The bloodletting in President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team that began with last week’s ouster of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie escalated Tuesday with new departures, particularly in the area of national security, as power consolidated within an ever-smaller group of top Trump loyalists.
Former congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) announced that he had left his position as the transition’s senior national security adviser. Rogers, a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the leading candidate for CIA director, was among at least four transition officials purged this week, apparently because of perceived ties to Christie.
As turbulence within the team grew, some key members of Trump’s party began to question his views and the remaining candidates for top positions. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) said Trump’s efforts to work more closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin amounted to “complicity in [the] butchery of the Syrian people” and “an unacceptable price for a great nation.”
And things look to get worse before (if ever) they get better.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), reportedly under consideration as defense secretary, had this to say on MSNBC concerning Russia:
Our Article 5 commitments to all NATO allies is ironclad. It’s important to remember Article 5 has only been invoked once in the history of NATO and that was to support the United States after the 9/11 attacks. I’ve met with most of those ambassadors and I’ve met with senior leaders of those countries. I was in Latvia just a couple of months ago meeting with U.S. troops who were out on the front lines. This goes back to the point I was making earlier, we need to impose a new sense of limits specifically so countries like Russia are not probing on the boundaries of acceptable conduct. Russia and any other adversary needs to know that NATO’s Article 5 commitment is ironclad. Now, as I’ve said for a long time, and as many Democrats have said as well, we encourage all of our NATO allies to spend more on our common defense. Many of their capabilities have atrophied over the last 25 years. Those countries you just mentioned, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania are already spending that two percent of their economy on defense or are moving quickly towards that level. We need all our NATO allies to build their military capabilities back up, specifically so we can have the deterrent capabilities that will avoid any kind of conflict to begin with.
That doesn’t sound like Trump at all. Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani, supposedly a top pick for secretary of state, has defended Trump’s effusive praise of Vladimir Putin — but then also said that the problem with the Obama administration was that it did not threaten to use force against Russia.
Then there is retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who might be in line for another top national-security position. He denies that there was evidence behind Russia’s hacking of the Democrats and frequently defends Russia’s behavior. As the Daily Beast reported:
After his retirement in April 2014 — a month after Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine — Flynn developed a conspicuously warm relationship with Russia’s flagship English-language propaganda outlet, RT (formerly Russia Today).
In 2015, after RT served as one of the Kremlin’s primary tools in hiding its invasion of eastern Ukraine and its role in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Flynn took part in a paid speaking event in Russia, and then became a semi-regular guest on RT. Flynn attended a gala to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the founding of the television station, and was seated next to Vladimir Putin.
Likewise, Trump insists that he was against the Iraq War (he was for it at the beginning), but Giuliani was an enthusiastic backer, and Cotton, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, says we should not apologize for our decision to wage war. Cotton, by the way, also thinks we need to fight in Syria, remove Bashar al-Assad and block out Russia. (“Putin’s defense of the Butcher of Damascus has begun. This is not an offensive to defeat ISIS, but a naked effort by one dictator to protect another and crush moderate Syrian opposition forces.”) This is the opposite of what Trump wants to do.
How could these people possibly all be up for top spots when they disagree so vehemently with one another, and in some cases with Trump? That is a question that seems not to concern the president-elect.
These are not minor differences over tactics, but rather major clashes over worldviews. Trump seems so disengaged from policy that he seems not to care what these people believe or how they would work together. It is not at all clear Trump has fixed views on much of anything other than some visceral affection for dictators.
Trump’s national-policy personnel train wreck is quintessential Trump behavior — prioritizing loyalty above all else and choosing people for superficial reasons. (The Post’s Marc Fischer reported, “Trump sometimes brings aboard people who he thinks just look the part.”) Trump, famously indecisive (as he was in trying to decide on his immigration policy), manages to drag out the process, creating days of disturbing headlines.
Experience seems almost beside the point when Trump looks to fill enormously important posts. Solid temperament seems to be a disqualifier. Giuliani has never held a national-security spot but has oodles of business entanglements from years of cashing in following his presence as New York mayor on 9/11. His uber-aggressive personality and bullying demeanor rival New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s temperamental faults.
Flynn was pushed out from the Defense Intelligence Agency because he could not get along with others; both in office and on the campaign, he has been widely criticized for his hair-trigger temper and bitter partisanship.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an early and fervent Trump supporter, reportedly is interested in becoming defense secretary. To a person, fellow senators, Hill staffers and outside experts with whom I have spoken are baffled at the notion that he would run the Pentagon. Sessions has demonstrated no significant leadership nor advanced his own national-security ideas over the years — aside from his obsession with border security. (He has been innocuous on the Senate Armed Services Committee, overshadowed by Cotton and Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte. John Bolton, former United Nations ambassador and a contender for secretary of state, is about the only one under serious contention for any top post who has held a relevant job and demonstrated knowledge of the subject matter for which he will be responsible. (That might spell trouble for him, alas.)
Sticking loyalists with contradictory views in spots for which they are temperamentally unsuited and ill-prepared — what could go wrong, uh? Plenty. What works (or sometimes led to failure) in Trump’s businesses may prove disastrous in government, where infighting, incompetence and incoherence can be ruinous.