Argument

Where Are the Trump Loyalists?

The list of former national security staff and senior officials who endorsed the president this week is one of the most unimpressive ever assembled by a candidate.

U.S. President Donald Trump and National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien walk along the Rose Garden colonnade before departing the White House on Sept. 21 in Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump and National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien walk along the Rose Garden colonnade before departing the White House on Sept. 21 in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Now that the United States has lived through almost four years of chaos and controversies generated by President Donald Trump, it’s easy to forget that the original scandal that launched the Russia investigation was the result of actions taken by then-candidate Trump’s team of notably junior foreign-policy advisors. Had inexperienced “experts” such as George Papadopoulos and Carter Page not ranked among the campaign’s highest-profile national security figures, it’s unlikely the FBI and then-special counsel Robert Mueller would ever have launched their investigations. After all, if people with more experience and better judgment had been involved from the start, it’s unlikely they would have entertained entreaties from shadowy Russian figures—contacts that set off the initial alarms at the FBI.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a reality TV star known more for his business failures than any foreign-policy insights had trouble  attracting the nation’s best diplomatic, military, and intelligence thinkers early on. His chief national security aide during the 2016 campaign, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, had been fired by President Barack Obama as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency two years earlier, and had then embarked on an odd project to cozy up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, accepting tens of thousands of dollars to speak in Russia and attending a dinner with the Russian leader. Flynn lasted just three weeks as Trump’s national security advisor before being ousted for lying about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.

Far more surprising—as highlighted by a recently published letter that serves as an unintentional indictment of Donald Trump’s management of the nation’s security—is that after almost four years in the White House, the president still hasn’t managed to win the loyalty of more respected foreign-policy professionals.

On Oct. 1, the president’s reelection campaign released a list of 66 “former Republican national security and senior officials” who have endorsed Trump’s reelection. The move seemed like an attempt to counter another recently published list, this one featuring twice as many Republicans endorsing former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential bid. But the only thing Trump’s list actually accomplished was to confirm the fact that, despite being an incumbent who’s controlled the nation’s foreign policy and military for years, he still has strikingly few well-credentialed supporters.

Looking closely at the list reveals it to be perhaps the most unimpressive list of endorsements ever assembled by a presidential candidate—let alone by a member of the party traditionally respected for its national security acumen.

The list should be embarrassing for the president for three separate but related reasons. First, take the endorsers themselves. To call them “senior” is a stretch; the list of 66 former elected officials, government advisors, and military leaders is made up entirely of minor figures—such as a former acting deputy assistant secretary of state, Amanda Milius; a former U.S. ambassador to Barbados, Mary Dawkins; and a onetime deputy press secretary to Sen. John McCain, John Deming—and has-beens such as former California Gov. Pete Wilson, who hasn’t held office in the 21st century, and the founder of the Heritage Foundation, Ed Feulner, whose supposed national security credentials are that he once served on an advisory committee on public diplomacy. Only one three-star general, former Air Force chief Thomas McInerney, who retired from the military in 1994, appears on the list; there are no four-stars.

The individuals mentioned are hardly the country’s leading foreign, defense, or intelligence experts.

Credentials (or lack thereof) aside, the individuals mentioned are hardly the country’s leading foreign, defense, or intelligence experts. Indeed, many of them seem never to have had any kind of connection to national security at all. The first column of the list—which would normally feature the biggest names—includes a former Mississippi governor and a former Republican National Committee chair, Haley Barbour. Also included are a former member of an obscure advisory committee for the Department of Education, as well as Ed Meese, President Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, who at a time when Senate confirmations were still relatively bipartisan earned himself the distinction of being the most opposed nominee since the 1920s. He was also an Iran-Contra participant who was accused during an investigation by former Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox of “lack of ethical sensitivity” and “blindness to abuse of position.”

The letter’s next page features Bob Barr, a former congressman who once accidentally fired a gun at a fundraiser and is best known for helping manage President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the House, as well as for having allowed himself to be photographed “licking whipped cream from the chests of two buxom women,” according to a local newspaper account. The second page also features Allen West, another former congressman probably best known for his anti-Islam remarks, who was forced to retire from the military after staging a mock execution of an Iraqi policeman.

Beyond the quality of the names, the list also highlights the routine sloppiness of the Trump campaign and White House. The text of the letter is riddled with errors and formatting mistakes—as are so many of the administration’s communications. Traditionally, presidential administrations strive to ensure their messages are precise and accurate, well-checked and well-sourced. But reporters covering this White House have gotten used to an operation that tweets and talks about “Air Force Once,” the “United Sates,” and the “Marine Core.”

In addition to the extraneous commas, odd spacing, and random indentations in Thursday’s letter, some notable typos include listing one official as “Former Ty McCoy,” misspelling a legal counsel as “council,” inconsistencies in how the names of House of Representatives and the Senate are listed, and a reference to one person who supposedly worked at something called the “National Security Coun.”

Some voters might be inclined to excuse such slip-ups as the hurried work of busy people. In this case, however, the many errors underscore a larger truth: Hardly anyone in charge of the federal government seems to be paying proper attention. The letter appears not to have been subjected to any review process, which also points to the absence of competent, careful leaders in the White House who should have insisted on one. In a normal campaign or administration, staffers would be fired for publishing a list like this. (When I worked as a press aide on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2003, Joe Trippi, the campaign manager, would literally crumple up my work and throw it back at me when I made mistakes in drafts.) Given the way this White House manages to do things like misspell “separation” in an executive order about an extremely fraught topic—its family separation policy—it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the people in charge don’t actually care that much.

Such mistakes are especially dangerous in the realms of national security and foreign policy, where precision and accuracy really matter. For example, when, in May 2018, the White House issued news release used the wrong verb tense to characterize Iran’s nuclear program, it seemed to announce the bombshell news that Iran “has” a robust nuclear weapons program. (What the White House actually meant to say is that Iran had “had” one.)

The final troubling element of the Trump list is who’s not on it. While many of the most prominent endorsers are former staffers—such as former Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland (who withdrew from being considered for an ambassadorship after being challenged for her own role in the Russia scandal) and Trump’s criminal defense attorney Rudy Giuliani—all of the president’s most important national security aides are absent. Nowhere in the letter will you find mention of former National Security Advisors H.R. McMaster or John Bolton, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, or former Defense Secretary James Mattis. The list of missing names also includes the one other four-star general besides Mattis who worked in the administration: John Kelly, who served as homeland security secretary before becoming White House chief of staff.

Far from endorsing Trump, all of those big names have publicly questioned his leadership. On the same day that the Trump campaign published its list of supporters, McMaster went on MSNBC to accuse Trump of “aiding and abetting” Russia. Other recent critics include the vice president’s former national security advisor and the former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security.

What makes these dissenters so important is that, unlike Trump’s public supporters, they worked the most closely with the president and thus had the best opportunity to judge his fitness to direct the intelligence community, the military, and U.S. foreign policy. If this group is consistently telling Americans to vote for the other guy—and it is—perhaps voters should heed the call.

Garrett M. Graff is a journalist and historian who covers national security. Twitter: @vermontgmg

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