Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was essentially a “one man operation” — and as such he attracted a bunch of very young Capitol Hill staffers who worked for free and were unknown in senior D.C. policy circles. This seemed especially true in the national security, intelligence and foreign affairs areas.
Only a few of these initial “volunteers” remain anywhere in government, however some have managed to “burrow in” and will probably stay as long as they can remain undiscovered. What they mostly excelled with, however, were the skills they learned on Capitol Hill. And that was restricting access — called “door keeping” — to anyone who might know more about a particular subject than they did. And this was most anyone with any “real experience” who wanted to join the Trump team. Result? Very few well-qualified or experienced national security people actually “got in the room.”
As a generalized result, the initial “Trump national security team” distinguished itself as probably the least capable and experienced of any in modern times.
President Trump himself was most likely unaware of this dynamic, insofar as there was probably not a way for him to be made aware of it — or he certainly would have fixed it because it followed him into his administration and persisted throughout it. Meantime however, he may have wondered why so many of his choices for key national security jobs were incompetent — and many were.
As a matter of political reality, however, this didn’t really affect Mr. Trump’s approach to winning in 2016 — this because he did that mostly by himself.
Mr. Trump clearly — and correctly — did not believe a huge and expensive political team and/or campaign money investment was necessary to win in 2016. Only that he needed to unite a winning coalition of voters who were very unhappy with two very basic, but very important politically centered issues:
1) The poor economy that had developed and persisted under President Obama, primarily because of naive and poorly executed policies favoring our economic competitors — i.e., China — and which resulted in massive loss of jobs and domestic manufacturing. This blame was focused at the Democratic Party and persisted as a primary theme throughout Mr. Trump’s presidency. He won several traditional “blue states” in 2016 because of it, and also got the votes of many traditional Democratic sectors.
2) The extended wars in the Middle East — and our hugely expensive presence there, estimated at $7 trillion-$11 trillion depending what was included, Specifically, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a strategic response to 9/11 was based on the false assumption of an Iraq “WMD” program. Then followed a hugely expensive decade of a long-failed “democracy” policy in the most corrupt region in the world. This frustration was primarily focused at past Republican administrations, but especially at the George W. Bush administration.
Mr. Trump was right. And was elected in 2016 truly as a “people’s choice,” running squarely against the eight-year failed economic policies of the Democrats and the disastrous foreign wars of the Republicans.
And while winning, Mr. Trump spared no criticism of past Republican administrations, thus creating several very vocal pods of past Republican officials who had been instrumental in the Iraq War policy. Even before the 2016 election, there was the “war on the rocks” group of mostly neocon political appointees in the Bush administration.
This kind of opposition persisted throughout Mr. Trump’s term as president and gradually gained momentum, despite being a mostly personal and ego-driven movement of former Bush appointees — those who simply could not accept criticism for their gargantuan policy mistakes and failures.
And recall that in 2016 there was no political endorsement from Bush himself — and many other former GOP political figures endorsed Hillary Clinton. This kind of opposition persisted throughout Mr. Trump’s first term and played a similar role as various other groups of former GOP Iraq War advocates — who had been criticized by Mr. Trump — endorsed Joe Biden.
Chapter 2 of this drama: Would Mr. Trump have won a second term had we/he not been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
For sure: The economy was very strong and growing better by the day. Mr. Trump’s policies on immigration and border security enjoyed wide support and agreement. And Mr. Trump’s gut decisions on fracking, NATO, climate change, Iran and dealing with China were paying direct and measurable dividends to our economy.
Key question: Did the COVID-19 pandemic begin as a Chinese plot to destabilize the U.S. at election time — and to begin the re-transfer of U.S. political power back to dependence on massive trade with China?
Only time will tell. However, such a devious plan is completely consistent with the way the PRC has traditionally conducts foreign affairs and covert military operations: Deception is central to Chinese government policies of all kinds. And, of real significance to this possibility is the relatively minor effect COVID-19 has had in China — especially as compared to the large scale in the U.S. and rest of the world.
• Daniel Gallington served in senior national security and intelligence positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI).
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