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.