K.T. McFarland: A Reagan Veteran in Trumpworld

Can the Fox News fixture adapt to the demands of the National Security Council?

K. T. McFarland, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for deputy national security advisor
K. T. McFarland, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for deputy national security advisor (Drew Angerer / Getty)

K.T. McFarland has lived many lives. There is the up and coming, Nixon- and Ford-era nuclear wonk. The ambitious staffer in the Ronald Reagan White House and Pentagon speechwriter. The Upper East Side homemaker. The out-of-nowhere Republican senatorial candidate. The Fox News fixture. And, as of November 25, the selection to become Donald Trump’s deputy national security advisor—a key post, one that comes with direct access to the Oval Office.

But unlike other members of Trump’s inner circle—people like Michael Flynn, John Bolton, and Rudy Giuliani—McFarland has no recent policy or governing experience to speak of. Her most recent flirtation with a government post came in a failed 2006 effort to win a New York Senate seat occupied by Hillary Clinton. Prior to that, she hadn’t worked in any governing capacity since 1984, when she left her post in the Reagan administration.

Still, McFarland seems a good fit for the Trump administration: Her distance from Washington and the years of George W. Bush gives her little obvious connection to what Trump has characterized as the failings of Republican-led initiatives in Iraq and elsewhere. At the same, she used her perch at Fox to advocate vociferously for policies that mesh well with the stated views of members of the president-elect’s incoming national security team. She is a national-security hardliner on everything from surveillance of Muslims, to relations with Iran, to defense spending. McFarland is just experienced enough, and untainted by controversies past.

According to McFarland’s bio with the Jamestown Foundation, a right-leaning defense think tank where she is a board member, she completed her undergraduate education at George Washington University, then she received a masters at Oxford. She began but did not finish a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Her incomplete dissertation was titled “The Sino-Soviet nuclear confrontation of 1969 from the point of view of the Herman Kahn stepladder period of escalation.”) She worked for Henry Kissinger and the Senate Armed Services Committee. Soon thereafter, McFarland, then known as Kathy Troia, joined the Reagan White House.

Another young staffer was Ken deGraffenreid, who worked on the Reagan transition team and as an intelligence director for the National Security Council; later he focused on strategic nuclear defense at the Pentagon. “The themes were the Reagan themes, of peace through strength, and not going back to detente,” he said in an interview. Iran was also “an immediate frontburner issue,” in the wake of the 1979 revolution and hostage crisis, as was the task of restoring the reputation of the intelligence community in the wake of the Church and Pike Committee investigations and scandals of the Nixon years.

In December 1983, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger promoted McFarland from speechwriter to his principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. In an interview with The New York Times in 1985, she described speech-writing under Weinberger as a way to “short-circuit layers and layers of conflicting interests”—in other words, to circumvent the bureaucracy. “We used the Book of the Month Club approach. … We’d send out the speech draft with a note saying that if we haven’t heard from you by a certain day, we’ll assume you agree. The responses were quick and usually on the major issues.”

While it’s unclear exactly which speeches she contributed to, in her writing over the years she has frequently cited her work in formulating the “Weinberger doctrine.” In a 2013 piece for Fox describing its genesis, McFarland wrote of how the October 23, 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Americans, served as a “wakeup call” for those in the Reagan-era Pentagon eager to expand the U.S. footprint in the region. Weinberger, McFarland recalled, was “haunted” by the legacy of Vietnam War, which “we inched our way into with no clear idea of what we hoped to accomplish nor the resources we would need to do so.” Those skeptical of a full-on retaliation to the Beirut bombings worried that sending troops to Lebanon would lead to an escalation “with no clear mission, no defined enemy and in a country that, while important, was not of vital national interest to the United States.”

Weinberger asked McFarland to write a speech delineating the circumstances under which the United States should go to war. “I canvassed the senior military leadership in the Pentagon, the generals and admirals who had been junior officers in the 1970s,” she wrote. “What mistakes had we made along the way in Vietnam and how could we avoid them in any future commitment of combat forces abroad?” Those efforts led to a November 28, 1984 speech at the National Press Club by Weinberger arguing that the Reagan administration should only go to war only to defend its vital interests or those of its allies, and only with the intent of winning. Declarations of war should always have the support of the American public and Congress, and should be up for review and reassessment. This “conservative doctrine,” McFarland wrote, helped Reagan avoid committing to any wars in the Middle East, and led to the eventual withdrawal of American forces from Lebanon.

While it is technically true that Reagan did not declare any wars in the Middle East, he was by no means shy about providing both covert and overt support for governments and militaries across the region, including those of Iraq, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and in ramping up defense spending in an effort to win the Cold War. But in McFarland’s view, avoiding costly troop commitments always took precedence. “[T]he George W. Bush administration NeoCons dismissed the Weinberger Doctrine as too limiting in the new world of Al Qaeda and terrorists,” she wrote. “They returned America to wars of intervention.”

In 1984, she married Alan Roberts McFarland, a general partner at Lazard Freres & Company, and in November of that year stepped down from the Pentagon. (“I’d made my contribution,” she told New York in 2007). Then, she abruptly left public life. While she raised her children in Manhattan, she maintained her connections within the national-security community and from her time in the Reagan administration, Republican strategist Ed Rollins told me.

