Five reasons Trump is losing GOP on national security

The divide between Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE and his party’s national security establishment has never been deeper.

Fifty top GOP national security officials signed a letter published Monday saying they will not vote for Trump, declaring that “he would be the most reckless president in American history.”

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The letter, first published in The New York Times, has undercut what could have been a core strength for Trump’s campaign: his argument that he will keep America safe. 

Republicans have closely scrutinized Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate Heller embraces Trump in risky attempt to survive in November Live coverage: Cruz, O'Rourke clash in Texas debate MORE’s time as secretary of State, which includes blemishes such as the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and instability in Libya following an U.S.-backed intervention she supported. 

Trump took advantage of that opening and saw his stock rise in the Republican primary after last year’s terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., when he made safety from terrorism a central theme of his candidacy. 

But in the months since, Trump has seen his advantage over Clinton erode.

The national security establishment of the GOP has turned against him, and polls suggest rank-and-file voters are following them.  

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released last week showed Clinton held a 5-point edge over Trump among voters asked which candidate they trust more to handle terrorism. 

Here are five reasons why Trump is losing Republicans on national security.

Russia 

Republican national security hawks have long urged President Obama to take a harder line against Russia, arguing his approach has failed to stop President Vladimir Putin’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. 

So it’s been to their dismay that Trump has taken the opposite approach. 

The business magnate has repeatedly praised Putin, questioned the relevance of NATO, encouraged Russia to hack Clinton’s private emails — something he later said was a joke — and suggested that the U.S. could accept its annexation of Crimea if it improved relations with Moscow. 

GOP officials have been particularly disturbed by Trump’s claim that he would check the financial contributions of NATO allies before deciding whether to defend them against Russia. 

“I can only imagine how our allies in NATO, particularly the Baltic states, must feel after reading these comments from Mr. Trump,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamKim, Moon toss ball to Trump in ‘last, best chance’ for Korean peace GOP senator: Kavanaugh accuser 'moving the goalposts' Collins: Kavanaugh accuser should 'reconsider,' testify on Monday MORE (R-S.C.), who ran against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, said last month. “I’m 100 percent certain how Russian President Putin feels: He’s a very happy man.” 

Temperament 

Clinton’s main line of attack against Trump is that his erratic temperament disqualifies him from occupying the Oval Office.

The GOP national security officials’ letter fell well short of endorsing Clinton. But the degree to which they echo her criticism of Trump is unmistakable. 

They write that Trump's dalliances with conspiracy theories, unwillingness to hear “conflicting views” and “erratic behavior” have “alarmed our closest allies.”

“All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be president and commander in chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” they write. 

Trump has blasted the letter’s authors as “the ones the American people should look to for answers on why the world is a mess.”

On Tuesday he made it clear he won’t change his temperament, saying on Fox Business it’s what “has gotten me here.”

That assessment will please Trump’s core supporters — as well as the Clinton campaign. 

Nuclear security 

The debate over Trump’s preparedness to serve as president centers around the country’s vast array of nuclear arms. 

One of Clinton’s most direct shots at Trump in her address at the Democratic convention was when she said “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” 

The line of attack has become so constant that Obama was asked to weigh in at a news conference at the Pentagon last Thursday. His answer: Let the voters decide. 

Part of the reason why Obama may have held his fire is that Republican officials are making the case for him. 

John Noonan, a former nuclear launch officer and adviser to former GOP candidate Jeb Bush, painted a frightening picture of what might to happen if Trump were handed the nuclear codes; the president alone has final say over a nuclear launch. 

“These duties are simply too grave to entrust to a man who has exhibited sociopathic and chronically narcissistic behavior throughout his checkered career,” he wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed published Tuesday. 

Foreign policy knowledge

Republican officials have expressed alarm at what they say is Trump’s inability to grasp basic facts about U.S. foreign policy and national security. 

Their letter said Trump has “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” that should underpin the nation’s foreign relations. 

During a primary debate last December, the businessman appeared confused when asked about the nuclear triad, the three-pronged set of land, air and sea-based atomic weapons that is the cornerstone of American nuclear deterrence. 

Some officials — including former CIA officer Evan McMullin, who's launched an independent bid against Trump — have suggested the GOP nominee's proposal to ban Muslim travel to the U.S. shows a lack of understanding of the Constitution’s religious protections.

“This rhetoric and those who promote it present a larger threat to our national security than ISIS itself” because it “empowers our enemies while directly attacking our source of power and ability to defeat them,” McMullin said in a speech earlier this year. 

Israel 

Republicans have long hoped to cut into Democrats’ historic advantage with Jewish voters by outflanking them on the issue of Israel. 

Party leaders saw an opening in this election, which follows eight years of tensions between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Like other GOP leaders, Trump has been a critic of the Iran nuclear deal, a main sticking point between Democrats and the Netanyahu government. 

But his refusal in February to pick sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict irked pro-Israel Republicans. Trump later backed away from that stance. 

Trump has also staked out hawkish positions on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, something that gives his backers hope he can make inroads with right-wing Israel backers.

But the damage may have already been done.