National Security

Trump seeks approval from foreign policy experts, but hits snags

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Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is reaching out to Republican foreign policy experts, hoping to get them to abandon their long-held distrust of the billionaire and accept his inevitability as their party’s nominee. 

But the Trump camp’s sales pitch is running into resistance from mainstream Republicans, despite its appeals to their national duty to serve a potential next commander in chief. The billionaire’s effort is being run out of his growing policy shop in D.C. and led by veteran lobbyist Paul Manafort. 

{mosads}“About three weeks ago, Manafort and some others went around and really tried to woo people that I would consider mainstream or more mainstream than what they have as part of their team,” said one well-known figure in Republican foreign policy circles who was briefed on conversations that Manafort’s team has held with three prominent GOP national security experts. 

“There’s a paranoia about being one of the first establishment types to jump ship” and join the campaign, added the source, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with people who are worried about being publicly associated with Trump. 

Multiple prominent national security veterans have so far rejected Trump, in response to his extreme rhetoric and the widespread belief that he will not take advice from outsiders. 

More than a 100 prominent officials — including former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and ex-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff — signed an open letter earlier this year promising to work “energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.” 

In interviews with The Hill, multiple prominent Republican foreign policy and national security officials described a tension within their circles: Either they stick to their guns, boycott Trump and risk watching the country go down what they believe to be a dark path, or they jump onboard his campaign and try to mold a man who has so far refused to listen to advisers. 

“I don’t want to pretend that I am on Manafort’s radar screen, but I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him,” said Roger Noriega, a former Assistant Secretary of State and Jeb Bush foreign policy adviser, who co-signed the March open letter.  

Critics say Trump wants to upset decades of foreign policy doctrine and has endorsed war crimes such as targeting the families of terrorists, all while maintaining a shallow understanding of global dynamics. 

“My sense is he doesn’t have the discipline or temperament to learn, let alone to apply what he’s learned in a coherent or responsible foreign policy,” Noriega told The Hill. 

Still, on Wednesday, Trump made his most obvious play yet to win over Washington establishment types, by delivering a carefully scripted and tame, 40-minute foreign policy address at a hotel in downtown D.C. 

The next day, he spoke over the phone with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who praised Trump’s willingness to approach the issues. 

“I think his campaign, like anybody who hasn’t been in the public arena before, is evolving,” Corker told reporters in the basement of the Capitol, while declining to offer his endorsement. 

Many in the foreign policy establishment hope Trump gets blocked from the nomination. Increasingly, however, the crop of “Never Trump” Republicans is being forced to consider their options if Trump would win. 

Some are following the lead of Republican Party leaders, who are slowly thawing toward the front-runner. 

Manafort, a veteran of GOP campaigns, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has set a market on immigration issues, and Trump’s “inside team” — comprised of J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman who worked on Mike Huckabee’s and Herman Cain’s presidential campaigns, and Middle East expert Walid Phares — are privately reaching out to foreign policy experts. 

Their message is that it is the experts’ patriotic duty to get onboard and help Trump be as fine-tuned as possible, sources familiar with the conversations say. 

Manafort declined an interview with The Hill for this story, but two Trump sources familiar with the foreign policy outreach confirmed that appealing to patriotism has been an important part of the campaign’s pitch.  

One Trump source told The Hill that dozens of resumes from interested national security types had been sent to the Trump campaign office following the GOP front-runner’s Wednesday foreign policy speech. 

A former senior Bush administration official who is well-known in Republican foreign policy circles claimed it would be unwise for him to be quoted on the record lambasting the likely Republican nominee. While he doesn’t think Trump will ever be president, the former official said he wanted to protect his future ability to do business with a Trump administration, should he win in November. 

If Trump does become the GOP’s nominee, some GOP hawks have flirted with a willingness to support Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic pick. 

“If the choice is between Clinton and Trump, I think Clinton would clearly be the better candidate and have the better foreign policy,” said Matthew Kroenig, who had previously worked on the Marco Rubio and Scott Walker campaigns this cycle, and advised Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012.  

The lingering distrust could be a problem Trump even if he happens to become the next president. 

“In previous campaigns like Romney or [Arizona Sen. John] McCain or somebody like that, by the time you’re the nominee, it’s just not the close advisers you have but teams have been put together for this policy area or that policy area,” said Gary Schmitt, a scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, who signed the letter pledging to oppose Trump.         

“So by the time the election happens there’s a whole shadow government-in-waiting with, literally, a couple thousand people ready to take whatever deputy assistant secretary for underwear that’s available,” he quipped.  

Many are torn on what they would do if Trump entered office. 

“If he becomes president, if he has all the tools of American power at his disposal, I think there is a good case to be made that he’d probably be better off with good people around him than with bad people,” said Kroenig, who also signed the letter. 

“I think that would be a tough call for many people, and I can imagine people going both ways.” 

James Jay Carafano, a national security expert at The Heritage Foundation, predicted that a President Trump would make use of the “deep bench within the Republican and conservative side” to fill empty seats.

“There’s plenty of people to fill out an administration and even people in the Never Trump camp – we will see if that’s still true in January,” he said. 

Like his critics, Trump’s campaign is also torn between two demands. 

On the one hand, he has praised his staff as full of the “best people,” and the real estate mogul will surely need to prepare himself for a general election matchup against Clinton, a former secretary of State. 

But Trump has also risen to the top of the polls in part by drawing a contrast with establishment Republicans in Washington, who many blame for pushing the country off-track.  

“I like the fact that he’s challenging the foreign policy establishment,” Corker told reporters this week. 

“I’m glad that that is being challenged, because it’s not been particularly on-target.”

Tags Bob Corker Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jeff Sessions Marco Rubio

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