Lack of Foreign Policy Team May Hurt Trump
After a New York Times story this week quoted a top national security adviser to Ben Carson ruing the candidate’s weaknesses in that sphere, Donald Trump was quick to pile on.
“How does Ben Carson survive this problem – really big,” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
At a rally in Worcester, Mass., on Wednesday evening, Trump echoed that theme, suggesting that Carson’s deficiencies on the foreign policy front could derail his surging candidacy. “You've got to know foreign policy,” Trump said.
Trump asserted his own authority on national security issues in a new radio ad released Wednesday, saying that as president he would “quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS, will rebuild our military and make it so strong no one — and I mean, no one — will mess with us.”
But, at a moment when the focus of the Republican presidential primary has swiveled in light of terror attacks in Paris, Trump may be at an even greater disadvantage than his rival. Whereas Carson has advisers coaching him on national security and foreign policy, Trump apparently does not.
The real estate mogul has raised plenty of eyebrows with his statements on foreign policy matters: by promising to seize oil from enemies in the Middle East; suggesting China is a party to the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal; and proposing that fighting ISIS be left to Russia, a stance on which he has this week begun to evolve.
Who is formulating these positions? From all indications, it is Trump himself.
It has been months since the billionaire businessman first promised a forthcoming rollout of his national security team — a rollout that has not yet occurred. Asked by RealClearPolitics this week when the campaign plans to announce its advisers on national security or foreign policy, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks responded: “We don’t have anything to share at this time.”
The delay might be due to the fact that there is still no team to announce.
“I don’t think he has anybody,” said one source close to the campaign. “I don’t think he did then, and I don’t think he does now.”
Initially, Trump was frank about not having any sort of policy team in place. In August on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd asked Trump whom he turns to for military advice.
“Well, I watch the shows,” the candidate replied, referring to the Sunday network and cable news programs. Pressed to name advisers, Trump singled out former Ambassador John Bolton, who often appears on Fox News, and Col. Jack Jacobs, a military analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. But Trump has not met with either man, much less hired them as advisers.
As early as September, perhaps feeling increasing pressure to reveal policy advisers, Trump began to suggest that he would soon introduce a national security team.
“When are we going to get some names on your military and your foreign policy advisers?” moderator Hugh Hewitt asked Trump during the second Republican debate, hosted by CNN at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
“I’m meeting with people that are terrific people,” Trump assured him.
During a radio interview with Hewitt later in September, Trump leaned in further. "We're going to be announcing something very soon,” he said. “We have a great team of people."
Hewitt attempted to follow up with Trump in an interview last month, but once again the GOP frontrunner was vague, although he insisted a team did exist.
“They’re people that are highly respected,” Trump said, “and people that when they hear the names, people will be impressed. People that know, like yourself, will be impressed.”
A few names have emerged as Trump’s informal advisers, but none of them are policy experts in the traditional sense. Instead, Trump is known to solicit ideas and feedback from within his social and business circles, including from Carl Icahn and Steve Wynn.
“His ego permits him to — where a lot of these other presidents don’t — surround himself with really good people, not just me but others,” Icahn told Reuters in September. “He needs as many good people as he can get in this environment today. We certainly don’t see that in many of these presidents.”
But Trump has not surrounded himself with many traditional advisers, especially in a formal capacity within the campaign structure.
In August, Trump hired Iowa conservative activist Sam Clovis as a national campaign co-chairman and senior policy adviser. A press release trumpeted that the role would “tap into [Clovis’] expansive expertise in economics, national security and international relations.”
Clovis, an economics professor at a small college in Sioux City, Iowa, and a talk radio host, was a U.S. Senate candidate in 2014, running as the resident wonk in a crowded primary field. He finished short of the GOP nomination, won by now-Sen. Joni Ernst. A veteran of the Air Force, Clovis has deep first-hand military experience but no foreign policy expertise, nor has he formally studied or formulated broader policy.
Clovis’ thin resume in this regard hardly matters, however, because his title means very little: He does not have his boss’ ear. Trump’s campaign is highly centralized, according to multiple sources, with power concentrated at the Trump Tower headquarters in New York City, where only a handful of aides have direct access to the candidate. Central among them is Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager.
The true core, of course, is Trump himself — a presidential candidate who, contrary to the traditional model, does not like to be told what to say or do, or be otherwise advised. A policy team cannot be assembled for a candidate who does not want one.
“He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to be briefed,” said one source with knowledge of Trump’s thinking. “It’s not in his personality.”