Thoughts about the Trump National Security Team

Trump appears to undervaluing existing bureaucracies listening more to hacks and ideologues.

State DepartmentHere are some thoughts on the state of the President’s foreign policy team in light of the surprisingly competent choice of John Hunstman to be ambassador to Russia because I note that I have seen casual commentary, including comments in the linked post, as to the high quality of Trump’s foreign policy team.  I would suggest some level of caution on that point.

First, note my post on Secretary Tillerson, as well as one on the state of the State Department at the moment.  Both of these bits of information suggest a serious deficiency in the institution charged with managing US foreign policy.

I would note, too, that while Tillerson is not the worst pick Trump has made, I am not convinced he represents an especially high quality choice.  Having said that, however, he strikes me as more reliable than, say, Bannon or some of the others I discuss below.  At a minimum, the administration should allow him to do his job in a way commensurate with past Secretaries of State, and at the moment that does not appear to be the case.

Second, while the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has solid credentials.  He, like Tillerson, has hardly been front-and-center on policy.  Further, like State, it seems that the Trump administration is in no hurry to get the DoD appropriately up and running.  Via CBS News:  After two months, Mattis is only Trump pick at the Pentagon.

The retired Marine general, who took office just hours after President Donald Trump was sworn in, has sparred with the White House over choices for high-priority civilian positions that, while rarely visible to the public, are key to developing and implementing defense policy at home and abroad.

When the Obama administration closed shop in January, only one of its top-tier Pentagon political appointees stayed in place – Robert Work, the deputy defense secretary. He agreed to remain until his successor is sworn in. So far no nominee for deputy has been announced, let alone confirmed by the Senate.

The administration has announced four nominees for senior Pentagon civilian jobs, and two of those later withdrew. Trump’s nominee to lead the Army, Vincent Viola, withdrew in early February because of financial entanglements, and about three weeks later Philip B. Bilden, the Navy secretary nominee, withdrew for similar reasons.


“The delays are already causing much consternation among allies, especially in Europe and Southeast Asia, as their most senior working level day-to-day contacts – the deputy assistant secretaries – may not come onboard until the summer,” Zakheim said in an email exchange. “Lots of mayhem could take place before then.”


Among other key Pentagon offices still without a presidentially appointed leader: intelligence, budget chief, weapons buyer, technology chief and personnel policy.

Granted, some of this is the normal slowness of transition, but a lot of it, too, is poor planning and lack of urgency on part of the administration.

Of course, it is worth pointing out that Mattis was only able to be appointed by getting a waiver from the Congress, as federal law bars a military officer from serving in such a capacity until they have been out of uniform for ten years.  This has been the law since 1947.  In and of itself, this is not a big deal, but it does put an asterisks on the appointment if anything because of Trumps’ general (no pun intended) reliance on military men for these positions.

Third, as we know, the first National Security Advisor, Michae Flynn, had to quit/was first for lying to VPOTUS (and having that info get into the public domain).  He does, I must note, remain a story for other reasons.  From there the President’s next pick for the position turned it down due to, among other things, Steve Bannon’s seat on the NSC. When it comes to the new National Security Advisor, HR McMaster (a seemingly very solid appointment), we know that the president cleaves more to the Bannon/Stephen Miller/Sebastian Gorka school of thought when it comes to how to deal with “radical Islamic terrorism” (which is to say, McMaster’s advise is ignored).  Via WaPo:  Three words — radical Islamic terrorism — expose a Trump administration divide

With three words President Trump exposed one of the biggest rifts inside his administration: the divide between the national security pragmatists and the ideologues pressing for more sweeping change.

Trump vowed on Tuesday that his administration is taking strong measures to protect the United States from “radical Islamic terrorism,” slowing his cadence to enunciate the words. The president was still speaking when Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president, added an exclamation point to his remarks. “ ’RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM!’ Any questions?” he tweeted.

The president’s remarks and Gorka’s tweet, which had been taken down by Wednesday morning, could be read as a direct rebuke of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s new national security adviser. Less than a week earlier McMaster told his staff in an “all hands” meeting that he did not like the broad label and preferred talking about specific adversaries, such as the Islamic State, according to officials who were in the meeting.


Bannon’s stark, nationalist convictions offer a contrast to the rest of Trump’s foreign policy team, which is dominated by generals, such as McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who have been strong advocates for an America engaged in the world through strong, multilateral alliances.

The differences are particularly sharp on Islam, where the views of Gorka and Bannon mark a fundamental departure from the approach that Republican and Democratic administrations have taken to counterterrorism and the Muslim world over the past 16 years.

