Ever since a group of GOP national security and foreign policy advisers put their name to a March 2016 letter opposing Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, there has been a cadre of observers waiting for this group to crack up and bandwagon with the president. My Bloggingheads partner Heather Hurlburt repeatedly predicted that these folks would back down if Trump got the nomination; they didn’t. When Trump was elected, there were a few signs that maybe some of them might work for this administration, but that got scotched very quickly.
To be fair, most other key GOP constituencies have made their peace with Trump, so this expectation was understandable. That said, most of the people I know who signed that letter (and a subsequent one in August 2016) feel pretty good about it. (I also wonder if some of the animus directed at the signatories was tied up with the policy positions they had advocated, but that is a thought for another day.)
My Post colleague David Nakamura recently wrote about the legacy of those letters, observing that just one of the 149 signatories was now working for the Trump administration. He also hints that some of this group has some regrets about that: “While some have become prominent figures of the anti-Trump resistance — denouncing him in op-eds and on cable news — others have offered policy advice from outside perches, and a select few have quietly, though mostly unsuccessfully, angled for administration jobs, hopeful that a mea culpa could end their days in purgatory. ... The ostracizing of the group has led some to reconsider their roles in a prominent public movement to stop Trump three years ago.”
I have no doubt that a handful of the signatories do have regrets. They want to serve in a GOP administration, fear falling out of policymaking shape and have done their darnedest to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be within the Trump White House. I am not sure, however, how widespread that regret is.
Even the people quoted in the story saying that they won’t sign another letter this time around do not appear to regret the last go-round. For example, the Hudson Institute’s Patrick Cronin told Nakamura that “I’m not comfortable with letters anymore,” but he also said, “I don’t regret the letter in 2016; I thought it was the right thing to do.” Peter Feaver told Nakamura similar things.
Cronin communicated to me that he has no intention of seeking a position with the current administration and that he was “more than content to carry on with my writing, occupying an endowed Chair for Asia-Pacific Security at a leading center-right think tank.”
That said, I see why there is the expectation that GOP foreign policy types will recant. For one thing, there are areas of Trump’s foreign policy (China, Iran) where foreign policy hawks might be more amenable to endorsing. For another, as I’ve said before, for those who genuinely want to serve, the longer one is out of government, the greater the desire to get back into the game.
Perhaps the biggest temptation is that the Trump administration is such a staffing disaster that a semi-competent person would be able to carve out a significant policy fiefdom. Mick Mulvaney has done this as chief of staff, for example. This is particularly true for younger generations of policymakers. Jason Zengerle’s story in the New York Times Magazine about the Department of Homeland Security under Trump gets at this:
Trump’s presidency has offered a Faustian bargain. Because many of the senior, thoroughly qualified Republicans who would have filled out, say, a Jeb Bush administration refused — or were refused — jobs under Trump, his presidency has provided a remarkable opportunity for more junior, or less distinguished, bureaucracy climbers to ascend to heights of government that they might not otherwise have reached anytime soon, if ever. But doing so has required them to acquiesce to, and often execute, policies that both Democratic and Republican administrations previously considered beyond the pale — all while reassuring themselves that if they were not there, the administration’s policies would be even more extreme.
My take on this has been pretty consistent: It is pretty much impossible to serve this president and retain one’s honor and self-respect. This seems to be the calculation of most #NeverTrumpers as well. As Kori Schake told me when I asked her about the mood of the #NeverTrump camp after a recent Reagan Institute conference, “There were no divisions among the never Trumpers … and nobody was angling for administration jobs.”
People keep waiting for the NatSec #NeverTrump crowd to capitulate. They will be waiting for a good long while.