Forming Trump’s National Security Team

If Trump wants to change America’s defense and foreign policy, he needs help—right now

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 10: President-elect Donald Trump (L) talks after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (R) in the Oval Office November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. Trump is scheduled to meet with members of the Republican leadership in Congress later today on Capitol Hill.

President-elect Donald Trump (L) talks after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (R) in the Oval Office November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Just after Donald Trump’s historic victory on Tuesday, I explained what our incoming commander-in-chief needs to be thinking about as he prepares to move into the Oval Office. The national security challenges our new president will face are serious and complex. They would tax the most experienced foreign policy maven.

Which Trump assuredly is not. He will be inaugurated on January 20 with essentially no experience in national security or foreign policy. All presidents are dependent on their staff—“cadres decide everything” in Stalin’s famous words—and when it comes to defending our country and its interests, Trump will be relying heavily on his key staffers and what they bring.

Obama, too, came to the White House with very limited experience in security issues, then brought in many staffers who had not much more; we saw where that led. That mistake cannot be repeated. Platoons of neophytes who think they’re geniuses led Obama’s bloated and politicized National Security Council into one disaster after another. Trump must do better.

I already stated what Trump needs in national security: “Assemble a top team there, including voices from across the ideological spectrum. Obama made national security as partisan as everything else he touched. Don’t repeat that mistake.” So, how’s that going?

The media is already informing us that Trump’s transition team is having a difficult time finding veteran foreign policy mavens to work for them. This shouldn’t surprise, since the majority of seasoned national security experts and pundits inside the Beltway (those two not being the same thing) came out against Trump—some very publicly—during the hard-fought campaign. I, too, was critical aspects of Trump’s foreign policy vision, including his towing the Kremlin line on issues like Ukraine and his all-around strange relationship with Vladimir Putin.

However, it’s time to move on. Trump has been elected and he will soon be our commander-in-chief. Counterintelligence will always be a big concern of mine, but we have our new president, so let’s see what can be achieved. He’s promised radical changes to America’s foreign and defense policy, and Trump can’t do that alone.

As always right after an election where the White House changes hands, we’re getting the usual rumors of who’ll get which plum job in a Trump administration. Here positions like the Secretaries of Defense and State loom largest, with the National Security Adviser and top jobs in the Intelligence Community and the Department of Homeland Security not far behind. Hillary Clinton’s national security team was practically ready to go, so confident were they of Democratic victory at the polls, whereas Trump’s cadres are still forming.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Trump’s national security bench isn’t very deep. Since so many Republican foreign policy gurus came out as his opponents, the selection pool is smaller than usual. We’re already hearing that the president-elect’s transition team won’t work with those who have criticized Trump during the campaign. That will exclude a lot of smart people.

This is especially important because we’re getting wind of genuinely radical shifts ahead for Trump’s national security strategy. For instance, Walid Phares, who’s served as a terrorism guru for the president-elect, has just said that Trump will declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. If that’s true, a major shift in policy is coming, since the Muslim Brotherhood operates all over the world, as itself and through front groups, including very much in the United States. This is the sort of change, showing that Trump wants to genuinely confront Islamic radicalism at home and abroad, that will require genuine experts who know how Washington works to guide and implement it.

We should expect equally radical changes in other critical areas of national security: Russia, China, immigration and border security, for instance. Just as Trump’s election demonstrates that our politics have changed—forget most of what you knew about post-Cold War elections in America, it’s a new game now with new players—so our national security is changing too. People who’ve understood that we’ve been on the wrong track in our military and diplomatic policies ought to welcome the chance to improve matters in Washington.

Here big jobs like cabinet secretaries are less important to long-term success than filling the tier below that with quality people who understand what must be done to defend America in the 21st century. That’s hundreds of positions across our sprawling national security bureaucracy, and the success of Trump’s new vision for America in the world will depend heavily on who fills those vital jobs in the new administration.

Therefore, national security experts need to be willing to help our new president. Unless you’re implacably Never Trump, it’s time to step forward and provide aid to our new commander-in-chief. It’s in the interests of all Americans that Donald Trump is a successful leader on the world stage.

Similarly, Team Trump needs to dispense with its customary desire for payback. There are many foreign and defense policy gurus who have criticized you plenty but who love our country more than they care about partisan politics. Reach out to those are willing to help you. You need them.

Trump and his fans are ebullient about this week’s election, and rightly so. But national security is a complex subject with countless moving parts where expertise—built over decades—matters greatly. It cannot be done on the fly without disastrous results in a very high-stakes game.

Our outgoing president demonstrated what happens when you give top national security jobs to inexperienced people whose only qualification is their devout belief in the Obama cult and their ability to sell the media on the same. Trump must do better, learning from what his predecessor got wrong, time and again, showing zero learning curve through two terms in office.

To cite a military analogy, Team Trump has landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, against the odds, fighting hard to get a foothold on the shore. But reaching on dry land, raked by machine gun fire, is just the first step. You must clear the beachhead to achieve your objective, the green fields beyond. You’ve seen the movie. Right now we need Captain Miller and his Rangers to charge forward into enemy fire to win. It doesn’t matter who’s your pal or who’s on your team. It matters who’s willing to do it and knows how. Let’s clear Dog Green and get off this beach.

Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.

John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.

Forming Trump’s National Security Team