If President Trump hires Elliott Abrams as the No. 2 at the State Department, he will be sending several important signals on the administration’s emerging foreign policy, especially regarding Israel, and on his own tolerance for dissenting views.
Abrams is fiercely pro-Israel, and his inclusion at a high level in the State Department would be another sign that the Trump administration intends to remake U.S.-Israel policy after what Trump sees as the failures of the Obama years. It also suggests that Trump plans to quickly make good on Trump’s pledge to seek a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Best known for his role in the Reagan-era Iran-contra scandal, Abrams interviewed for the deputy secretary of state job Tuesday at the White House. The nomination could come within days, ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House next week.
If he is chosen, Abrams is expected to play a major role in the administration’s effort to resume negotiations toward a peace settlement or smaller, interim agreements. That effort is likely to be headquartered at the White House under presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. While Kushner has no government experience, and other influential Trump advisers on Israel have little, Abrams would bring decades of experience and extensive contacts across the Middle East.
Ghaith Al-Omari, a former Palestinian peace negotiator, praised what he called Abrams’s “solid grounding in reality” and learned understanding of the problem.
“As importantly, he was an effective counterpart to work with: He got things done,” Omari said.
Paula Dobriansky, who served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, is another potential choice for deputy. The post often goes to an experienced bureaucrat or a career Foreign Service officer. Although recent secretaries of state have had two deputies, the Trump administration might fill only one slot, according to current and former officials.
Abrams’s White House visit is the clearest sign yet that he has become the leading candidate, people familiar with the search said. Through an assistant, Abrams declined to comment. A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for information about the meeting between Trump and Abrams.
An appointment under Trump would be Abrams’s third stint in government, all for Republican presidents, and the most surprising.
As a candidate, Trump pilloried the views of neoconservatives such as Abrams, especially in relation to their support for the Iraq War. He vowed to break free of constraints on U.S. actions abroad that he said were the false constructs of a Washington foreign policy establishment that Abrams undoubtedly represents.
Abrams supported two of Trump’s Republican rivals during the presidential campaign, Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.), and declined to back the businessman once he became the GOP nominee.
Trump and chief adviser Stephen K. Bannon prize loyalty, and the administration turned its back on Republicans who signed manifestos calling Trump unqualified on national security grounds. Abrams did not sign those letters but wrote last year that Republicans had chosen someone who could not win. Questions about his loyalty are a main reason for the long delay in announcing a nominee for the deputy job at State, people familiar with the process said.
Abrams has no personal history with either Trump or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also attended the Tuesday meeting at the White House.
But Abrams’s knowledge of Washington appealed to Tillerson, who has no government background, one official said. As Abrams’s stock rose as a potential deputy to Tillerson, current and former officials and others involved in Middle East peace issues were encouraged.
James J. Carafano, head of foreign and defense policy analysts at the Heritage Foundation, said Abrams knows the State Department well and believes American diplomacy is important.
“He’s a tough, thick-skinned guy,” Carafano said. “That’s what you need as a deputy. It’s not a job where you make a lot of friends.”
“He’s a guy a lot of conservatives trust,” he said of Abrams. “I don’t think he’s intensely ideological. He makes each decision on its merits.”
Carafano said he expects Trump to brush off Abrams’s criticism of him during the campaign.
“He respects expertise and leadership,” he said of Trump. “I don’t think he keeps score. If he thinks someone is good for the team and gives honest, straightforward advice, he’ll be fine.”
Within the State Department, Abrams developed a reputation as a manager who listened to alternative viewpoints before making a decision. His appointment would come as a welcome relief to employees who were dreading the prospects of another former diplomat whose name was floated as a deputy, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton.
“He’s not going to burn the building down,” said a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment on a personnel issue.
David Makovsky, an adviser on the Middle East under President Barack Obama, witnessed the collapse of former secretary of state John F. Kerry’s peace efforts.
“Adding Elliot would be a very important signal that someone who has experience in this issue will be very much at the center of administration policy,” he said. “I served in a Democratic administration, but I think it would be welcome across the board.”
The bipartisan praise is all the more noteworthy for the fact that Abrams’s conviction for withholding information from Congress is seldom mentioned.
Abrams pleaded guilty in 1991 to concealing knowledge of the scheme to sell arms illegally to Iran and divert the profits to anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua.
Abrams was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.
Carol Morello contributed to this report.