A Christian academic accused of inciting violence against Muslims. A former Pentagon official who blocked investigations into Bush administration bigwigs. And an assortment of self-professed experts probably few in established foreign policy circles have ever heard of. These are the minds advising Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on foreign policy and national security.
Trump, who has been pressed for months to name his council of advisers, revealed five in a meeting with The Washington Post editorial board on Tuesday: Keith Kellogg, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Walid Phares, and Joseph E. Schmitz.
Few of these names will register with most voters, or many experts in Washington. None of them are especially sought after for foreign policy views and national security expertise in the nation’s capital—which may be why they’re attractive to Trump.
Trump revealed little about what specific advice they’d given so far, or how any of them may have shaped Trump’s surprising new position that the U.S. should rethink whether it needs to remain in the seven-decades-old NATO alliance with Europe.
Sounding more like a CFO than a commander-in-chief, Trump said of the alliance, “We certainly can’t afford to do this anymore,” adding, “NATO is costing us a fortune and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO, but we’re spending a lot of money.”
U.S. officials, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have said that European allies have to shoulder a bigger burden of NATO’s cost. But calling for the possible U.S. withdrawal from the treaty is a radical departure for a presidential candidate—even a candidate who has been endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Withdrawing from NATO would leave European allies without a forceful deterrent to the Russian military, which invaded and annexed portions of Ukraine in 2014. That would arguably be a win for Putin but leave U.S. allies vulnerable.
It also wasn’t clear how Trump’s arguably anti-interventionist position on the alliance squared with his choice of advisers. The most well-known among them is Phares, a politically conservative academic who has accused President Obama of “appeasement” toward radical Muslim terrorists and called for more U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
To his detractors, Phares is a rare combination of lightning rod and dog whistle. His various claims about a creeping, underappreciated jihadi “apocalypse” against the West will find quarter with Trump’s broad suspicion of Muslims and his call to ban foreign Muslims from entering the U.S.
In a 2008 essay in the conservative Human Events, Phares warned that in the following four years, “Jihadists may recruit one million suicide bombers” and that by 2016, they would have 10 million and “seize five regimes equipped with the final weapon,” referring to nuclear weapons.
This isn’t Phares’s first time as a presidential adviser. As The Daily Beast reported in 2011, Phares’s work co-chairing the Middle East policy team for then-GOP candidate Mitt Romney—who has recently vowed to fight against Trump’s nomination—prompted the Council on American-Islamic Relations to call on the candidate to ditch Phares, whom it called “an associate to war crimes” and a “conspiracy theorist,” citing his ties to a violent anti-Muslim militia.
Mother Jones reported that in the 1980s Phares, a Christian who was then active in Lebanese political groups, trained militants in ideological beliefs to justify a war on Muslim and Druze factions, prompting a former CIA official to question why a man with ties to foreign political organizations was advising a U.S. presidential candidate.
Phares has his supporters, chiefly in neoconservative foreign policy circles and among conservative pundits and analysts. But those connections drew scrutiny in 2012 when the group Media Matters for America alleged that Phares’s connections to the Romney campaign weren’t properly identified when Phares was working as a consultant for Fox News.
Another Trump adviser, Schmitz, has served in government, as the Defense Department inspector general. Schmitz was brought in during the first term of President George W. Bush with a mandate to reform the watchdog office, but he eventually found himself the subject of scrutiny.
“Schmitz slowed or blocked investigations of senior Bush administration officials, spent taxpayer money on pet projects and accepted gifts that may have violated ethics guidelines,” according to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times in 2005. Current and former colleagues described him as “an intelligent but easily distracted leader who seemed to obsess over details,” including the hiring of a speechwriter and designs for a bathroom.
Schmitz also raised eyebrows for what the paper’s sources described as his “unusual” fascination with Baron Friedrich Von Steuben, a Revolutionary War hero who’s regarded as the military’s first inspector general. Schmitz reportedly replaced the Defense Department IG’s seal in its office across the country with a new one bearing the Von Steuben family motto, Sub Tutela Altissimi Semper, “under the protection of the Almighty always.”
Another Trump adviser, retired Gen. Joseph “Keith” Kellogg, was among the first U.S. personnel sent in to try and govern Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Kellogg had been employed by U.S. government contractor Oracle Corp. in November 2003 when he went to Baghdad to serve as the Chief Operating Officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a position he held for five months.“He played a key role in the effort to rebuild Iraq and bridge the link between security and critical infrastructure,” according to a press release from CACI International Inc., another government contractor that hired Kellogg after his brief stint in Iraq.The so-called reconstruction of Iraq was a halting effort beset by controversial policy decisions—such as the disbanding of the Iraqi army, a move that is widely seen as helping to fuel an insurgency that later threatened to plunge the country into a civil war—and costly, poorly managed contracts that spawned audits and inspectors general investigations.The remaining Trump advisers, Page and Papadopoulos, are virtual unknowns in high-level circles of national security and foreign policy. Page is an energy industry executive with experience working in Russia. He is the founder and managing partner of Global Energy Capital and spent three years working in Moscow, “where he was responsible for the opening of the Merrill [Lynch] office and was an advisor on key transactions for Gazprom, RAO UES and others,” according to his public biography. It says Page was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy but provides no information on any military service.Page has criticized the Obama administration’s policy toward Russia, going so far as to accuse Victoria Nuland, an assistant secretary of state, of “misguided and provocative actions” and “fomenting” the revolution that ousted Ukrainian president and Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014. The former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, has described such notions as paranoid fiction. Nevertheless, he has said, Putin himself believed that the U.S. somehow arranged for the ouster of the Ukrainian leader.Papadopulos was an adviser to Ben Carson’s presidential campaign, according to Papadopulos’s LinkedIn page. For the past two months, he’s been a director at the London Centre of International Law Practice, which offers training courses on legal issues related to energy and natural resources development.Papadopoulos, who graduated from DePaul University in 2009, offered a lengthy description of his foreign policy achievements on his LinkedIn page, including being “invited to participate in policy and oil and gas conferences” overseas and “high-level meetings I had” with various heads of government. He worked for nearly five years as a researcher at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington.
One other Trump adviser had previously been reported. Retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn had told The Daily Beast that he “met informally” with Trump. Flynn was pushed out of his post as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and has since spoken out publicly about the need for the U.S. to forge closer ties with Russia.
Last December, Flynn sat next to Putin at a dinner celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Kremlin-linked television network RT. His travel to Russia raised concerns among current and former defense and intelligence officials because Flynn still receives classified briefings and is privy to sensitive information about U.S. foreign policy.
Flynn has also tweeted incendiary comments about Muslims and has espoused the view that fear of Muslims is “rational.”