nominate someone such as Trump. Others just accept it as an unavoidable consequence of coming out so publicly against their party’s standard bearer. But Republicans will need strong figures working within the party to prevent a Trumpist restoration after a Biden victory, and I fear the people who signed the letters will start well on the sidelines of that fight.
Keeping their powder dry for what comes next may be the precise reason why many of the heavyweights from previous Republican administrations—former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and others—did not sign, even as they have conspicuously refused to endorse Trump so far.
Probably every signatory to the 2020 letter would argue that defeating Trump is the higher priority—indeed the necessary precursor of any post-Trump repair work in the party—and it is therefore incumbent on everyone to do whatever he or she can to ensure a Trump defeat.
This assumes these letters undermine Trump’s electoral prospects and do so without incurring other unintended costs. Yet the record from 2016 is ambiguous on both points. As a candidate, Trump was able to recast the criticism he received from so many who had served in previous Republican administrations as further proof that he was the anti-establishment candidate. For the slice of the electorate that blamed both establishment Republicans and establishment Democrats for all their ills, the denunciations from establishment figures were tantamount to praising Trump with faint damns. Several senior figures in the Trump 2016 campaign subsequently told me that the campaign saw the letters as a net plus: a major boon for fundraising, a minor benefit for winning populist voters, and not much of an impact on voters already committed to voting against Trump.
Whereas the 2016 letters may not have had much impact on voters, they likely did further hobble the administration once Trump defied the odds and won. At that point, he had to staff up an entire administration—without relevant experience of his own, without a capable national security advisory team from his campaign, without any serious transition planning before the election, and while disrupting the transition effort after the election. The letters further complicated this difficult transition because they appeared to deny Trump access to the very pool of talent on which he needed to draw.
In this, a hashtag is partly to blame. The 2016 letters were explicit arguments to vote against Trump in the election, but someone branded them as #NeverTrump. There is a big difference between “not Trump” and “never Trump,” as I explained shortly after the first letter was circulated. “Not Trump” meant not believing Trump to be qualified to be president, and not voting for him to become commander in chief. “Never Trump” meant not even helping him if he does win.
All of the letter-signers in 2016 knew that their signatures would make them almost unemployable if Trump won. But in my experience, most of them nonetheless believed that they had a patriotic duty to try to help the new president, whoever he or she would be, once the election was over. And many of the signatories did what they could to help the incoming Trump administration—even if only from the sidelines. I, for one, informally consulted with numerous Trump appointees and did what I could to help them during an exceptionally chaotic time. However, the letters had made an already tricky assignment even more difficult.
If Trump wins reelection, his talent pool will be roughly as shallow in 2021 as it was in 2017. He has not won over new converts. Most of the people I have talked to who went to work for him on national security came out of that experience determined not to work for him again and warning others of the toll. I am glad that there will at least be some qualified experts who signed neither the 2016 letters nor the 2020 letters who could form the kernel of a trustworthy team for a second Trump term, should that prove necessary.
My signatures under the 2016 letters preclude me from serving in a possible second term. But I look forward to the vital challenge of what the Republican Party needs to do in case of a Biden win: to repair the Republican voice on national security. It is this challenge that has my name on it.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.