Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Post.
With only two months left until the presidential election, the most senior national security figures in the Republican Party are largely staying on the sidelines, even though almost all are said to privately oppose Donald Trump becoming commander in chief. Many of their more junior colleagues are calling on them to get off the bench.
Former GOP secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, George Shultz, James Baker and Henry Kissinger; former defense secretary Robert Gates; and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley are among the influential officials who have kept their powder dry as Trump has remade a Republican national security discussion they spent decades shaping into something unrecognizable.
One would think these figures, many of whom supported other candidates during the GOP primary, would publicly object to Trump’s coziness with Russia, his threatening of NATO, his openness to nuclear proliferation, his call for a ban on Muslims entering the country, his pledge to toss away the Geneva Conventions and his general rejection of America’s current role in the world.
After all, scores of Republican national security officials one or two levels below them have pledged never to support Trump, including by signing open letters to that effect. Few senior officials have done so. Among them, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former deputy assistant secretary of state Richard Armitage have even endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“Country first over the party, that’s always been my feeling,” Armitage told me. “What is dangerous about Trump is his ineptitude, his rudeness, his inability to focus on the intricacies of foreign policy. She’s got the temperament, she knows the business, she cares about foreign policy.”
Armitage said he publicly rejected Trump early because he wanted to encourage others to do the same. He said that some of the other senior Republicans are just waiting for the right moment to come out against Trump. “You want to hold your fire until when it can have the most effect,” he said.
Kori Schake, a National Security Council and State Department official in the George W. Bush administration who has endorsed Clinton, said that some senior GOP officials may be so confident Clinton will win they don’t see a need to weigh in unless the race tightens.
“Trump is such a catastrophe that many conservatives feel like he’s going to collapse under his own weight,” she said. “I would be astonished if the race becomes close in October if the entire Republican national security establishment, very senior to very junior, doesn’t line up making the very same arguments.”
None of the fence-sitting senior GOP officials agreed to comment for this column. But Shultz and Kissinger issued a statement Friday saying they would not endorse anyone for president this election cycle. “We are dedicated to fostering a bipartisan foreign policy, and we will devote ourselves to this effort now and after the election,” they said.
The other senior Republicans are said to have different reasons for their silence. Rice is known to spend her political capital frugally and didn’t even say much in the primary, despite her close ties to the Bush family. Powell is perhaps not in the mood to help Clinton after she dragged his name into her email scandal.
Gates got singed when he made critical comments about Trump during the primary. Baker has criticized Trump’s foreign policy but also downplayed the damage Trump could do in the foreign policy space if elected.
Hadley is the former senior national security official most likely to be offered a job in a Trump administration. Trump campaign sources told me he could be considered for secretary of defense. Hadley is also a partner in a consulting firm with Rice and Gates.
At a recent meeting of the Aspen Security Group, Hadley addressed the issue while speaking to a group of GOP national security figures, most of whom already came out against Trump. According to two attendees, Hadley said there was still time to disavow the party’s nominee, but also argued that, if elected, Trump would need good counsel and competent people to help him.
Some mid-level GOP officials resent that their superiors are keeping their options open. “I’m sure they don’t want to burn bridges,” one GOP official said. “They are not going to help Trump but they still need to preserve access.”
Sources close to the senior officials offer an alternative explanation. The GOP has an interest in keeping some leaders out of the fray, to help repair the party if Trump loses. Those who have endorsed Clinton won’t be able to help unite Republicans for the foreign policy fights to come, they said. But by delegating criticism of Trump to former staffers, they are abdicating their leadership responsibilities when it could count the most while passing on the real risks of opposing Trump to other Republicans who still aspire to serve their party and their country.
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