Keeping Reagan alive in Trump’s DC
Roger Zakheim’s office is two blocks from President Trump’s White House, but he spends his days preserving the legacy of an administration from decades ago.
In April, Zakheim was named the first director of the Ronald Reagan Institute, the Washington office of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute.
Zakheim’s job is to sustain and promote the vision of the 40th president, just as the nonprofit sustains the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
“In a nutshell I am responsible for upholding President Reagan’s presidency in Washington, D.C. — values, principles and ideas that really characterized his presidency and his administration,” Zakheim told The Hill in a recent interview.
A self-described “Beltway kid,” Zakheim, 40, grew up in the defense policy world. His father is Dov Zakheim, a defense official under former Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush.
At 14, he was in his first internship on Capitol Hill, and, as a New York University law school student, he spent a good chunk of his time trying to nab a job back in the Capitol.
He landed on the House Armed Services Committee as counsel shortly before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
He spent nearly a decade working for the committee — leaving for a little under a year in 2008 to work in the Pentagon as a deputy assistant secretary of Defense under Bush — eventually becoming general counsel and deputy staff director.
As well as leading defense policy bills through Congress, Zakheim worked on issues including the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, “don’t ask, don’t tell” legislation, authorizations for the use of military force and oversight of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But by 2013, he was ready for a change. His family growing — today he has four daughters and a son — he sought a more stable schedule and a new challenge at the law firm Covington and Burling, where he focused on government affairs and contracts.
Despite the job change, Zakheim stayed firmly in the Washington defense world. The same year he started at Covington and Burling, he helped launch the Reagan National Defense Forum. The event invites leaders from the defense community — including current and former military and administration officials, lawmakers, industry leaders and scholars — to the Reagan Foundation Presidential Library for days-long discussions on national security.
And last year, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) handpicked Zakheim to join the Commission on the National Defense Strategy for the United States, a group required under the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.
He is among a group that includes former Obama-era Pentagon officials, four-star generals and prominent voices from the D.C. think-tank world charged with “reviewing the current national defense strategy of the United States, including the assumptions, missions, force posture, force structure, and risks associated with the strategy.”
Their report is due later this summer.
It seemed a good fit, then, when the Reagan Foundation approached him with an offer earlier this year.
“I wasn’t really looking to move, per se, but I had obviously worked closely with the foundation. A conversation was struck, and it peaked my curiosity,” he said.
Zakheim, who has subscribed to Reagan’s vision of “peace through strength” throughout his career, is quick with his effusive praise for the “paradigm of a president.”
“He was the president when I was a kid. He was somebody who always, in my mind, is the picture of a president who really promoted an optimistic, positive vision of America. That is something you can’t get enough of and an important part of what a president brings to the country, and he really embodied that.”
He added that Reagan also took that positive vision and “really had a sense of the world around him, understood where the threats were and took decisive action to counter them.”
During the 2016 presidential primaries, Zakheim and his father were among some 50 Republican national security experts to sign a public statement that denounced Trump as unqualified. The group said Trump “would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.”
“Mr. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which U.S. foreign policy must be based. At the same time, he persistently compliments our adversaries and threatens our allies and friends,” the statement notes.
Trump responded at the time by saying the signatories deserve “the blame for making the world such a dangerous place,” adding that they were “nothing more than the failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power.”
Asked about the letter now, Zakheim said it was par for the course in Washington. In the face of a vigorous campaign, “you exercise your views in terms of which candidate would be best for the country,” he said.
“You have one president at a time,” he added.
“What I’ve done since President Trump’s been elected is pray every day that he will be successful. I think that’s what the country needs.”
Asked how one preserves Reagan’s legacy during the Trump administration, Zakheim kept a diplomatic tone.
“This is a presidential library. We’re not going to be wading in to particular minutia of policy,” he said.
Instead, the D.C. branch of the Reagan Institute will initially target three specific areas of policy: “Peace through strength,” focusing on national security and defense; the intersection of education and civics; and freedom and democracy. The institute plans to promote its ideas in ways similar to think tanks, with major conventions, exhibits and education outreach.
“We’re going to focus on areas that were important to President Reagan and highly relevant to his time in office and that are important areas of focus today,” Zakheim said.
But first, he has to make sure that the institute has an established, known presence within the Beltway.
“I’m not quite running around in jeans and a hoodie like those in startups on the other coast, but from a D.C. standpoint, it’s really exciting to be able to lead what is essentially a startup.”
As for whether he’d consider working for the current administration in any capacity, Zakheim laughed. “I just accepted a job,” he said. “That’s my focus.”