But What About Trump?

Must every topic be viewed through that lens?

POLITICO’s Nahal Toosi and Alexander Ward lament that “No one wants to talk about Trump in Aspen.

The Aspen Security Forum is a place for elites to discuss U.S.-China competition, Russia’s war on Ukraine and the perils posed by technology. The only topic apparently off limits to high-flyers here? The possible return of Donald Trump to the Oval Office.

U.S. and foreign leaders, in power and out, get tongue-tied the moment reporters ask about the former president. Some switch to other topics. Others flat-out refuse to openly grapple with what the Republican frontrunner’s return could mean for the serious subjects discussed here in the Rockies.

Asked if he was worried that Trump would withdraw the U.S. from NATO, U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly replied: “That’s one of those wonderful, wonderful questions that invites me to say something that gives you a good splash. Just letting you know: I’m not going to do that.”

Others more directly sidestepped la question Trump.

“I haven’t even begun to think about 2024,” declared Stephen Biegun, a deputy secretary of State during the first Trump administration.

“I don’t do politics,” said Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser to then-President George W. Bush.

“Ha! Thank you. I have enough problems at home,” said former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, walking away from a POLITICO reporter.

But, of course, this isn’t the least bit surprising. Trump isn’t President and there’s no possibility that he’ll be President in the next 18 months. These folks flew to Aspen to discuss urgent security policy issues. Why would they want the focus of the conversation or press coverage coming out of it to be about a buffoon?

Many of the people in Aspen say they’re not here to engage in partisanship but rather to seek solutions to problems that require buy-in from both U.S. political parties and global allies. And few of the discussions on stage referenced Trump, and when they did, it was usually in the context of his last administration’s policies. (Cleverly, when asked on stage, said the U.K. government would work with whoever wins in 2024.)

Which, in the unlikely event Trump is re-elected, it would have no choice but to do.

But many of the issues being discussed, such as fighting climate change or protecting democracy, would likely go on the backburner in a new Trump era. He and his team are expected to make the centralization of power in the presidency a priority. That includes cutting out many career government officials who could help devise solutions to the challenges facing the world.

Sure. But what are these guys supposed to do about that in July of 2023?

And in private, conversations about Trump are happening, given that this is the last Aspen Security Forum before the 2024 presidential campaign hits high gear. The first Republican presidential debate is next month.

Some people expressed trepidation about a Trump return precisely because they worry the former president will upend strategies and policies around the challenges being discussed openly at the conference.

“Chaos is a very difficult way to govern,” said a former White House official who served under Trump. Like several others, the person was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue that also could affect their career prospects.

One common concern people raised privately is what a Trump return would mean for Ukraine.

The former president has well-known sympathies toward Russian strongman Vladimir Putin; his first impeachment resulted from his effort to halt military aid to Ukraine. There’s fear that Trump will simply stop U.S. military and economic help keeping the Ukrainians afloat as they fight the Kremlin.

One former Capitol Hill staffer said some Aspen attendees were already quietly making predictions about who would wind up in Trump’s Cabinet.

Some potential candidates, the ex-staffer predicted, would never obtain Senate confirmation and would likely take top roles on an acting basis.

All of this is doubtless true. There’s a reason that the #NeverTrump movement started with Republican national security professionals. We naturally see Trump’s “burn it all down” style, which has an appeal to a large swath of the country, as dangerous in foreign policy.

While Trump didn’t start any wars—for which he ought get some credit, I suppose—his policies toward allies and adversaries alike were erratic and dangerous. President Biden has managed, with the help of Vladimar Putin, to rebuild trust within the NATO alliance and, indeed, strengthen it. But Trump’s cozying up to Putin was shameful and his attempts to strongarm Ukraine were criminal.

Some of the people interviewed declined to say if they were Republicans or Democrats, but they expressed an appreciation for the sense of normalcy and predictability President Joe Biden has brought to the office after four years of constant tumult.

The Aspen Security Forum is not exactly a MAGA stronghold. Not a single Republican presidential candidate attended this year. The closest is slated to be Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of State and CIA director, who was unfailingly loyal to him during his time in office.

