After a year of ideological warfare and bureaucratic battles, the surviving members of President Trump’s national security team are about to band together with newly arriving members to pursue a traditionally Republican and hawkish foreign policy agenda. Behind the scenes, they are joining forces.
After months of searching, Vice President Pence has chosen a new national security adviser. Jon Lerner, deputy to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, will lead Pence’s foreign policy team and advise him on all national security issues, Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah told me. Significantly, Lerner will also keep his job working for Haley, dividing his time between the two principals and coordinating between the two teams.
That’s no accident. Over the past year, Pence and Haley have been coordinating closely on foreign policy, advocating long-held GOP foreign policy positions such as increased pushback against Russia, stronger pressure on North Korea, more resources for Afghanistan, a tougher position on the Assad regime in Syria and more. Now the two officials will have the same key adviser on national security.
Lerner, a well-known Republican political operative and foreign policy hand, has worked with Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, for many years. They started collaborating when Ayers — then at the Republican Governors Association — supported Haley’s first run for governor of South Carolina in 2010.
The objective is to eliminate the infighting that plagued the National Security Council for its first year. John Bolton’s ascension as national security adviser and CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s nomination as secretary of state both affirm the convergence of ideology and agenda.
“This just formalizes really what’s already been going on,” one senior White House official said. “And with the changes of Bolton and Pompeo, it formalizes an existing group of people who were already working well together.”
Although it’s often overlooked, Pence’s foreign policy role has been growing. He has been traveling overseas on a regular basis. He played a role in the diplomacy that led to the North Korea summit. Just this week, he chaired multiple National Security Council meetings on the Syria crisis. On Friday, he leaves for Peru to stand in for Trump at the Summit of the Americas.
Pence’s former national security adviser, Andrea Thompson, is awaiting confirmation to be Pompeo’s undersecretary of state for arms control. Lerner has close relationships with Pompeo and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another card-carrying member of the traditional GOP foreign policy establishment.
For many Republicans, the value of the new team is not only that it is ideologically aligned, but also that it is full of seasoned politicians and political operatives who can get things done both inside and outside government.
That’s a change from year one, when figures such as Stephen K. Bannon freelanced on foreign policy, and general dysfunction prevented the administration from clearly explaining, much less implementing, many of its priorities.
“The home team is up,” said one GOP foreign policy operative. “These are people who have been part of the system for a long time, who have real experience. Trump said he wanted killers, and this group are all killers.”
Not all of these officials are the same. Pence and Haley lean more toward neoconservative views regarding spreading democracy and American values. Bolton and Pompeo share their zest for hawkish unilateralism but are far more skeptical of the United States’ ability to pursue nation-building.
But they all share deep connections and roots with the foreign policy establishment that former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and even former national security adviser H.R. McMaster could never claim.
Bolton is also busily cleaning house inside the National Security Council. In his first week he worked to remove three top officials: spokesman Michael Anton, homeland security adviser Tom Bossert and Nadia Schadlow, deputy national security adviser for strategy.
Expect Bolton to continue replacing senior staff with traditional GOP hawks who also have political bona fides. Bolton, like the rest of this team, knows that getting the politics of foreign policy right is half the battle.
Democratic senators at Pompeo’s confirmation hearing Thursday said they saw Trump building a “war cabinet.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) noted that Trump’s instincts run against GOP foreign policy orthodoxy on a range of issues. Throughout the campaign, Trump blamed the Republican foreign policy establishment for a litany of sins, including the war in Iraq.
Many fear Trump’s new foreign policy team will push him to a more hawkish stance that could lead to conflict. But White House officials said that Trump will always be Trump, and that in the end he just wants people skilled enough to deliver on his agenda.
In his first year, Trump’s national security officials often pursued different agendas and worked at cross-purposes. The new team is starting off on largely the same page. That’s going to be crucial if it is to guide U.S. foreign policy through the troubled waters that lie ahead.
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