The Corner

Politics & Policy

Conservatives and the Trump Transition

Eliot Cohen, a distinguished foreign-policy expert and former State Department official and a conservative Trump critic, wrote in yesterday’s Washington Post that he has changed his mind about whether young conservatives should seek to work for the Trump Administration.

He had thought they should, he writes, for the good of the country. But an experience with a friend working for the transition left him thinking the Trump team is not interested in reaching beyond its immediate circle for hires. Combined with his general concerns about Trump and his team, this leads Cohen to suggest young conservatives should stay away.


I respect Cohen, certainly share his concerns about Trump, and can understand his worries here. But I think his piece is unfair in some important respects, and ultimately unpersuasive, and that people who believe they have something to offer and are interested in serving in the new administration should pursue the possibility. 


The fact is, the transition team is just a little over a week into its work of seeking recruits. Although some laying of groundwork, particularly on some substantive policy fronts, had been done in the months before the election (under a federal law that requires the two major-party nominees to start transition work right after the party conventions), most personnel judgments couldn’t really begin until after the election. The transition team therefore now has an enormous amount of work to do quickly. They’re doing it under unusual strain—the Trump campaign evidently did not expect to win, and has had an even more frantic and unsure start into its post-election form than most winning teams have. They also don’t have quite the usual flood of applicants, given the kinds of legitimate concerns Cohen describes, which makes their work all the more a challenge. Barely a week in, under these circumstances, it’s too early to conclude much. 


Reluctance to hire people who had not supported the new president’s election, meanwhile, is neither unusual nor wholly unreasonable. The people being hired will be the eyes, ears, and hands of the new president, and the people charged with hiring them are right to want political appointees who generally share the president’s vision and to be wary of people who have been hostile to it and to him. Every administration hires its political appointees this way, and within reason it is appropriate to do so. 


Cohen recognizes this, to be sure. And he also notes that people within the transition have sought out his help in finding recruits for them even though he himself would not be someone they would appoint to an administration position (because of his criticism of Trump) and he would not want them to. 

My own limited experiences with people I know on the transition team so far have reflected this too: They know how critical I have been of Trump and how worried I remain about him, but they want to know if I’m aware of promising conservatives who might want to fill important roles and they’re willing to seek out views on some substantive policy questions too.


Cohen could very well be right, of course, that on the whole the attitude of the transition team may prove too insular, or that the administration could well take a direction with which many conservatives will not want to associate. That’s very easy to imagine. But given the high stakes involved for the country, those concerns would tend to argue for conservatives who might be open to it to get involved and seek to help guide the work of the new administration. Telling all such people to simply stay away can only contribute to further insularity. 


And if Trump’s team concludes that every frank private conversation they have with anyone outside their circle will end up in the newspapers, they will be even less likely to reach beyond that circle in recruiting talent, and the country will pay for it. 


Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. He and his team should be able to draw on the best possible pool of willing and capable people to help them succeed. They have the right to draw from that pool on their own terms. And they deserve to be given a chance to do better than the lowest expectations of their critics. Barely a week in, they surely haven’t had that chance yet.

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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