But Pompeo has quietly criticized Trump on certain issues in recent years, and Pompeo’s decision not to run in 2024 suggested his ties to the deep-red GOP base weren’t strong enough to win it over.

MAGA types are generally not interested in foreign policy at all and would be shunned at any of these gatherings. And nobody outside the Pompeo household ever thought Pompeo was a serious contender for the presidency.

“What about Trump” is, I suppose, always a question in the back of people’s minds whenever politics and policy are being discussed. But it’s a tiresome one.

FILED UNDER: Media, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Daryl says:

    While Trump didn’t start any wars…

    You know…not to quibble, but in the greatest threat to our Democracy since the Civil War he attacked the friggin’ Capitol of the United States in a failed attempt to overthrow the Government.
    It’s so fuq’ing sad that such a thing has become normalized and is no big deal in the American psyche.

  2. Scott says:

    There is concern. Here is the Senate Trump proofing the nation just in case.

    With eyes on Trump, Senate votes to make NATO withdrawal harder

    The Senate on Wednesday passed a provision to the annual defense bill that would make it more difficult for a U.S. president to withdraw from NATO, a precautionary measure against former President Donald Trump’s potential return to the White House.

    The bipartisan amendment to the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act would not allow the president to withdraw from NATO without congressional approval, requiring two-thirds of senators to vote for withdrawal. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., introduced the amendment alongside Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, which senators adopted in a 65-28 vote.

  3. Kathy says:

    The thing is Benito is not an unknown quantity.

    Suppose the 2016 election had gone as it should, and we were in the last leg of Clinton’s second term, with all other major developments equal (ie COVID and the war in Ukraine). No one would be too worried about what the next president might do, because there wouldn’t exist an example of a White House occupant acting on whim, with complete disregard for rules, norms, and law.

  4. Roger says:

    There’s no way to prove a counterfactual, but I don’t think there’s any chance that President Clinton gets a second term after presiding over Covid. If Hillary had won in 2016, I think it’s much more likely that right now we’d be looking at Republican control of both the House and Senate under the leadership of a Republican president. On the bright side, the Supreme Court would probably be much less radical, with a 5-4 center left lean rather than a 6-3 hard right lean and Roe v. Wade would still be the law of the land.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Daryl: A riot isn’t a war and my analysis was of his foreign policy. I’ve written a ton of posts about the Capitol Riots and Trump’s role in them, none of which could be characterized as “it’s no big deal.”

  6. Daryl says:

    An attack on our nation is an act of war.

  7. Gustopher says:

    The threat to democracy itself that he has spearheaded is one of the biggest issues of our time. Of course most things get filtered through that lens.

    Climate change is bigger, but we’ve decided to ignore it, argue about it, do nothing, and then decide that it is too late.

    The threat of nuclear war is always there too, I suppose.

    If Trump did a 180 and started saying that climate change was the biggest threat to our country*, I wonder if he could get the Republican base to move on it. I might have to reluctantly get on the Trump train then, because I think only an authoritarian government could get change done fast.

    Luckily (or “luckily”) I will likely never have to make that decision.
    *: he could claim that the real Chinese hoax was that it was a hoax, they wanted to get us complacent while they built out the tech to combat it, and the coal plants to entire everyone needed the tech

  8. gVOR10 says:


    If Trump did a 180 and started saying that climate change was the biggest threat to our country*, I wonder if he could get the Republican base to move on it.

    Too hypothetical. Trump has no policy preferences. He’s only going to come out and say AGW is a threat if he mentions something adjacent in passing at a rally and gets a positive reaction. Then he’d play with it and if it continued to work, it’d be in. That’s where the wall came from. He supports Social Security and Medicare because his audiences do. He hasn’t done anything about it, and won’t. But he’ll say he supports them as long as his admiring crowds respond.

  9. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR10: How much money direct to him would make it a priority? Stock in solar power companies?

    He’s corrupt. Eminently corruptible further. We should do that, take up a collection, etc.

  10. DK says:

    If the perpetrators of Jan 6 were brown people with accents, it’d rightly be recognized as a terror attack intended to violently overthrow the US government.

    Smells like treason tbh