Politics & Policy

D.C.’s Foreign-Policy Establishment Spooked by ‘Bizzaro’ Trump Team

(Gaston De Cardenas/AFP/Getty)

CLARIFICATION: This article states that Trump foreign-policy adviser Joseph Schmitz left his job as Pentagon inspector general “due to a slew of corruption allegations.” When Schmitz resigned in 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported that he did so amid accusations of wrongdoing. At the time, the inspector general’s office denied there was a connection between his resignation and the corruption allegations, and Schmitz tells National Review that he submitted his resignation due to a request from then-Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld that all presidential appointees resign who did not intend to serve in a second Bush term. Schmitz also denies that he “tried to use taxpayer dollars” to attend a ceremony honoring a member of the Prussian noble family in Potsdam, Germany. The Los Angeles Times reported that he called the trip off after Iowa senator Charles Grassley raised questions about it.  In 2006, the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency cleared him of wrongdoing. Schmitz further denies the assertion from a source that during his tenure as Pentagon inspector general, he replaced the traditional seal of the Office of the Inspector General with the motto of a Prussian noble family. The Los Angeles Times reported in September 2005 that, according to current and former Pentagon IG officials, Schmitz “spent three months personally redesigning” the seal to incorporate the motto.   

Donald Trump’s decision to release the names of five foreign-policy advisers on Monday may have been meant to dispel mounting anxiety over the GOP front-runner’s unfathomable worldview. If that was his intent, the move failed miserably. Far from assuaged, many in Washington’s foreign-policy crowd are now more apprehensive than ever about the people who have Trump’s ear. Most had never heard of any of the advisers, and what they have heard hasn’t exactly inspired confidence. Nearly all say that Trump’s move to surround himself with neophytes and fringe players suggests he doesn’t grasp how Washington’s network of decision-makers collaborate on important global decisions. Should he become president, most believe that lack of understanding would bode ill for America’s geopolitical future.

Several experts claim that Trump’s failure to staff up his foreign-policy team is unprecedented. Though President Obama was a foreign-policy neophyte when he first arrived in Washington in 2006, he quickly hired scholars who were well known and respected on both sides of the aisle. Even Ted Cruz, loathed as he is by the D.C. establishment, has largely chosen his own geopolitical advisers from the same pool. Candidates with a real shot at the White House have long recognized that foreign policy is too serious to use as a political wedge — at least, until now.

“Either [Trump] doesn’t care about experience — understandable at one level, though his list of advisers would seem to overdo the appeal of young and fresh blood — or no one wants to taint his reputation by working for a guy whose views are often so harsh and unthinking,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a national-security scholar at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “Those are both troubling possibilities.”

Joseph Schmitz, a former Defense Department inspector general revealed as one of Trump’s top global advisers this week, doesn’t run in the same circles as Washington’s foreign-policy crowd. In fact, since his resignation from his Pentagon position due to a slew of corruption allegations in 2005, he’s largely been off the grid. So it wasn’t easy finding someone to help explain the thought process of a man now helping to shape the worldview of the likely Republican nominee.

One well-respected expert at a conservative think tank tells National Review that neither she nor her co-workers had heard of most of the names on the list. But she did know Schmitz. “He’s just a nut,” she says, requesting anonymity in order to speak freely. “I mean, he’s just widely held in contempt throughout Washington. And he was held in contempt when he was at DOD.”

‘Either [Trump] doesn’t care about experience . . . or no one wants to taint his reputation by working for a guy whose views are often so harsh and unthinking.’ — Michael O’Hanlon

She details an apparent obsession Schmitz has with Baron von Steuben, a Prussian noble and founder of the modern office of inspector general. Schmitz once replaced all inspector-general seals in his offices with the Steuben family motto, and in 2005 he tried to use taxpayer dollars to attend a ceremony honoring the baron in Potsdam, Germany. She says that’s part of a strange preoccupation his family has with all things German. “They’re obsessed with Germany in a way that’s really unhealthy,” she says. “His father was a member of the John Birch Society. There’s just a lot of weirdness there.”

As an afterthought, she adds: “He’s also not a foreign-policy expert by any standard — doesn’t really know anything about foreign policy. Previously, he was in the field of aviation law. The whole thing is just bizarro.”

Other than this one think-tank scholar, few in D.C.’s foreign-policy establishment seem to know much about Schmitz. But most had at least heard of Walid Phares, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. and a lower-level adviser to the Romney campaign in 2012.

