Vocal Trump critics in GOP open to supporting Clinton

Members of the GOP foreign policy establishment are open to supporting Ted CruzTed CruzOur most toxic export: American politick 'Never Trump' group ad compares Trump to Reagan Anti-Trump delegates pitch convention rule change to RNC MORE or even Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonOur most toxic export: American politick The day Britain restored its liberty Pro-Clinton super-PAC to spend .5M in Pennsylvania MORE for president if that’s what it takes to prevent Donald TrumpDonald TrumpThe day Britain restored its liberty Pro-Clinton super-PAC to spend .5M in Pennsylvania Sanders: We are working with Clinton campaign MORE from becoming commander in chief. 

In interviews with The Hill, prominent Republicans who signed a scathing open letter denouncing Trump said they aren’t wavering from their opposition to him. 

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“What’s happening is you have a lot of people who are desperate to get anybody in there other than Trump. ... People are going to go for Cruz, because at the end of the day they think he’s considerably less bad than Trump,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a former adviser to Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioThe Hill's 12:30 Report Rubio Senate challenger drops out GOP wins congressional baseball game, ending 7-year losing streak MORE (R-Fla.) who also served in the George W. Bush administration.

Cohen, along with Bryan McGrath, organized an open letter opposing Trump that was signed by more than 120 members of the Republican foreign policy establishment. The letter declared that Trump is unfit to be president because his views of American power are “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.”

The Hill contacted 13 of the people on the letter and heard back from all but two of them.

Support among the group appears to be shifting to Cruz, especially now that the Texas senator has won endorsements from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamBipartisan gun measure survives test vote Senate Republicans may defy NRA on guns Hacked computer network mysteriously back online MORE (R-S.C.).

“Donald Trump is not a Republican. ... He is a caricature of classless wealth. ... He is a caricature of the ugly American,” said McGrath, the deputy director at the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute who is now working with the Cruz campaign. 

Still, some say the fact that more supporters of Bush and Rubio haven’t joined Cruz shows how unenthusiastic many are about him.

“All the palatable choices are gone,” said a senior Republican congressional staffer who wished to remain unidentified in order to speak freely.

When Cruz put out his list of foreign policy advisers last week, only two of those named were from the Rubio campaign — Jim Talent and Elliot Abrams — and none were from the Bush campaign. 

Recently, the Truman National Security Project, a left-leaning think tank, detailed several areas of foreign policy that Trump and Cruz had in common, such as wanting to impose a religious test on Muslim refugees. 

“For someone who is a George H.W. Bush Republican, this is really an uncomfortable choice,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy who signed the open letter and voted for Rubio in the Massachusetts primary.

Stephen Rodriguez, a former Bush adviser and managing partner at One Defense who is now supporting Cruz, called Trump “amoral,” a “fraud” and a “dangerous demagogue.” 

“I don’t know what’s worse — having Trump say all those ridiculous things and being totally clueless, or having him say all those things and actually mean it?” said Rodriguez, who signed the letter.

“At the end of the day, he has done nothing to earn my vote. He doesn’t have the character or the values that would qualify him to be president of the United States and commander in chief, nor is he a conservative or a Republican,” said Roger Zakheim, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who advised Rubio and also signed the letter. 

Trump did little to win over his detractors with his list of foreign policy advisers, which the billionaire businessman released this week.

The list included five new names: former Pentagon inspector general Joseph Schmitz; oil and energy consultant George Papadopoulos; BAU International University provost Walid Phares; former Army lieutenant general and consulting firm executive J. Keith Kellogg Jr.; and longtime energy executive Carter Page. 

Drezner noted that Schmitz was accused of stonewalling congressional investigations during the George W. Bush administration and resigned, while reports in 2012 alleged there was a link between Phares and war crimes in Lebanon. 

“Trump promised he was going to introduce, like, the classiest foreign policy team ... let’s just say, this isn’t it,” Drezner said.

“To say the least, it’s a pretty underwhelming group of people,” Cohen added.

Trump said he is planning to release more names, but his critics in the foreign policy sphere aren’t expecting much.

“Anyone who decides to work for him, they’re sort of revealing themselves as probably not among the best of the GOP foreign policy thinkers, because it’s such a stigma,” Drezner said.

Some members of the Republican foreign policy establishment are “shell-shocked” by what has happened in the primary race, the GOP staffer said, and are just planning to stay on the sidelines going forward.

Some of them are hoping for a third-party candidate from the GOP.

“If indeed it comes down to Hillary versus Trump as the nominees ... then I’m certainly interested in whether or not we’ll see a third party, but I can’t support Trump’s candidacy,” Zakheim said.

John Noonan, a former Jeb Bush adviser, said he would write in Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins for president if Trump is the GOP nominee and then vote Republican down the rest of the ballot. 

“Cousins isn’t any less experienced than Trump, and at least Cousins has never bankrupted a casino,” he said. But, he added, “I’d like to see Cruz beat Trump or a third-party conservative come in, in that order.”

Several admit that if absolutely forced to choose between Trump and Clinton, they would pick the former secretary of State. 

“I’ll never support Trump, period. If the only choices I’m offered is between Hillary and Trump, I’ll go for Hillary,” said Cohen, who said he’s hoping for a third possibility or a write-in. 

One pointed to Clinton’s speech earlier this week at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, saying it was relatively well received and could have been delivered by Rubio. 

McGrath said he would vote for Clinton if he “got a gun held to my head” and was forced to choose only between her and Trump. He added that in reality, however, he would write in a name. 

But, he added, “on foreign and defense policy, I at least trust Hillary’s judgment.” 

McGrath isn’t alone.

“If it’s between Trump and Clinton, I will vote for Clinton,” Drezner said. 

“I think there are others who will make that determination, even if you don’t like Hillary Clinton, if you dislike her domestic agenda,” he added.

Max Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and former Rubio foreign policy adviser who also signed the letter, said he would choose Clinton over both Trump and Cruz.

"I would consider a conservative third party but would vote for Hillary over Trump — not a close call," he said. "Cruz [versus] Clinton is a closer call but on foreign policy grounds I would probably vote for Hillary."

This story was corrected at 12:35 p.m. to reflect that Elliot Cohen briefly served as an adviser to Marco Rubio. A previous version contained incorrect information.