Two and a half years into President Trump’s tenure, the Republican national security heavyweights blacklisted from his administration for signing a pair of “never Trump” letters in 2016 face a crossroads — remain opposed or support him in 2020.
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.
This weekend, a few dozen once-prominent GOP foreign policy figures, including some original “never Trumpers,” are gathering at a private Reagan Institute retreat in Beaver Creek, Colo., to promote and preserve the 40th president’s “conservative internationalist” approach to foreign affairs. Yet the White House has shown little willingness to tap into this wellspring of expertise, even as Trump cycles through national security aides and faces a dwindling pool of experienced staffers for a potential second term.
The ostracizing of the group has led some to reconsider their roles in a prominent public movement to stop Trump three years ago.
“I’m not comfortable with letters anymore,” said Patrick Cronin, head of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Hudson Institute, who signed the first letter, which called Trump “fundamentally dishonest” and “utterly unfitted to the office.” In March 2017, Cronin was forced to withdraw from a new position overseeing a Pentagon think tank after Trump allies blasted his appointment by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
“I don’t regret the letter in 2016; I thought it was the right thing to do,” said Cronin, who has been publicly supportive of some elements of Trump’s policies on China and North Korea. “But I’m not writing or signing any letters in 2020. I’m not predicting the outcome of the election. I will be supporting the U.S. government.”
Of the 149 experts who signed at least one of the two letters warning that Trump was unfit for office — the first published on the War on the Rocks website during the 2016 GOP primaries and the second on the New York Times’s site during the general election campaign — just one has been hired by the Trump administration. James Jeffrey, a Middle East expert who served under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, was named the State Department’s special representative for Syria last summer and in January was given the additional role of special envoy to counter the Islamic State.
Neither of Jeffrey’s roles required Senate confirmation, which would have risked Democratic lawmakers reading from the never Trump letters at a public hearing.
The retreat in Beaver Creek was organized by Roger Zakheim, the Reagan Institute’s Washington director, who worked at the Pentagon in the George W. Bush administration. He and his father, Dov, a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, signed both never Trump letters.
But organizers emphasized that the event includes participants who have supported the president, among them former Trump administration officials. The dialogue is not aimed at countering Trump, said one person familiar with the planning, but rather is intended to build consensus around Reagan’s approach to U.S. global leadership in a time of uncertainty.
This person pointed to a new think tank founded by mega-philanthropists George Soros, a liberal, and Charles Koch, a conservative, that offers, in his words, a more “isolationist and protectionist” view of foreign policy.
Trump’s “America First” agenda has rattled traditional conservatives, as he has looked skeptically at multilateral alliances, free trade and democracy promotion. He has withdrawn the United States from some international treaties, criticized the United Nations and shown little interest in global human rights issues.
The question of how far Trump has strayed from Reagan’s principles has divided the never Trump group. Some praised Trump’s choice of conservative Cabinet members, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, who helped dissuade the president from acting on threats to pull the United States out of NATO and shut down military bases in East Asia.
Some of the letter organizers, including Eliot A. Cohen, a State Department counselor in the Bush administration, and Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist who advised the 2008 presidential campaign of the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), have remained prominent critics of Trump’s policies and personal conduct.
But others have expressed admiration for his willingness to take a harder line on China’s trade practices, even if they remain uneasy about the tariff war between Washington and Beijing. And they asserted that Trump’s unorthodox personal diplomacy with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has opened an unexpected avenue to try at least to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
Trump’s foreign policy “might not be as bad as feared and not as good as hoped,” said Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science professor who served on the National Security Council under George W. Bush and signed both letters.
Feaver, who stands by the letters and said Trump has validated much of what the experts warned of, said he is not seeking an administration position and thinks those who are will remain disappointed.
“Certainly, with the president, I don’t sense he’s anywhere closer to that kumbaya moment,” Feaver said. “It would probably take movement on both sides, but I don’t see much evidence the White House wants to move.”
Among those at the Reagan Institute retreat is Daniel Blumenthal, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who served at the Pentagon in the Bush administration. Last summer, Blumenthal was among the candidates whom Pompeo was considering to oversee East Asia affairs at the State Department. But his candidacy was derailed, at least in part, by the White House’s learning of his signature on the War on the Rocks letter, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the subject.
Another foreign policy analyst who signed that letter said in an interview this week that he regrets his participation. This person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the issue, accused the letter organizers of turning their opposition to Trump into a “never-ending anti-Trump crusade” that continued after he took office and has vaulted some of them to media stardom while leaving others with limited professional options.
“I didn’t sign up for that,” this analyst said. “I learned my lesson. I’ve sworn off ever signing another letter I didn’t write.”
Some of the never Trumpers expressed hope that the blacklist will erode around the edges; even if the White House refuses to hire them, they said, perhaps a determined Cabinet secretary can bring them on. Along with Jeffrey, they pointed to Elliott Abrams, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations who did not sign the letters but wrote an op-ed in 2016 saying Trump should not be president and would lose the election.
Trump foiled then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s attempt to name Abrams as his deputy in spring 2017. But Pompeo succeeded in January of this year in appointing Abrams as special envoy for Venezuela.
Mary Kissel and Brian Hook, two other senior State Department officials, also were vocal critics of Trump during the campaign, though neither signed the letters. Like Jeffrey, Abrams, Kissel and Hook were named to positions that do not require Senate confirmation.
Of those who have accepted their purgatory, some said they have had some modest policy conversations with moderate Democratic presidential candidates even though they recognize it is unlikely they will play a prominent role in any of their campaigns.
Someone like former vice president Joe Biden “is going to be surrounded by all the establishment Democrats,” said Michael Green, a former Bush administration official who signed the New York Times letter and works at a Washington think tank. “What’s the value added of an old Bush hand?”