Donald Trump’s Shrinking Pool of Foreign Policy Advisors

The GOP establishment backlash against Donald Trump continues. Last night, Senator Susan Collins of Maine became arguably the highest ranking Republican officeholder to publicly proclaim that she would not support Trump. Over the weekend, outgoing GOP Congressman Scott Rigell (VA-2) declared for Gary Johnson and William Weld, former GOP governors now running on the Libertarian Party ticket. Another lame-duck Republican, Richard Hanna (NY-22) had previously affirmed his support for Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, GOP Congressman Adam Kinzinger (IL-16) has also come out against Trump, although he hasn’t signaled who he will be supporting.

Yesterday, 50 former Republican national security officials piled on, trashing Trump’s views. In a scathing letter, the officials warned that Donald Trump “would be the most reckless president in American history” and collectively proclaimed that they would not be voting for him in November.

Trump wasted no time attacking the entire group. He said that the signatories should be blamed “for making the world such a dangerous place” and dismissed them as “nothing more than the failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power.” Indeed, given that Trump has been running against Washington from the very first day of his campaign, he likely welcomes the scorn from these quarters.

This is hardly the first letter opposing Trump on account of his foreign policy views. Bryan McGrath assembled an early #NeverTrump letter here, and, more recently, Ali Wyne drafted a letter signed by mostly academics, 250 and counting, here. It appears that the vast majority of this country’s foreign policy experts want no part of the billionaire real estate developer/reality TV star.

If these men and women are true to their word, and refuse to support the GOP standard bearer, it begs a larger question: If Trump wins in spite of this elite opposition, who exactly would staff the many defense and foreign policy positions in a possible Trump administration? It is a question I’ve been asking myself for months.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp notes:

Trump is in desperate need of serious policy advisers. His foreign policy team is full of marginalized Russian sycophants. His economic advisory team has more white guys named Steve than it does actual holders of economics PhDs. Yet Trump’s bizarre policy instincts and his loose-cannon approach has alienated the people who could make up a more serious team — the kind of people who signed today’s letter.

This is part of why every Trump attempt to reboot and talk seriously about policy is riddled with errors and unnecessary controversy. Not only does Trump himself have an indifferent relationship with the truth, but the people attempting to guide him toward it tend to be the GOP’s third-stringers.

We’re in uncharted territory. Traditionally, Republicans can be counted upon to support Republicans, and Democrats support Democrats. This is how the revolving door works in Washington. A few notables manage to straddle the fence, serving in both Republican and Democratic administrations. But, for the most part, senior elected officials draw on a reliable and familiar group within the foreign policy elite. As noted, Trump has been running against these elites from the get-go, and with obvious good effect. The public senses that the so-called experts have made some pretty egregious errors over the past 15+ years. Americans are open to new approaches. They have been for some time; after all, in 2008 they chose relative outsider Barack Obama over establishment insiders Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Trump’s entire campaign has set up a false dichotomy, however. In foreign policy, Trump wants voters to believe that there are only two choices: 1) the people who got us into disasters such as the war in Iraq, and lesser ones in Libya, or 2) the people he listens to. But the people advising Donald Trump were not prominent opponents of the Iraq war before it started (neither was he, for that matter). If he was listening to any of the most-qualified Iraq war skeptics (for example, here), he likely would have come out in favor of the Iran nuclear deal (.pdf).

There are alternative voices on foreign policy out there. There are those who have opposed some of America’s more foolish wars, and who question the need for the United States to be the world’s policeman, for example, but who don’t buy into Trump’s fear-mongering isolationism. They aren’t xenophobes and trade protectionists. They don’t endorse the use of torture, expect U.S. military personnel to commit war crimes, or openly muse about using nuclear weapons. Stephen Walt articulates well the frustrations of this entire class of experts, ignored by Trump, but also by Hillary Clinton’s thoroughly conventional campaign.

We need a debate in this country about America’s strategic choices. But Donald Trump, by freezing out and discrediting the serious scholars who have been challenging the elite consensus for years, is making it less likely that we will have one.