Eliot Cohen is the epitome of the national security establishment that President-elect Donald Trump had vowed to topple and remove from power.
Now Cohen, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies, has become involved in a mini-controversy that opens a window onto the deliberations of the Trump transition team, where loyalty and perhaps political vengeance play determining roles.
Cohen is former top defense and state department official, who’s worked with the White House National Security Council and advised on policy on issues from Iraq and Afghanistan to Russia and North Korea. To burnish his eastern establishment credentials further still, he not only attended Harvard, but taught there and became an assistant dean as well. Additionally, he’s authored several books about military campaigns and strategy.
Alarmed by Trump’s rise through the Republican primaries, he coordinated a letter last spring signed by 122 national security experts, who concluded that Trump would make America “unsafe” and that his views posed a “threat to civil liberty.”
Trump’s lack of government experience, and its political value as a campaign message got him votes, but now could present some hurdles in filling jobs.
Two days after Trump’s election, Cohen softened his view in a piece for The American Interest. While “Hillary was better,” he wrote, referring to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, a Trump presidency “may not be as awful as we think.” Cohen wrote that younger, up-and-coming policy experts would likely have jobs offers from the new administration.
They should take them, he said, “if they are sure that they would say yes out of a sense of duty rather than mere careerism ... if they accept that they will enter an administration likely to be torn by infighting and bureaucratic skullduggery.” He added one caveat: always have an undated, signed resignation letter in your desk.
But on Tuesday, Cohen reversed course again. He said that the Trump transition team asked him for some names to fill national security slots. Cohen replied that getting qualified people would depend on whether qualified people were chosen to run the agencies. Apparently not an answer the Trump expected.