Robert “Bud” McFarlane served as national security advisor during the Reagan administration from 1983 to 1985, and was later ensnared by the Iran-Contra scandal. He served as something of a mentor for McFarland, according to Rollins. In an email, McFarlane described his protege’s four years “in the Kissinger crucible” in the 1970s as “the equivalent of a doctorate in grand strategy and a black belt in masochism,” and said she learned much both from the former national security advisor and secretary of state and from the former Reagan Pentagon official Richard Perle. McFarlane also praised her work during the Reagan years, and her husband, Alan, calling them both patriots.

In 2006, McFarland reached out to Rollins, another Reagan administration veteran who had known her during that era. He remembered her as a “lovely, very smart woman.” She wanted Rollins to help her run for a congressional seat on the east side of Manhattan, and had already begun fundraising “mainly her friends ... [from the] Upper East Side, Hamptons, what have you,” Rollins said. “I said, ‘K.T., let me be perfectly honest with you, this is an 85 percent Democrat district,’” Rollins said. “I know every district in the country, and the districts you can win, and the districts you can't win. This is not one you can win.”

Instead, he suggested that she run for Senate. If she made it through the Republican primary, Rollins reasoned, she’d be up against Hillary Clinton, where Rollins felt McFarland would have an advantage. The one vulnerability Hillary has is foreign policy. If you can become the nominee, again, it’s an uphill battle to win. But wouldn't it be better to basically get some national exposure on foreign policy, and to challenge her on those issues?” Rollins eventually became a strategist for McFarland, guided by the belief that Republicans needed to begin doing everything in their power to challenge Clinton (“Either we bog down Hillary Clinton in 2006, in New York, or we give Hillary a free pass, let her build up chips around the country by helping other candidates, and walk out of New York with a big win and become unstoppable for 2008,” he told the New York Times in 2006); McFarland’s candidacy, however hopeless, was part of that plan.

McFarland was attempting to re-enter public life after 20 years. “The war on terror is not going to be easy, and in a lot of ways, it's much more difficult than the cold war,” McFarland told the Times. “My objective in running for office is I want to keep my children and my grandchildren as safe as I can,” she said.

She went on to lose after weathering allegations from the Times that her resume exaggerated her role in the drafting of Reagan’s famous 1983 “Star Wars” speech, which laid out the Strategic Defense Initiative, an ambitious missile defense program. “She had a good fundraising effort and was a tireless candidate,” Rollins said. The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations.

McFarland began her next career as a national-security expert for Fox News. She used that platform to advocate for bombing Iran (“Either bomb Iran, or let Iran get the bomb,” she said in 2012); she is a nuclear deal skeptic. She has also supported the use of torture. She has condemned Hillary Clinton for her supposed role in the Benghazi affair, and has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2013, she wrote a column titled, “Putin is the one who really deserves that Nobel Peace Prize,” in which she credited the Russian leader for engineering a deal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.

In an interview, Peter Feaver, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush, described McFarland’s new position as the ultimate policy wonk’s job. “The pace is grueling. But it’s also intellectually incredibly stimulating. Because from 10-11 you’re deciding cyber policy. From 11-12 you’re deciding our stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And then in the afternoon you have a meeting on Iraq. ... So it requires a policy mastery, but also, a capacity to across a wide, wide range of topics.” McFarland will be serving as “the funnel of interagency policy making,” someone who “can go from zero to 100 on an issue very, very, very quickly,” Feaver added. Deputy national security advisors are expected to frame the toughest of policy issues for the president and his principals, boiling down every key question to just a few possible choices for the president to pick from. “If you have a very strong deputy, that makes the national security advisor better.”

“The Trump transition team has not been quite as formalized and bureaucratized yet, but once they take over the White House, some minimum level of that will have to happen. And we’ll find out then, how they do it,” Feaver said. “We won’t know how effective McFarland is until you see the rest of the team she has to interact with.”

If more Reagan veterans want to come on board, they’re available: On October 29, the Trump team announced the formation of the “Reagan Alumni Advisory Council for Trump-Pence,” composed of 240 former Reagan officials who backed Trump—perhaps something of a rebuttal to the “Never Trump” declaration signed by a number of Republican foreign-policy luminaries, including a number of former Bush officials.

But they’ll have to quickly adapt to a radically transformed intelligence landscape. “A senior Obama person who had been a senior Clinton person remarked to me on how stunned he was with the revolution in intelligence. The way the intelligence community functioned, and the kinds of things they could do, and the kinds of products they were getting. It was totally different from what he had experienced just eight years earlier,” Feaver said.

Rollins is confident that McFarland’s long-time connections with the national-security community have prepared her for her next job. “She's a brilliant woman. And she doesn't get biased by her opinion going in. … She's developed a very nice place for herself in the Fox world, and certainly people who got to know her basically saw her as a significant long-term player. I think she’s going into a perfect position.” DeGraffenreid called McFarland “an adult with some maturity.”

Maturity would certainly be an asset in the situation room. Trump’s actual views remain obscure, though with his willingness to engage with the leaders of Taiwan and Pakistan, offer complimentary words to the Philippines, and suggest a warming with Russia, indicate a certain capriciousness. Reagan, deGraffenreid pointed out, had been honing his foreign policy views for decades. “We were doing stuff at the postdoctoral level, and [the Trump team is] are doing [things at a] third grade student council [level] … and a lot of them know that.”