Except, I would note, that from a policy point of view to date, the dominant voices appear to be Bannon and company, not McMaster and Mattis.

Fourth, in terms of Bannon and company, we see there a combination of amateurs on foreign policy and ideologues. Bannon’s real experience in this area is scant (to be polite about it–a stint in the Navy does not count).  Miller, who are least has some experience in government, but his expertise (so to speak) is in nationalistic ideology, not foreign policy (he is the architect, for example, of the original travel ban).   The following is from a lengthy profile in Bloomberg Business Week:  Does Stephen Miller Speak for Trump? Or Vice Versa?

Miller is an adroit combatant in part because Trump’s ideas, especially on immigration, closely track with his own worldview. Miller spent 10 years as a policy staffer on Capitol Hill, most recently as the top aide to Senator Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general. Under Sessions, Miller was busy assembling the elements of a restrictionist “America First” nationalism long before Trump arrived on the scene. Today he has a heavy hand, along with Bannon, in crafting Trump’s policy plans and executive orders. Miller also helps draft the president’s major speeches, including the one Trump delivered to Congress on Tuesday night. When Miller goes on television to defend Trump’s words, he’s often defending his own writing. In a sense, Trump is giving voice to Miller as much as the other way around.


Miller’s survival is significant because his success or failure within the administration will go a long way toward determining whether the Trump insurgency becomes more than just a style of campaigning. Even as a 10-year veteran of Capitol Hill, Miller isn’t a seasoned policy hand. In any other Republican administration, he’d have been lucky to land a second-tier job at a third-tier agency. But in the Trump White House, Miller stands out: He’s one of the few people in the president’s inner orbit who has actually worked in government. Prior to their roles in the current administration, Trump, Bannon, Conway, Spicer, Jared Kushner, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, along with Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, Trump’s top two economic advisers, had no government experience at all.

And it is important to note that Miller, while not explicitly advising on foreign policy in a pure sense, is focused on things like immigration and trade, which combine foreign and domestic policy.  As such, and given the prominence of those issues in the Trump administration, appears at the moment to have more influence over key foreign policy issues than people like Tillerson, Mattis, or McMaster.

Last, but certainly not least in this parade of concern, is Sebastian Gorka, who is an advisor to Bannon.

If you have not read it, see Daniel Drezner’s Survival tips for Sebastian Gorka, PhD, which are both devastating and highly deserved, which starts as follows:

Sebastian Gorka has an interesting job in the White House. He is a self-proclaimed “irregular warfare strategist,” so one might think he would be working at the National Security Council. As it turns out, he’s not, but rather a deputy to strategist Stephen K. Bannon and part of his Strategic Initiatives Group. He believes that conventional counterterrorism experts have underestimated the ideological component of the war on terrorism, and that the key to defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaeda is identifying the enemy as radical Islamic terrorism.

Gorka’s main job seems to have been to aggressively defend the Trump White House’s ham-handed immigration order in the media. According to the Wall Street Journal, he was one of the few officials to review it before Trump signed it.

See, also, Dan Nexon’s review of Gorka’s dissertation.  Note that Nexon is an Associate Professor at Georgetown and is the lead editor of International Studies Quarterly.

I would highlight the following from Nexon’s first installment:

We should exercise caution when evaluating dissertations. Dissertations are not works of scientific perfection. I finished mine in a marathon month, as I was pushing the deadline for retaining my position at Georgetown. Even the substantially revised book that emerged from contains a handful of truly embarrassing historical errors. In other words, I think it would be grossly unfair to reduce Gorka to his dissertation, or to use it as evidence that he is unqualified for his position. Moreover, I concentrated in the study of international security. I know a bit about the intersection between great-power politics and transnational religious movements. Still, I am not a terrorism expert. I am certainly not an expert on Islam. And I am far from an expert on Islamic terrorism.

Nonetheless, I did read the dissertation last night. Members of the Lawyers, Guns and Money community have asked for my opinion. I would not characterize it as a work of scholarship. I am confident that it would not earn him a doctorate at any reputable academic department in the United States. Indeed, it would be unacceptable as an undergraduate thesis for the Department of Government or the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. My guess is that Gorka wanted to call himself “Doctor,” and his PhD-granting institution was happy to oblige.

And this from his third:

I want to stress again that I am simply commenting on the academic merits of Gorka’s dissertation and, inter alia, some of the claims found within it. My assessment has no direct bearing on any of the other controversies surrounding Gorka, except to the extent that he uses his doctorate to buttress his authority. Also, please keep in mind that when I argue that the dissertation is wanting as a piece of scholarship, that does not imply that its claims are groundless. It merely means that his presentation of them in the dissertation is without scholarly merit.

