Ex-CIA officer launches presidential campaign aimed at thwarting Donald Trump

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Evan McMullin (Photo: Chad Williams via evanmcmullin.com)
Evan McMullin (Photo: Chad Williams via evanmcmullin.com)

A former CIA case officer who has served as top policy aide to House Republicans is launching an independent campaign for the presidency on Monday with the backing of veteran GOP strategists and donors determined to block Donald Trump from getting anywhere near the White House.

Feeding off mounting discontent within GOP ranks over Trump, Evan McMullin — who is resigning today as chief policy director for the House Republican Conference — announced his campaign with an open “Letter to America” that took pointed shots at both the GOP nominee and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Clinton, McMullin declared, is a “corrupt career politician who has recklessly handled classified information” and “put American lives at risk, including those of my former colleagues.”

But Trump “is a real threat to the Republic,” McMullin added, citing the mogul’s “obvious personal instability.” He continued: “Putting him in command of our military and nuclear arsenal would be deeply irresponsible. His infatuation with strongmen and demagogues like Vladimir Putin is anathema to American values. We cannot and must not elect him.”

“It’s never too late to do the right thing, and America deserves much better than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton can offer us,” McMullin, 40, said in his announcement statement. “I humbly offer myself as a leader who can give millions of disaffected Americans a conservative choice for president.” (A campaign website went live Monday morning.)

Although the candidacy of a political unknown with no experience in electoral politics seems improbable at best, strategists working with Better for America, a group dedicated to stopping Trump, told Yahoo News that they believed the McMullin campaign has a genuine chance to catch on. The group said he even has a plausible path to victory through a deadlocked race that would ultimately go to the House of Representatives to resolve if neither Trump nor Clinton gets the required 270 electoral votes.

“The goal is unequivocally to win,” said Joel Searby, chief strategist for the McMullin campaign. “It’s clear that Donald Trump had a disastrous week and his support is waning, and we think it’s a great time” for an alternative.

Backers of the effort, he said, include a group of GOP strategists and activists who have been searching for months to find an alternative to Trump, including John Kingston, a GOP donor who was close to Mitt Romney and has been spearheading the Better for America campaign.

The initial goal, Searby said, is to “plant a flag” in Utah, Colorado and other Rocky Mountain western states, where polls show discontent with Trump is high, and then start to target key swing states such as Virginia, Florida and Minnesota. Ballot access will be a problem, but not insurmountable, Searby said: The deadline for getting on the ballot has not passed in 15 states and in some cases only requires a minimal number of signatures. (Among them are Utah, which requires a mere 1,000 signatures on a petition, and Colorado, which requires as few as 275.) In other states, the pro-McMullin forces will seek to partner with parties already on the ballot such as the Reform Party. Finally, he said, the McMullin forces are planning to launch a constitutional challenge in the courts to gain ballot access in remaining states where the deadlines have passed.

All this requires convincing voters that McMullin represents a plausible alternative for conservatives who can’t bring themselves to back Trump. He is widely known among House Republicans as thoughtful and knowledgeable, especially on national security issues, and has close relations with several GOP leaders, such as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Ed Royce. He played a key role in formulating GOP efforts against President Obama’s policy on Syria, including arranging to bring a key opponent to President Bashar Assad’s regime — who went under the code name of Caesar — to Washington to display photos of the Syrian government’s brutal treatment of political dissidents. At least one House Republican, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, is expected to endorse McMullin shortly, and others, his backers say, are likely to follow with supportive words.

For 11 years, from 1999 until 2010, McMullin was an undercover operations officer for the National Clandestine Service at the CIA. He served across the globe, including in war-torn regions of Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

On LinkedIn, he summarized his responsibilities in his position as having managed “clandestine operations related to counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, energy, political stability and counterintelligence, while serving mostly in hostile environments.”

McMullin also worked as an investment associate for Goldman Sachs in the San Francisco Bay Area and briefly held positions as a volunteer refugee resettlement officer in Jordan with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a deckhand for a commercial fishing vessel off the coasts of Alaska and Washington state.

The CIA veteran has a relatively small public profile and few followers on social media. Earlier this year, he delivered a Ted Talk called “Why Saying ‘Never Again’ to Genocide Is Not Enough” at the London Business School.

He has been highly critical of Trump on Twitter, calling the real estate tycoon an authoritarian interested in trampling on civil rights in the pursuit of power.

McMullin also argued that Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns could be a harbinger of things to come, namely a lack of transparency, under a potential Trump presidency.

Andrew Bahl contributed to this report.