Donald Trump began the 2016 campaign with few Republican allies, and by the end, he had consolidated support from the vast majority of his party. But he never fully won over the GOP’s foreign policy establishment.
And this week, these national security-focused Republicans say, proves they were right to oppose the inexperienced, bombastic candidate-turned-commander in chief.
“Donald Trump is out of his depth,” said Gabriel Schoenfeld, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who has written extensively about national security. “He plainly does not know what he does not know and is stumbling now in ways that are extremely consequential. A president who endangers national security will inevitably endanger his own tenure in office.”
Reports that the president revealed highly classified information from a U.S. ally to Russian officials has shocked and alarmed congressional Republicans, outraged Democrats and vindicated the foreign policy-focused Republicans who never trusted Trump in the first place and are deeply troubled by the latest development.
Peter Feaver, who was a National Security Council special adviser under President George W. Bush and a Trump critic during the campaign, said that GOP reservations about the then-candidate were twofold. First, there were worries about his lack of knowledge and experience, and second, fears about his temperament.
“This episode,” Feaver said, “makes vivid all of those concerns.”
Feaver stressed that he still has questions, both about the initial reports and about the administration’s pushback. But he went on to outline “the extreme worry" scenario—the especially damaging possible consequences of the revelations: that individuals both within the U.S. government and among America’s traditional allies might feel that the president can’t be trusted with sensitive information. The New York Times reported Tuesday afternoon that the information Trump shared with Russia came from Israel, a critical ally and source of intelligence in the Middle East.
“What if portions of the U.S. government say, ‘You know what, we’d better not share that up because we don’t want to lose access to it, don’t want it to be compromised,’ or friends and partners who’d normally share with us, they’re concerned about having it compromised?” he said. “When that happens, then you’re in a much more difficult position. The U.S. government is not well set up to overcome that.”
“If this produces that problem—and that’s the extreme worry here—then the president is much less effective, the U.S. government is much less effective, than it otherwise would be,” he added.
Already, the Associated Press released a bulletin Tuesday morning citing a European official saying that that unnamed country “might stop sharing intel with US if Trump gave classified info to Russian diplomats.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a retiring Miami Republican who sits on the House Foreign Relations Committee and has long been heavily involved in those issues, also did not support Trump during the campaign. And in a statement, she described the high stakes of the new reports.
"Disclosing sensitive or classified information that wasn’t even generated by us to hostile foreign governments will not only hamper our ability to get intelligence from our allies in the future, it will also undermine our ability to collect vital information we need to pursue our interests,” she said. “Our allies might not trust us with important intelligence information if they feel we cannot safeguard what they have shared with us. This makes the job of our intelligence community much more difficult and it places the lives of those doing this dangerous work at risk."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In a Tuesday press conference, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defended Trump, saying that the conversation with Russian officials had been “wholly appropriate” and that he wasn’t concerned that allies would stop sharing intelligence. He also said Trump wasn’t aware of the source of the information during the conversation with the Russians.
Other “Never Trump” Republicans from outside the foreign policy world shared Schoenfeld’s assessment that Trump “doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”
That was the view of Charlie Sykes, formerly a longtime conservative talk show host in Wisconsin, who added that Trump “doesn’t seem to care to learn.”
“The recklessness would be stunning, except that it’s consistent with…his campaign and his presidency so far,” emailed Sykes, who emerged as a vocal Trump opponent in the primary. “The problem is that the stakes keep getting larger and more dangerous...But really... how insecure and needy and clueless to you have to be to brag to the Russians that you get highly classified info?”
For some Republicans otherwise inclined to be critical of Trump, the fact that this incident involved his national security staff was confusing, because a number of them—in particular, McMaster—are well-regarded and well-respected in the foreign policy arena, in a way that others who come from Trump’s campaign, but otherwise lack political experience, are not.
For others, it was just disappointing.
“What’s most concerning about this is it happened on the national security side,” said one Republican strategist, adding that in conversations with other Republicans, the sentiment is, “if they can’t get this right, God help us.”