For decades, Washington think tanks have been holding pens for senior government officials waiting for their next appointments and avenues of influence for sponsors of their research. Donald Trump’s incoming administration is bent on breaking that model.
Trump’s appointments have so far have been heavy on business executives and former military leaders. Transition sources tell me the next series of nominations — deputy-level officials at top agencies — will also largely come from business rather than the think tank or policy communities. For example, neither the American Enterprise Institute’s John Bolton nor the Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass is likely to be chosen for deputy secretary of state, while hedge fund manager David McCormick is on the shortlist. Philip Bilden, a private equity investment firm executive with no government experience, is expected to be named secretary of the Navy.
The president-elect favors people who have been successful in the private sector and amassed personal wealth over those who have achieved prominence in academic or policy fields. Those close to him, including chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner, see think tanks as part of a Washington culture that has failed to implement good governance, while becoming beholden to donors.
“This is the death of think tanks as we know them in D.C.,” one transition official told me. “The people around Trump view think tanks as for sale for the highest bidder. They have empowered whole other centers of gravity for staffing this administration.”
Leaders of major think tanks don’t agree the situation is so dire. But each is working hard to figure out its stance and strategy for the next four years. Those who focus on the nuts and bolts of governing could be useful to a Trump administration that has little understanding of or experience in managing — much less changing — government.
“The reason why the Trump people find think tanks less useful is, they are doing an acquisition, they are taking over a business, and when they ask people, ‘Tell me how this business runs,’ most people don’t know,” said James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Many Heritage staffers, including Carafano, are involved in the transition, but not many have gone into the administration. If Trump ends up shutting out think tanks, many will maintain influence by focusing more on serving Capitol Hill, industry and foreign entities.
“There are lots of customers for think tanks that are beyond the West Wing and the Oval Office,” Carafano said.
Other leading conservative think tanks are planning to play the long game. AEI, for example, has many scholars who signed letters opposing Trump during the GOP primaries and so might not be well-represented inside the administration. Moreover, Trump’s plans on foreign policy are contrary to what the conservative think tank has long stood for.
Danielle Pletka, AEI’s senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, said the think tanks that will succeed are those that stick to their ideals and allow independent scholars to pursue independent research regardless of the administration’s positions.
“It’s not a game. Washington has always been and will always be an open marketplace for ideas,” she said. “I have no doubt that we will have a great working relationship with the Trump administration insofar as we have good ideas, and I’m sure we will disagree with them at times.”
There will be links between major D.C. think tanks and senior Trump officials. Secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson is a longtime trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The defense secretary nominee, retired Gen. James N. Mattis, is affiliated with the Hoover Institution. National security adviser-designate Michael T. Flynn, a retired lieutenant general, has been meeting with think tank leaders throughout the transition.
For left-leaning think tanks, the calculation is easier. There’s a lot of demand and money for organizations to oppose Trump’s policies. “Think tanks of all stripes are adapting,” said Vikram Singh, vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. “The choice is between defending the advances of the post-World War II era that are potentially now under assault, or trying to influence the Trump team to do what you think the country needs.”
If the Trump team succeeds in diminishing the influence of Washington think tanks and keeping their scholars out of government, policymaking will suffer. Many of these scholars hold the institutional knowledge and deep subject matter expertise the incoming administration needs. Trump should see them as an asset in the marketplace of ideas, not a liability.
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