National Security & Defense

Trump’s National-Security Team Needs More Politicians, Fewer Generals

President Trump with White House chief of staff John Kelly (Reuters photo: Yuri Gripas)
Add to the generals some people who have, in Sam Rayburn’s words, ‘run for sheriff just once.’

After nine months, the Trump administration has not “settled down.” There have been serious personnel changes, and it’s clear there will be more. Once a secretary of state is caught allegedly calling the president, any president, bad names, his tenure is a matter of months not years.

From press accounts, many of them apparently very well sourced, it seems the men around the president on the top national-security team believe they have a mission: to constrain him, contain him, discipline him, box him in. This team consists of Generals John F. Kelly and H. R. McMaster in the White House, Generals James Mattis and Joseph Dunford at the Department of Defense, Secretary Rex Tillerson, and — in a different category — Mike Pompeo at the CIA.

And it seems the president knows that’s their attitude. He must feel it day after day — occasionally when he hears of insulting remarks, and certainly when they try to blunt his policies or to narrow his policy choices. On Iran, for example, it seems they did not at first even present a clear path to renouncing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, essentially forcing the president to approve it twice before he finally refused to make the certification that Iran was complying with the deal and that the deal was in our national-security interest.

Herewith a theory of what has gone wrong with the national-security team, and how to fix it. My theory is based on zero long interviews with the president or his team, but rather on close observation and experience in two previous administrations.

Donald Trump has some amazing political talents, or he would not be president. He understood the mood of the electorate better than all his opponents did, even though they were elected politicians who in theory should have been closer to the people. He communicated better than all of them did, even though communicating with voters was their life’s work. He has an instinctive grasp of some of the major national-security issues, such as North Korea and Iran policy, and refused to continue policies that most of the foreign-policy establishment applauded even  though those policies failed in case after case, year after year, administration after administration.

But he is not orderly. He is not a student of foreign policy. He does not read deeply in world politics and history. He wants to be his own man and make his own decisions, as he did when in business for all of his life until 2016.

Here is the problem: His team (with the exception of Pompeo — see below) does not appreciate or value his talents, and they dislike his habits in doing business. They want order; he likes chaos. They want careful study; he trusts his instincts. They distrust politics; he embraces it. So they are largely out of sympathy with him, and they show it, and he knows it. No wonder there is so much friction. I’ve seen two cases where, in my view, generals serving as secretary of state lost respect for the president and fought continually with the White House: Alexander Haig under Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell under George W. Bush.

The problem with Trump’s team is that it does not fit his character and abilities. He hired a bunch of generals and someone who’d spent 40 years in a rigid corporate hierarchy. He should have hired some politicians.

Note that the one member of the current national-security team who seems to get along with Mr. Trump best is Mike Pompeo, the CIA director. I would suggest that this is because Pompeo was a politician. He sees and values the president’s own talents and insights. The others on the team are four generals and the former CEO of Exxon. They don’t.

Of course I am generalizing here, and there are differences among those others, and perhaps I am being unfair to them. But I always recall, in this context, the conduct of George Shultz as secretary of state. He fully understood President Reagan’s foibles and weaknesses, and I was witness to occasions when he pushed back hard against a Reagan policy or decision. I recall an National Security Council meeting where the president suddenly proposed an unexpected idea and Shultz immediately replied, “No way!” But Shultz knew who was in charge, and he respected Reagan’s instincts and talents. When State Department officers protested and attacked Reagan’s policies in our internal meetings at the State Department, Shultz would let them speak. Then he would reply, “You know, you may be right. You may be right. All you need to do is get yourself elected president. But since Ronald Reagan got himself elected president, we are going to do it his way.”

If my thinking is correct, the problem with Mr. Trump’s team is that it does not fit his character and abilities. He hired a bunch of generals and someone who’d spent 40 years in a rigid corporate hierarchy, when he should have hired some politicians. Other presidents have: Leon Panetta was Clinton’s chief of staff and Obama’s secretary of defense, for example. Eisenhower, who like Trump had never run for office before being elected president, hired Sherman Adams, a former governor and congressman, as his chief of staff. Several presidents named former members of Congress to be secretary of defense, including Melvin Laird, Les Aspin, Chuck Hagel, and Panetta.

This is neither a good nor a bad decision, for that depends on the individual chosen and his relationship with the president he serves. Different presidents have different needs. In my own view, the current combination of generals plus the former head of Exxon does not bring to national-security decision-making a wide enough experience with American politics and American life. Throwing in a politician or two would make sense — no matter who was president. Reflecting on the dazzling array of talents John F. Kennedy brought with him in 1961, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn famously commented, “I’d feel a lot better if some of them had run for sheriff just once.”

Donald Trump is president, and that seems to me why the current combination of men and talents does not function smoothly enough. The generals and Mr. Tillerson are extraordinary, exemplary citizens, men of honor and exceptional ability. That is not in doubt. But they may not, all taken together, be the best team for this president. This is not an argument for firing everyone and starting over, to be sure. It is an argument for thinking again about the kind of person the president chooses when, in the normal course of public affairs, members of his team depart.

The president may need a different mix: Add to the generals some people who have, in Rayburn’s words, run for sheriff, and who are far more likely to understand and appreciate his own talents. That won’t solve every problem, the team will probably still be fractious, there will be plenty of arguments, but the system will work better. And that will help the president and his administration — and the country.


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Against John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff

Elliott Abrams was special representative for Iran in the Trump administration. He chairs the Vandenberg Coalition and is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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