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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses an election rally in Kansas City, Mo., on March 12. (Photo: Nati Harnik/AP)
Donald Trump’s thundering vows to wage a trade war with China or make Mexico pay to build a thousand-mile wall along the U.S. border seem all the less likely to become reality when you consider how mightily he has struggled with a much more easily achievable campaign promise: to announce an unprecedented A-team of foreign policy advisers.
Under normal circumstances, Republican experts on world affairs would be lining up behind the frontrunner for their party’s presidential nomination, eagerly claiming the mantle of “official adviser” and jockeying with rivals for top jobs should the candidate triumph in November.
The 2016 race for the White House is many things, but “normal circumstances” it is not.
Trump’s surprise jump to the head of the GOP pack has confounded the party’s foreign policy community, a large number of whom have signed up to oppose, not support, his unorthodox campaign. Behind the scenes, influential national security figures are watching their friends and colleagues, ready to use what one former senior defense official described to Yahoo News as “peer pressure” to treat any “symptoms of creeping Trumpism.”
The brash former reality-TV star, who took some heat last August after saying he got his military advice from the Sunday talking-head TV shows, promised on February 9 that he would release a list of formal foreign policy advisers “in about two weeks.” On February 17, he said it was coming “in about a week.” He modified that to “very shortly” in a March 3 interview.
On March 8, Trump told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program that while “there’s no team” yet, he’s been meeting “with far more than three people” who were “tremendous,” and that he would name names in a “fairly short period of time.”
So far, Trump has only showcased one formal foreign policy adviser: Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee since taking office in 1997. A senior Sessions communications aide, Stephen Miller, now working for the campaign, has also shouldered parts of the job, sources say. (Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told Yahoo News that Miller is “a policy adviser to Mr. Trump,” and said his role was “not specific to foreign policy.”)
Sessions is known as an anti-immigration hawk, not a foreign policy luminary. But the aide who handles his Armed Services Committee portfolio, Sandy Luff, is very well regarded by Capitol Hill colleagues in both parties. Luff did not return an email asking whether she was advising the campaign. Neither did Hicks. Sessions’ Senate office was also silent.
Trump has been relying on Sam Clovis, whose biography describes him as a retired Air Force colonel and whose title with the campaign is “senior policy advisor.” Clovis has been a gatekeeper, and sometimes a spokesman, for Trump’s foreign policy.
While the media and rival campaigns press the maverick marketeer to keep his promise to disclose where he’s getting advice on world affairs, it’s not clear that any voters care that he hasn’t made that list public, or that he feels any particular urgency to do so, despite his promises.
“He keeps his own counsel,” Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend and former consultant to his campaign, recently told Yahoo News. “He has succeeded so far by being his own man, so it’s very tough to convince him not to continue on the course that has brought him this far.”
Trump’s foreign policy outlook combines economic nationalism — tariffs on Chinese goods, and building a wall on the Mexican border to keep out immigrants he blames for U.S. job losses — with pressure on traditional allies like Japan and Germany to shoulder more of the financial burden of U.S. military deployments. He has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has famously called for a halt to Muslim immigration to the United States, but hasn’t laid out detailed plans for how he would battle the Islamic State or handle Afghanistan, where the next president will inherit a U.S. troop presence of about 10,000. At a Republican debate last week, Trump did not oppose the idea of sending 20,000 to 30,000 more U.S. troops to battle the Islamic State. “We really have no choice,” he said. “We have to knock the hell out of them.”
Trump’s critiques of intervention abroad can be confusing. On the one hand, he has suggested that Gen. George Patton and Gen. Douglas MacArthur — each of whom led massive, years-long ground campaigns — would have quickly done away with the Islamic State. On the other hand, he has warned quite sharply about the cost of military interventionism.
“When I see the policy of some of these people in our government, we’ll be in the Middle East for another 15 years — if we don’t end up losing by that time, because our country is disintegrating,” Trump recently told MSNBC. “We are spending trillions of dollars in the Middle East, and the infrastructure of our country is disintegrating.”
Beyond Clovis, Sessions and Miller, the Trump campaign won’t say who is helping to sherpa their candidate over the treacherous terrain of world affairs.
The only foreign policy item on the “positions” section of his campaign’s official web site is confronting China on trade, while one of his “issues” is a barebones Middle East message in which he declares “I love Israel, I’m very pro-Israel,” while saying that forging a peace deal with the Palestinians would require him to be “somewhat neutral.” Trump is slated to address the upcoming American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington.
Some senior figures in Republican foreign policy circles acknowledge having spoken to Trump, but insist they are not technically “advising” him.
Trump has repeatedly named Richard Haass as someone whose views on world affairs he respects. Haass, who served as senior diplomat under George W. Bush and his father, George H. W. Bush, cannot technically endorse or advise any candidate, because of his position as president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. But two Republican foreign policy experts who have talked with Haass say he has described Trump’s outlook as “pragmatic.”
Haass, through a spokeswoman, declined to confirm or deny those accounts.
Trump is known to have spoken with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has said nice things about him on Twitter. Aides to Gingrich, upon being told that Yahoo News wanted to talk to the former lawmaker about whether he was advising Trump on foreign policy, said he was not available because of a packed schedule.
The former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant Gen. Mike Flynn, has said he has discussed national security with Trump. In an interview with CNN, Flynn played down the relationship. “I am advising any candidate that has asked me for advice on a range of issues, national security, foreign policy,” Flynn said, calling Trump just “one of the candidates that I have advised.” His son, Michael G. Flynn, told Yahoo News via Twitter that his father “has no official role” in the Trump campaign.
Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, recently said that he has discussed foreign policy with Trump . But it’s “nothing formal,” Giuliani told the Washington Post.
Trump insiders says the wealthy investor draws his inspiration from one of Ronald Reagan’s top advisers on policy towards the Soviet Union, John Lenczowski, whose articles he sometimes forwards covered in his own notes.
A spokeswoman for Lenczowski, who is now the founder and president of the Institute of World Politics, said the former Cold Warrior has had “no direct contact” with Trump.
“You should know he is not an adviser to Mr. Trump,” Kathy Carroll said by email. “John has never spoken with or met him. However, John’s books and articles are available to the public, and Mr. Trump may have read them.”
These are the kinds of responses that hint at an uphill battle for Trump to find — and name — marquee foreign policy advisers, and so keep his frequently repeated promise and burnish his credentials.
It’s not clear whether the Republicans who have been warily keeping their distance from Trump will rethink their position if he ends up squaring off with the Democratic frontrunner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Some of his supporters say it doesn’t really matter, contending that Trump’s message of shaking things up, bucking the establishment and the party’s interventionist wing at the same time, will serve him well.
“I think he would start from scratch,” said Stone.