I would note, as best as I can tell, Gorka has been a more prominent media presence than Tillerson. Indeed, if we listen to what Trump has to say about terrorism and immigration it sounds a lot more like Gorka/Bannon than it does McMaster/Mattis.

All of this is to say that while the Trump administration may have made (and may yet make) some reasonable, if not solid, picks for its foreign policy team, let’s not get carried away and ignore the following:

  1. The quality picks in question appear not to be getting the kinds of public roles we would expect.
  2. The infrastructures of key Departments (especially State) appear to be being neglected.
  3. Trump appears to be listening less to the quality picks and more to hacks and ideologues.
FILED UNDER: National Security, Science & Technology, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Pch101 says:

    Trump was raised by a father who by all accounts was your standard-issue business guy sociopath. He has spent his life as a boss, never as an employee, and inherited the sociopath traits of his pops.

    Combine that insular, nihilistic upbringing with his tendency to rely on instincts rather than on brainpower that he doesn’t have, and it isn’t surprising that he would surround himself with brownnosers, sycophants and fellow travelers.

    Not only is he not playing 3D chess, but he’s barely capable of playing Go Fish. He’s a train wreck.

  2. DrDaveT says:

    I am coming to the conclusion that Trump has never actually managed a large organization before, and thinks he can run the US Government as if it were a family business. He literally has no clue what the hundreds of thousands of federal employees do on a day-to-day basis, and assumes that it is all some form of “interfering in the daily lives of real Americans”.

    Of course, this is entirely consistent with the idea that he gets all of his ‘information’ from Fox News.

  3. CSK says:

    Well, the institution from which Gorka received his doctorate is ranked #701 on the list of world universities, if that’s any help.

  4. @DrDaveT:

    Of course, this is entirely consistent with the idea that he gets all of his ‘information’ from Fox News.

    More and more this is what I am perceiving: his understanding of politics and government is basically the result of cable news commentary and talk radio.

  5. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Don’t forget the Internet sites: Breitbart, The Conservative Treehouse, The Gateway Pundit, and Infowars. These are vital sources of “news” for him.

    The loon from The Gateway Pundit has been made a member of the White House press corps.

  6. @CSK: Them, too.

  7. teve tory says:

    An excellent article by a smart conservative explaining the 2-3 forces that merged over several decades to screw up the GOP

    seriously, I’ve studied this stuff for 20 years, and Henry Olsen/Matt K. Lewis just lay it out like that.

    (and yes the conservative media echo chamber is one of the forces)

  8. CSK says:

    @teve tory:

    I read that, and it was interesting, but here’s the problem. Present-day conservatism, or right-wing populism, or whatever the best descriptor for it is, takes pride in its anti-intellectualism and anti-aestheticism, because it believes those are the provinces of liberals. Period. Why did Sarah Palin, who’s basically Donald Trump in low gear, become so beloved? Because she adopted a yokel persona and sold it as the ideal of true American patriotism.

    There’s always been a strong element of anti-intellectualism and anti-aestheticism (I define an anti-aesthetic as anyone who insists that high culture, which involves art, literature, cuisine, music, is not a taste but an inimical political point of view. Like opera and French food? You’re a commie globalist faggot!) in American life.

    The Trump Fan Club is not making its decisions on the basis of a reasoned examination of comparative ideology. It’s making its decisions on the basis of lifestyle choices. Love greasy fast food, moronic conspiracy theorists, and Nascar? You’re a real American. Listen to Puccini, read real books, eat Tuscan? You’re not American.

  9. DrDaveT says:

    @teve tory: Quoting the book review, which quotes Lewis as saying:

    Conservatives should start to read deeply in their own tradition (he proposes a set of books to get started with).

    Anyone care to reprint that list of books here? I’ve always wondered what a modern non-anti-intellectual conservative would consider to be the core works laying out arguments for conservatism (whatever it is these days). I’ve only been able to find arguments based on raw greed, adolescent fantasy, and flat denial of empirical economic truths.

  10. Ben Wolf says:

    I think the bench Trump has to pull from is really, really thin. The heterodox thinkers on national security, the ones with real intellectual weight, are all on the left and won’t work for Trump under any circumstances so he is forced to rely on right-wing ideologues where he can get them and centrists who don’t approve of his agenda where he can’t.

    And I can’t decide whether that last was a run-on sentence.

  11. CSK says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    The sentence isn’t run-on. You just forget a couple of commas. In any case, it’s a hell of a lot more literate than anything you’ll see from 95% of Trumpkins.

