Change is once again afoot in the Trump administration, this time on the national security and foreign policy front. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is out. National security adviser H.R. McMaster looks like he’ll be next. A trio of players being put forward to fill in gaps should be raising serious eyebrows, and not just from doves. In fact, Trump seems intent on hiring people into key national security positions with whom he is bound to clash, setting up more chaos within our government.
The key players in this coming drama are current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who Trump wants to move to the State Department; Gina Haspel, a career CIA officer and Pompeo’s deputy who Trump wants to take over the agency; and John Bolton, who many observers expect will be replacing McMaster. None of them appear to be on the same page as Trump with regard to critical topics, which means little future prospect of smooth runnings, and more instances of senior government officials trashing and proverbially stabbing each other in the face.
To take the obvious first, Bolton is a hawk’s hawk. Trump is not. The president campaigned on, and has generally throughout his life held policy positions that look fairly isolationist, certainly when contrasted with those of major Bush-era foreign policy figures, including Bolton.
Yes, yes, there has been button-size-comparing on Twitter, and Trump disapproves of the Iran nuclear deal. But he also disapproves of U.S. “entanglements” abroad, whether we’re talking Afghanistan (where he had to be dragged to his current position of maintaining U.S. involvement), NATO, or our alliance with Japan, which he has seemed happy to let handle its own defense in the face of a bellicose North Korea. Trump also has reconsidered his original support for the Iraq War, like many Americans who originally backed it (yes, he insists he was against it from the start, but…).
Bolton clearly has not reconsidered anything. He told The Washington Examiner in 2015 that he stands by his support for invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and that the United States should not have withdrawn forces under President Obama. That’s unsurprising, since in 1998, Bolton was lobbying for then-President Clinton to depose Hussein.
Bolton was also a critic of the Clinton administration’s handling of North Korea, favoring a more hawkish approach there. He recently called for a pre-emptive strike on the Hermit Kingdom. Trump meanwhile seems interested in negotiating with Kim Jong Un after prior chest-thumping.
Bolton may be laboring under the misapprehension that if he takes the job, he can talk Trump around to his way of thinking. But Trump is a 71-year-old man, and 71-year-old men do not change their opinions easily.
Of course, Bolton’s elevation to national security adviser is not set in stone; McMaster has not yet vacated the position. By contrast, the job Pompeo is lined up for is sitting all but empty (Tillerson is on the pad until the end of the month). But it’s unclear, given fierce opposition from Sen. Rand Paul, absences from Sen. John McCain, and likely opposition from Democrats, whether he’ll ultimately fill it.
If he does, though, Pompeo and Trump will probably clash, too.
Pompeo disagrees with Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
He is also a vigorous supporter of NSA surveillance programs, with which Trump has a love-hate relationship, given his belief that the NSA “spied” on his presidential campaign. Pompeo sees NSA surveillance as “good and important work.” He also thinks that “Congress should pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database,” and that “legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed.” Trump, in his wounded heart-of-hearts, cannot possibly fully agree with this, at least with regard to some Trump-world figures apparently surveilled over concerns about their Russia-friendliness.
And speaking of Russia-friendliness, or lack thereof, Pompeo stated during his confirmation hearing for CIA director that Russia “has reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe, and doing nearly nothing to aid in the destruction and defeat of ISIS.” That doesn’t seem to be Trump’s view.
Nor is Pompeo’s perspective on WikiLeaks, which he has dubbed “a non-state hostile intelligence service.” Russia and WikiLeaks are matters of personal interest to Trump now, given the role both apparently played in the 2016 campaign and his reluctance to admit that publicly. So, these disagreements will amount to more than the usual Washington “policy differences” when push comes to shove.
Finally, there is Haspel, someone who has spent her life within the Trump-feared and loathed “Deep State,” where, in his view, mistakes and misjudgments are routinely made, and intelligence routinely cooked up to lead the United States into those problematic foreign entanglements about which he has exhibited routine skepticism.
Oh sure, Trump believes in torture, and that probably means that Haspel’s involvement with the enhanced interrogation program stands her in good stead with him. But it’s hard to believe a guy who inherently distrusts intelligence agencies is going to have a smooth and happy relationship with someone who has spent 30-plus years working at the CIA.
Trumpites say the president is getting close to getting the Cabinet he wants. But don’t be surprised if Trump gets his way on staffing, and if we then see even more friction and infighting between Trump and those he has hired to do key foreign policy and national security jobs.
When that happens, it will matter greatly, both for the United States and the world, which is desperately seeking cues as to how the United States will position itself so that everyone else can either act accordingly, or respond. Uncertainty and chaos may be fun with regard to domestic political campaigns or reality TV shows, but both things are extremely dangerous when the smart money says we’re much closer to a nuclear war than we have been for decades, when the U.S. is (or is not) facing off against Russia and China in a quest for international dominance, and when multiple important regions of the world are experiencing significant instability. With these nominations, Trump looks likely to guarantee more, not less, of both things, with potentially huge consequences to follow.