Security Brief

Trump’s National Security Team Is Making Politics, Not Policy

Pompeo speaks on China in Wisconsin and Trump’s national security advisor speaks in Iowa in a thinly veiled election ploy.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien walk through the West Wing colonnade at the White House prior to an Oval Office meeting between President Donald Trump and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales Dec. 17, 2019 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien walk through the West Wing colonnade at the White House prior to an Oval Office meeting between President Donald Trump and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales Dec. 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Trump’s top national security aides draw questions with campaign-style speeches, 500 national security leaders back Biden, and the White House taps a new intelligence watchdog.

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Secretaries of Swing

In any other election year, U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden would mobilize athletes and celebrities to get out the vote in swing states, with campaign fixtures such as Kid Rock, Dennis Rodman, and Jon Voight stumping for the Republicans, and Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé, and LeBron James taking to the stage for the Democrats.

But in 2020, Trump—who has nominally passed off control of his real estate and entertainment empire to his children—has also decided to keep the business of campaigning in the family, so to speak. The president has dispatched top national security aides to battleground states, raising concerns among lawmakers and some veteran experts worry that he is blurring the hard-drawn line between foreign policy and political campaigning. 

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, already subject to criticism for repeated trips to his native Kansas on the taxpayers’ dime, traveled on an official State Department trip to Wisconsin, a key state that helped Trump dent the Democrats’ electoral firewall in the Midwest in 2016.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien is also under fire for politically tinged speeches that appear aimed at boosting Trump’s case for re-election in swing states. In Iowa, O’Brien drew criticism for a speech that promised “more to come in a second Trump term.” Next month, he will visit Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Southern Maine, near the border with swing state New Hampshire, to tout the Trump administration’s strategy for a 355-ship Navy.

The speeches have raised eyebrows about potential violations of the Hatch Act, the 1939 U.S. law that limits civilian appointees from engaging in political activity. And the stops aren’t lost on political experts, either: Biden and Trump are neck and neck in Iowa, and recent polls show Biden with a slight lead in Wisconsin.

Pompeo’s speech focused on the threat posed by China. “Democrat, Republican, independent, you have a friend in the Trump administration to help you push back against the [Chinese Communist Party’s] exploitation of our open society,” Pompeo told Wisconsin lawmakers. State Department officials who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity questioned whether the speech benefited the work of diplomats.

Officially, the State Department brushed aside these criticisms: “Clearly, House Democrats and the media are unfamiliar with the domestic aspect of the Department of State’s mission,” a spokesperson said.

What We’re Watching

Who CARES? Despite top U.S. health officials calling for more funding for the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, the Pentagon used most of a $1 billion CARES Act fund from Congress for military gadgets and gizmos rather than medical supplies, The Washington Post reports. House Democrats immediately called for hearings and a probe after the report. Robert Redfield, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Congress last week that states may need up to $6 billion to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

National security leaders back Biden. ‘Tis the season for open letters. With just over a month to go until election day, 500 national security leaders—a mix of retired generals, admirals, ambassadors, and senior civilians—endorsed Biden to be the next commander-in-chief in an open letter today. One of the most notable names on the list: Ret. Gen. Paul Selva, one of Trump’s most senior military advisors during his first two years in office.

Packing it in. Trump loyalist Michael Pack, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), failed to appear for a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing today despite a subpoena to testify on his role in forcing out top officials and Voice of America journalists. While it’s not immediately clear how Democrats will respond, they used Pack’s empty chair to bring in Grant Turner, USAGM’s former chief financial officer and interim CEO, for damning testimony.

Turner accused his former boss of freezing critical funds to circumvent Iranian, Russian, and Chinese news firewalls; replacing officials who maintained balanced journalism standards with Trump appointees; and denying U.S. visas to USAGM journalists whose lives might be at risk in their home countries.

“Nothing in my seventeen years comes even close to the gross mismanagement, the abuse of authority, the violations of law that have occurred since Michael Pack assumed the role of CEO,” Turner said.

When the troops go marching in. The Pentagon is sending 100 more U.S. troops into Syria after Russian vehicles ran U.S. forces off the road in the country’s northeast—ground zero for the five-year U.S. fight against the Islamic State. As Vox’s Alex Ward reports, there’s one person who’s not all-in on a continued U.S. presence in the war-torn country: Trump. “We’re out of Syria, other than we kept the oil,” the president said at a press conference last week.

Movers and Shakers

Trump picks Qatar envoy. Trump nominated retired Lt. Gen. Eric Wendt on Wednesday to serve as U.S. ambassador to Qatar, as the U.S. administration’s push for Gulf states to normalize ties with Israel heats up ahead of the election. In his last job in uniform, Wendt served as the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

New intelligence watchdog. Trump has nominated Allen Robert Souza to be the next inspector general of the intelligence community. The previous inspector general was fired by Trump after he handled the whistleblower complaint that led to the president’s impeachment. Souza is currently the principal deputy senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council and was the former minority staff director on the House Intelligence Committee.

Senate committee approves a dozen ambassador nominees. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a dozen ambassador nominees this week, including Trump’s envoy picks for Ukraine, Belarus, Venezuela, and Japan.

Quote of the Week

“I’m not surprised at all to see leaders like Esper and Milley tread carefully around the public square. If I was advising them, I’d tell them to stay on the sidewalks as much as possible.”

Retired Rear Adm. John Kirby on how the defense secretary and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff are trying to avoid politics ahead of the election, despite the president’s best efforts.

Foreign Policy Recommends

How Trump fell out of love with his generals. Reuters’ Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, and Steve Holland have an in-depth account of how Trump had a falling out with nearly all of the former generals he tapped to help run his administration when he entered office in 2016.

The Week Ahead

Saudi Arabia hosts a meeting of G-20 energy ministers on Sunday, Sept. 27.

Trump and Biden face off in the first U.S. presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday, Sept. 29

Under Secretary Of Defense For Acquisition And Sustainment Ellen Lord is scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Oct. 1.

Odds and Ends

Grand Theft Ayatollah. Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is investing in a new video game in which Iranian paramilitaries rescue George Floyd from U.S. police, according to Khosro Kalbasi, a reporter for Iran’s independent Financial Tribune. It’s not the first time Middle Eastern powers have used video games and cartoons to make foreign-policy commentary: In 2018, a pro-Saudi group produced an animated video depicting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman commanding a successful invasion of Iran.

Airing his dirty laundry. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly developed a reputation among White House guest house staff: for traveling with suitcases full of dirty laundry for them to clean free of charge. “After multiple trips, it became clear this was intentional,” one U.S. official told the Washington Post’s John Hudson.

That’s it for today.

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Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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