  12. Pch101 says:


    In a nutshell, conservatism is an appeal to traditional. (No need for any of those newfangled social constructs.)

    Of course, we have a handy phrase to describe the concept of appeal to tradition: It’s called a “logical fallacy.”

    The underlying basis of conservatism is inherently flawed: It presumes that tradition is superior because it is traditional. That’s circular and its basis is unsubstantiated, so it makes no sense.

    Another conservative favorite is the appeal to fear, which, too, is a logical fallacy.

    It’s no wonder that OTB posters such as Eric Florack are proud to regard themselves as conservatives.

  13. DrDaveT says:


    In a nutshell, conservatism is an appeal to tradition.

    Yes, but it’s a bit more than that — or so I thought.

    For example, Chesterton’s Fence is generally cited as a conservative principle, and I happen to think it’s a pretty good rule to live by. Are there others?

    Of course, the Fence is procedural, not teleological. It won’t help you resolve fundamental differences over what the desired final outcome looks like, or disagreements about which actions are likely to lead to which outcomes. Most of my recent disagreements with conservatives tend to be about matters of fact — e.g. climate change, or whether high marginal income tax rates suppress economic growth, or whether the Founders intended the US to be a Christian Republic…

  14. teve tory says:

    The Trump Fan Club is not making its decisions on the basis of a reasoned examination of comparative ideology. It’s making its decisions on the basis of lifestyle choices. Love greasy fast food, moronic conspiracy theorists, and Nascar? You’re a real American. Listen to Puccini, read real books, eat Tuscan? You’re not American.

    I just used up my life savings moving from the Deep South, to the Pacific Northwest. The ignorance, the vague unspecific anger and hatred, the people who would shout, in my big-box store “TRUMP THAT BITCH” the jokes customers would tell me that started with “Why did the ni____ drop outta kindergarten”, the confederate flag t-shirts that say IF THIS FLAG OFFENDS YOU, YOU NEED A HISTORY LESSON,…I can’t tell you how much it grinds you down. The people here are like brilliant angels by comparison.

  15. teve tory says:

    The underlying basis of conservatism is inherently flawed: It presumes that tradition is superior because it is traditional. That’s circular and its basis is unsubstantiated, so it makes no sense.

    I’m a liberal, so i’m not best to answer this, but properly understood, conservatism (the old intellectual tradition, Russell Kirk Whittaker Chambers type stuff) makes a little more sense than that, and i think can be in a healthy tension with liberalism. Think about evolution, sometimes new mutations come along which are fantastic and spread quickly, but some genes are old as dirt. They’ve conserved, because changing them wrecks the system. I think in a properly functioning society, liberalism and conservatism are in a productive tension.

    I’d love to have an intellectual, educated conservatism to provide a check on liberal ideas, instead of this anti-intellectual hillbilly yokel tribe of morons we’ve got now.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    @teve tory: You trip a pet peeve of mine. In my ongoing effort to understand conservatives, I wasted many hours reading Russel Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. It does provide insight into conservatism, but not in any way Kirk intended. It’s really a very poor book. One or two dozen repetitions of the same chapter, ‘______ was the only man (all men) of his generation to really understand’ some deep truth that neither ______ or Kirk was able to actually articulate. I’ve mentioned in these threads what I call The Kirk Fallacy. Kirk blames all change he disapproves of on liberals, even urbanization and industrialization. This actually goes a long way toward explaining Trumpism. Liberals are to blame for the rust belt, opioid addiction, gays, the loss of coal jobs, globalism, financial crises, ISIS, a black guy in the WH (well, they actually are to blame for that), etc. and defeating liberals will make all of this right again.

  17. Andy says:

    Time will tell, certainly. I think it’s accurate that this administration is not as “on the ball” as previous administrations out of the gate which shouldn’t be a surprise. But it’s only March and President Trump hasn’t been in office two months yet. Let’s revisit this post in six months and see how well it stands the test of time.

  18. teve tory says:

    @gVOR08: I’ve never actually read Kirk, I was just trying to think of old-school conservatives who had written what were seen as influential books. The only old-school conservatives i’ve ever actually read are William FB and George FW, and they both sucked in different ways, and everything else on the ‘conservative’ side is waaaay worse (I know a smart conservative who quit reading Let Freedom Ring around chapter 2, saying Hannity was dumber than a rock) so I just started reading center-left stuff and found it much more to my taste.

    But it doesn’t surprise me what you say, I think it’s probly pretty normal for a philosopher to write books about all the ills of the world he thinks his opponents are responsible for.

