White House

‘Never Trump’ GOP foreign policy experts welcome his reversals but remain wary

President Donald Trump and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla.
President Donald Trump and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla. AP

Senior Republican national security experts who publicly questioned Donald Trump’s fitness for the presidency say they’re encouraged by his dramatic shifts on Syria, Russia and other major issues but that his unpredictability still makes them wary.

In interviews with McClatchy, the experts, all of whom were among 50 former Republican officials who signed a letter last year warning that Trump would “risk our country’s national security and well-being,” said they’d been buoyed by the appointment of Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. They credited McMaster with bringing the administration’s foreign policies closer to traditional U.S. positions.

“I am encouraged. I just hope it lasts longer than a few days or a week or two,” said Richard Miles, who was director for North America on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

The Trump administration’s foreign policy has been a dizzying spectacle of 180-degree turns in recent days as the president renounced campaign promises on China, NATO, Russia and Syria that would have upended Republican foreign-policy orthodoxy. But beginning with his cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base April 6 in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Trump has reversed what he’d promised to do when he was running for the office he now holds.

He declared that China is no longer a currency manipulator, NATO is no longer “obsolete” and that the hope for warm relations with Russia no longer seems likely to be fulfilled.

Several of those who signed the anti-Trump letter spoke candidly about their concerns in the aftermath of his policy changes, expressing both relief and trepidation that a president who so quickly abandoned positions he had run on might just as quickly adopt new riskier views.

Miles said he was uncertain whether Trump’s newest policies would be lasting “or it’s just an emotion from TV pictures” but that he was hopeful that the president’s recent policy pronouncements marked the beginning of a more traditional policy process where the national security adviser acted as a gatekeeper of views across the administration.

“What we’ve seen recently illustrates clearly that being president is different from running for president. And this is true of every administration,” said Dan Price, Bush’s deputy national security adviser for economics and currently managing director at Rock Creek Global Advisors. “However, given the nature of this campaign, it is perhaps more noteworthy in this administration. But as facts change, as an administration gets up to speed on certain issues, as it gets to know firsthand the concerns of other leaders, policies necessarily evolve.”

For followers of American foreign policy, the last two weeks have been fascinating as a president who’d campaigned on staying out of Middle East conflicts launched missiles against the Syrian military. His oft-stated admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to melt away as he blasted Russia as being on the wrong side of history. Trump’s belief that China’s monetary policy had cost U.S. jobs faded as he announced in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that he no longer thought China was a “currency manipulator.” On Wednesday, he declared that NATO was no longer obsolete, reversing his campaign stance that the military alliance was not fit to fight terrorism.

The White House dismissed any criticism that the president was reversing positions. Instead, officials argued, Trump’s changes reflect how he has already influenced the world.

“If you look at what’s happened, those entities, or individuals in some cases, are issues evolving toward the president’s position,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

“I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete,” was Trump’s own summary of NATO.

The former Republican foreign policy experts, all of whom served in Bush’s administration, were unconvinced. Almost unanimously they said the changes were related to the influence, experience and steady hand of McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the diminishing policy role of Stephen Bannon, the White House chief strategist, and the departure of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

“I have a lot of confidence in Mattis and H.R. McMaster and therefore have to be encouraged by the man who appointed them,” said Nicholas Rostow, a legal adviser to Bush’s National Security Council.

Their ascendance has brought more structure to the administration and steered policy away from the “America first” nationalism that Trump ran on. The replacement of Flynn with McMaster has been particularly well-regarded as they see him bringing needed structure to the council that serves as a conduit between the various institutions of national security policy and the president. Flynn was fired in February after it was revealed that the Justice Department had warned Trump in January that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about a conversation he’d had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

When Mattis wrapped up an early visit to Japan in February reaffirming Washington’s commitment to its defense treaty with Tokyo, after Trump had raised concerns during the campaign that Japan was not paying its fair share of the costs in a security partnership with the United States, groups were relieved that the United States held up its alliance.

“Many of us breathed a sigh of relief because No. 1, you felt like you had an adult in the room, finally,” said Paul Haenle, who was the director for China, Taiwan and Mongolian affairs on the National Security Council under Bush and President Barack Obama.

But no one is jumping on any Trump bandwagon. Rostow and Miles said they had yet to see a clear foreign policy and would be watching what came out of summits in Italy in May and Germany in July.

To Haenle, the Trump administration is operating too much like a family-run business.

“It’s a White House that is a family-run business now,” Haenle said. “He’s leaning on his daughter and his son-in-law and his closest advisers around him, and he’s not leaning on the institutions and the agencies and the professionals.”

Price, who organized summits for Bush, said it would be important to watch what positions the United States took on issues such as trade, protectionism, energy and climate, where it had traditionally been a leader.

“What is the stance and posture of the United States as it prepares for and participates in these summits. Is it viewed as a leader and a constructive player or is it viewed as an outlier?”