That pedigree seems to put Phares in a different class from his fellow Trump advisers. “He’s a serious man who is accomplished in writing and scholarship and who understands the Middle East well but who has often been slandered by the Left,” says Michael Rubin, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute. By “slander,” Rubin is referring to Phares’s alleged ties to a Lebanese Christian militia accused of killing hundreds of Palestinian refugees in 1982.

But potential problems in Phares’s past aren’t the only thing giving some Washington experts pause. Despite his frequent appearances on Fox News, most say they’ve never had a conversation with Phares, and they certainly don’t see him as a valued colleague. “I don’t think it’s anything other than that he’s a capable self-promoter,” says the above-mentioned conservative expert, speaking anonymously. “I’ve certainly never seen him in any serious conversation in what to do about terrorism. He’s a spouter-offer.”

“Phares has moved in circles that I don’t think many of the traditional Middle East experts have, in terms of his public activities,” says another foreign-policy scholar, who also requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “He’s not a name that I’ve seen on the typical round of announcements for events — at a conference being held at Brookings, or a roundtable at Heritage, or whatever.”

#share#Retired Army general Keith Kellogg is another of the newly announced Trump advisers. Though his career in the military is distinguished — stretching from his combat service in Vietnam to his command of the 82nd Airborne in the mid ’90s to his oversight in the early 2000s of part of the military’s IT integration — there’s little to indicate that Kellogg has any experience studying or analyzing strategic threats. After a brief stint as chief operating officer for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, he joined a series of defense-contracting firms and has remained in the private sector for more than ten years. Most experts had never heard of Kellogg, though James Carafano, a foreign-policy scholar at the conservative Heritage Institute, says he heard good things about the general during his own time in the Pentagon. “He has a lot of operational military experience,” Carafano says.

The final two advisers that Trump announced this week, George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, are described as “tabula rasas” by multiple foreign-policy experts, who had little to say about either of them, though several made fun of Papadopoulos for including participation in a Model U.N. conference on his LinkedIn page. A former employee of the Hudson Institute, a conservative foreign-policy think tank, Papadopoulos graduated from college in 2009 and is now an energy lawyer at an international law firm in London. In the last two years, he has expressed his views on obscure energy issues in several English-language outlets, such as Haaretz (Israel’s oldest daily newspaper) and Famagusta Gazette in Cyprus.

‘If competence is measured by percentage of capable advisers, I’d put Trump at one in five.’ — Michael Rubin

Page founded Global Energy Capital, an investment and advisory firm whose website contains nearly all the publicly known information about him. The site notes that he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and worked as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch. He worked on oil accounts for Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned oil firm. Judging from several articles he has written on the Global Policy blog, one could conclude that he has a soft spot for the Russian state. In these essays, he castigates the U.S. government for “fomenting” the Ukrainian revolution, blames Russia’s stagnating economy on Western expansionism, and accuses NATO of “instigating” the tensions in Ukraine. NATO-bashing is perhaps the primary thread running through most of Page’s work, a fact that might explain Trump’s recent attack on the alliance and America’s place in it.

Not every D.C. expert is especially perturbed by Trump’s slate of experts, even if they aren’t quite sure what to make of them. “Nobody cares about who these guys are outside of us, inside the Beltway,” says Carafano. “So we wind up doing this kind of Kabuki dance and reading the tea leaves on a bunch of things that aren’t really terribly relevant.”

The Heritage Foundation scholar says that Trump is unlikely to stick with these advisers if he wins in November, and that any picks at this early date are more about politics than policy. “For people who are outside the Beltway, who want the anti-establishment candidate, the more you attack him and his advisers nobody ever heard of, the more it reinforces the message, ‘Oh, this must be our guy,’” he says.

#related#Nonetheless, plenty of experts are expressing dismay over the GOP front-runner’s inability to attract serious minds from D.C.’s policymaking circles. “If competence is measured by percentage of capable advisers, I’d put Trump at one in five,” says Rubin. “With that percentage in baseball, Trump wouldn’t be ready for the major leagues but would be sent back to the farm team.”

“Trump is demonstrating an inability to make virtually anyone in GOP foreign-policy circles feel comfortable about working with him, at least so far,” says the Brooking Institution’s O’Hanlon. “That’s striking, because Washingtonians are competitive, and most long-shot campaigns can still usually scrape up a few credible, experienced old salts to give experience and recognition to a team of advisors.”

“It would be extremely dangerous to put people who are not experts in charge of foreign policy simply because they’re from the outside,” says one foreign-policy scholar. “It’s no place for amateurs. The argument that this is exactly what they’re doing — trying to shake up the status quo and run against the establishment by bringing in outsiders — quite frankly, at a policy working level, can be a recipe for complete disaster.”

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