  19. michael reynolds says:


    which shouldn’t be a surprise.

    Oh, but it should be a surprise. Haven’t you heard? Folks from the business community are just ever so much cleverer than mere politicians. More decisive, more efficient, all the good stuff.

    So far in two months in office, four months since election, Trump has managed to (maybe) impose an immigration order that is irrelevant at best and self-defeating at worst. No plan for a wall. No plan for an infrastructure bill let alone how to pay for it. He OK’d the Keystone then went back on his ‘buy America’ pledge so the thing will create even fewer jobs than it was slated to. No tax plan. No defense budget. No global strategy. Nada.

    He is not capable of handling the job. Admit it, if this guy worked for you he’d already have been fired. In any job, any employee this feckless, confused, disoriented and rancid would have been shown the door after the first two weeks. He is a stupid, confused old man. He should be shuffling down the buffet line on a seniors cruise asking Melania whether he likes shrimp.

    He is not going to get better. There is no plausible character arc that can be written that turns a narcissistic, illiterate, insecure, paranoid septuagenarian fantasist into anything but what he already is.

  20. MBunge says:

    We can all ignore Dan Nexon’s analysis. His online CV lists only two years of government employment in the last 18, which obviously means he knows nothing about anything.

    As for the rest, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a less persuasive post on OTB. It relies almost exclusively on appeals to authority while simultaneously ignoring that authority’s plainly horrible track record.

    And Trump’s been in office for two months? How long had Barack Obama been President when his Administration completely screwed up something as basic and essential as the sign-up website for health care reform? And how long did it take President Obama to fully staff his Administration?

    I know you guys think it doesn’t matter because Trump is the evilest evil whoever eviled but when you embrace sloppy, shoddy reasoning and hysteria in opposing him, well…that’s how you wind up a Birther or Bill Kristol.


  21. Lit3Bolt says:


    No, I oppose Trump because he is compromised by Russia, along with his entire family and all of his associates. Russia hacked our “very sacred election process.” Sorry, I’m done putting faith in whistleblowers with ulterior motives who flee to the one country with several thousand nukes pointed at us and the rest of the West.

    Enjoy worshiping your kleptocrats in your declining years.

  22. teve tory says:

    The problem in Washington is not a Deep State; the problem is a shallow man

    -david remnick

  23. OzarkHillbilly says:


    How long had Barack Obama been President when his Administration completely screwed up something as basic and essential as the sign-up website for health care reform?

    5 years, 9 months

    Try again.

  24. Mikey says:

    @MBunge: It’s funny how you accuse everyone here of “sloppy, shoddy reasoning” as you erect yet another Burj Khalifa of strawmen.

  25. Barry says:

    @MBunge: “And Trump’s been in office for two months? How long had Barack Obama been President when his Administration completely screwed up something as basic and essential as the sign-up website for health care reform? And how long did it take President Obama to fully staff his Administration?”

    You are comparing screwing up a website launch with the number and magnitude of crap that the Trump administration has thrown up?

  26. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Well, he probably knows if he likes shrimp. Otherwise…you’re right.

  27. Robert C says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Everyday I am more convinced that Trump is just a useful idiot for numerous factions: Alt-right, corporations, military industrial complex.


  28. CSK says:

    @Robert C:

    He may be a useful idiot first and foremost for his three oldest children. Sales for Ivanka’s clothing line are booming, apparently, and Uday and Qusay–whoopsie, I mean Eric and Donald Jr.–were bragging about the new golf club they just opened in Dubai.

  29. wr says:

    @MBunge: Hey, look guys! Mike is superior to everyone!

  30. Ben Wolf says:

    @MBunge: Are you a different MBunge than used to comment regularly at Balloon Juice? I recall him being an obnoxiously stalwart Obama defender.

  31. Pch101 says:


    Chesterton’s Fence should encourage one to learn from history. That doesn’t fall on any particular area of the right-left axis — have you ever heard a liberal claim that we should refuse to learn from the past?

    In any case, the most vocal American conservatives today seem more interested in resisting change just for the sake of it.

  32. Grumpy Realist says:

    @gVOR08: hell Rod Dreher over at TAC is convinced everything is the fault of Duns Scotus and the rest of the Nominalists. (The fact that we probably wouldn’t have developed the Scientific Method is beyond him.)

  33. rachel says:

    @michael reynolds:

    There is no plausible character arc that can be written that turns a narcissistic, illiterate, insecure, paranoid septuagenarian fantasist into anything but what he already is.

    Something along the lines of King Lear might work, but there’s no Fool.