By Julian Hattem - 03/16/16 06:00 AM EDT
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump gives Lester Holt a C grade for debate Trump camp talking points: Mention Monica Lewinsky Trump floats theory that Google suppresses negative news on Clinton MORE’s unconventional approach to foreign policy has confounded Republicans, who question his national security acumen and argue he would make the country less safe.
The GOP presidential front-runner’s scattershot policy proposals have alienated him from party elites in Washington, some of whom have launched a full rebellion.
But there is no evidence Trump is the slightest bit worried about the criticism.
Despite opposition from within his own party, he is still the favorite to win the Republican nomination, and his views on foreign policy and national security have won favor from GOP voters.
Trump — a billionaire real estate mogul with no national security experience — surprisingly gained the most from the Republican presidential race’s turn to national security issues in the fall, following terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. A slew of comments widely condemned by party leaders, including his pledge to block Muslims from entering the U.S. and his insistence that Mexico would pay for a wall on the southern U.S. border, have only cemented his place at the top of the polls.
In February, Trump claimed that former President George W. Bush lied about the rationale for invading Iraq, besmirching the name of the country’s most recent Republican president.
A month later, he handily won the primary in South Carolina, a deep-red state with strong convictions about national security that was once considered former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s firewall in his failed bid for the GOP nomination.
Trump has said he would “take out” terrorists’ families and use interrogation techniques “much worse” than waterboarding. He’s also promised to stay “neutral” on Israel and Palestine, a position ridiculed by Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzHouse approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown Overnight Tech: TV box plan faces crucial vote | Trump transition team to meet tech groups | Growing scrutiny of Yahoo security Could Snapchat be the digital bridge to younger voters? MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioLanny Davis: Clinton a clear winner, with or without sound Could Snapchat be the digital bridge to younger voters? Koch-linked veterans group launches ads in Senate battlegrounds MORE (Fla.) at a recent presidential debate.
There’s little to no evidence that either position has hurt Trump.
“You want to know who’s giving him advice, particularly since there are areas where he really has no background whatsoever. It’s concerning,” said Eliot Cohen, a special adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign who organized the anti-Trump letter.
“He’s really clueless,” Cohen added. “That makes it all the more important that you can be reassured that he’s listening to capable people.”
Trump has come under pressure to name foreign policy advisers to his campaign as he has inched closer to his party’s nomination.
During an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” last week, where he was pressed on the issue by host Mika Brzezinski, the daughter of former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Trump said he had been meeting with “tremendous people” on foreign affairs.
“I haven’t made exactly my decision yet, but you’ll have [a list of advisers] in due time,” he said.
“Yes, there is a team,” he added, in response to questioning. “Well, there’s not a team. I’m going to be forming a team.”
Last August, Trump said that, for military advice, he “watch[es] the shows.”
The GOP front-runner’s campaign has so far named only one prominent national security adviser: Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff Sessions3 ways the next president can succeed on immigration reform Funding bill rejected as shutdown nears Trump, Clinton discuss counterterrorism with Egyptian president MORE (R-Ala.), who became chairman of the campaign’s national security advisory committee this month.
But the advisory committee has no other named members, and Sessions himself is better-known for his positions on immigration than on foreign policy, despite being a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Mr. Trump regularly consults with experts regarding national security and has appointed Senator Jeff Sessions Chairman of his National Security Advisory Committee,” Hope Hicks, a campaign spokeswoman, said in an email to The Hill.
Trump himself promised to release a list of advisers “very soon,” but that was nearly six months ago.
Hicks declined to name any of the experts Trump has met with.
The real estate mogul’s inexperience with the issue will likely come to the fore if he advances to the general election against former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump gives Lester Holt a C grade for debate Congress departs for recess until after Election Day House approves stopgap funding, averting costly shutdown MORE, the front-runner in the Democratic race, in the fall.
“There’s a clear dichotomy there,” said Jim Carafano, the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
But Carafano suggested that Clinton’s experience might work against her.
Her laundry list of advisers could be easily denounced as “eight more years of Obama’s foreign and defense policy, and we know that’s a disaster,” Carafano said.
“So your credentials are actually your biggest indictment.”
Unlike Clinton, Trump opposed the War in Iraq and can sound more like Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Finance: Congress poised to avoid shutdown | Yellen defends Fed from Trump | Why Obama needs PhRMA on trade Trump mocks Clinton for stumbling while sick with pneumonia Brent Budowsky: Sanders and Warren shine MORE (I-Vt.) — Clinton’s Democratic rival — on the issue. That could resonate with political independents who are disappointed in both parties.
At the same time, Trump’s lack of experience on foreign affairs could make him vulnerable.
Embarrassing slip-ups from earlier in the cycle, such as confusing the Iranian Quds Force with the Kurds, an ethnic group, may be a sign of mistakes to come.
Trump’s legion of supporters claim to love his brash, aggressive style, which they call unvarnished.
Yet it’s possible that some amount of coaching from foreign policy experts might have made Trump more palatable to the general public and soothed anxieties about a crisis within the Republican Party.
“Could he be, instead of a 35 to 40 percent candidate — if he just had taken some of the unnecessary rough edges off of what he does — could he be a 45 to 50 percent candidate?” wondered David Adesnik, policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative, who also signed this month’s anti-Trump letter.
“Could he be a 45 to 50 percent — or even a 55 percent candidate if he got rid of offensive things that weren’t so critical to his message?”
The mistrust between Trump’s campaign and traditional Washington foreign policy circles is at least partly a two-way street.
The campaign ignored an offer for a briefing from the right-leaning Foreign Policy Initiative, Adesnik told The Hill, even though a half-dozen other candidates took it up.
Trump did sit for a private briefing last summer with Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a spokeswoman confirmed.
But Trump ignored an offer to speak at the esteemed think tank, even as many of his rivals — including Rubio, Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — used the venue to lay out their foreign policy visions.
— Updated at 11:48 p.m. to correct Zbigniew Brzezinski's former title