Could Never Trump Republicans Have Helped More?

The limits of “moderating influence” on the president of the United States

Donald Trump addresses the "Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration" at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, on January 19, 2017.  (Mike Segar / Reuters)

After the Virginia special election, conservative pundits began blaming Never Trump Republicans, those of us who who refused to support candidate Donald Trump or serve in his administration, for the chaotic, erratic, and contradictory policies it has produced. They accuse those of us who broke with Trump of throwing in our lot with the Democratic party, as Senator Jeff Flake is doing in the Alabama senate race between the disgraced Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones. As a recent ad from Jones featuring testimonials of Republicans endorsing him illustrates, Democratic candidates see the prospect of gaining Republican support. Expect that pitch to gain traction as the 2018 midterm elections approach.

The president’s supporters are also sure to blame Never Trump conservatives for any losses—and they will be right in doing so. There’s an ongoing battle for the soul of the Republican party. But the idea that those of us who wouldn’t support Donald Trump are to blame for his failures as president is pernicious, and shifts blame from those making government decisions to those who are not.

Some assessments of Trump’s governing difficulties make it seem as though, because establishment Republicans blanched at joining his team, he had no choice but to rely on family members and second-rate staff to staff his administration. But his prior behavior suggests he would have brought them to Washington anyway. Trump has always shown a proclivity for putting family members in executive positions, and has never seemed concerned with hiring first-rate people. Many of his appointees would not hold positions even remotely comparable, were they forced to compete against the market’s clearing rate of talent. What we are seeing in the White House is a continuation of his business-management style.

In fact, Trump’s selection of key staffers predated the Never Trump movement. This was never a candidate seeking our approval. Our movement began with the publication of a letter on War on the Rocks on March 2, 2016. We committed ourselves to working energetically against his election:

[Trump] would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world. Furthermore, his expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States.  

Trump had already begun building his band of outsiders by the time we published our letter. Hope Hicks, now the White House communications director, was hired by then-candidate Trump two months earlier; he assured her that 2016 would be “the year of the outsider.” At no point did his campaign seriously seek to change minds or recruit talent from his rivals for the GOP nomination. Trump didn’t want establishment Republicans any more than we wanted him.

Once we had declared our opposition to Trump’s campaign, he didn’t appear worried. Colleagues have told me that the White House Office of Personnel informed departments that people who signed either of the Never Trump letters would not be cleared by the White House for appointments in the administration. Two of the signatories heard the message, recanting their position and seeking appointments in the administration. Despite their qualifications, neither has received positions. Elliot Abrams, Secretary Rex Tillerson’s choice for deputy secretary of state, did not sign either of the letters. But because he criticized candidate Trump, he was rejected. Not only did Trump’s team refuse Never Trump talent. *Reportedly on the advice of Senators Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, he refused to allow the appointment of Democrats willing to cross party lines and serve in his administration.

Many leading establishment Republicans, including Brent Scowcroft, implored us to put our qualms aside and join the Trump administration as a patriotic duty.  They worried the president’s worst tendencies would be magnified by unqualified, enabling supporters installed in senior positions. Some accused us of hubris, of putting our judgments above those of the American people who elected this president. Those are all reasonable arguments that weighed heavily on many of us. But nearly a year into the administration, I’ve concluded it wouldn’t have affected policy outcomes if we Never Trump Republicans joined the administration.

On occasion, Trump has departed from his apparent preference for second-rate talent—most notably, in the selection of several high-ranking veterans for national-security positions. Most of them have advocated the kinds of policies we backed—polices that Trump has thrashed. Defense Secretary James Mattis and, to some extent, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, have managed to moderate the president’s inclinations on torture, his solely military-based approach to fighting the Islamic State and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and—so far—North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Those outcomes make clear that the interagency process managed to push a wider range of policy options into consideration, and that Trump’s senior appointees have attenuated some of his worst tendencies. More experienced staff might have made that process less painful. But their presence wasn’t required to persuade Trump to adopt policies contrary to his campaign rhetoric and long-standing views in those areas.

Trump does, of course, have immutable views in three key areas: trade, alliances, and immigration. His opposition to all three has been a constant since the 1980s, as Thomas Wright has shown. It really wouldn’t matter who Trump enlisted to handle those portfolios—no amount of information across four decades has affected his views. Those who blame Never Trump Republicans for the president’s policy choices need a theory of victory for how those appointees would effectively counter his intransigence.

The policy departures the administration is being castigated for—the travel and immigration bans, challenges to America’s alliance commitments, the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accords, and threats to leave NAFTA—are precisely the policies we argued made him unfit for office. (We also expressed serious reservations about his character.) At the end of the day, there is only so much that can be done to shield traditional American policies from the influence of the person in the White House. Nor should the establishment be able to prevent the only person elected to lead the executive branch from carrying out the policies that person was voted in to enact, within the confines of the Constitution and the law, of course. Trump has earned the right to try and enact the policies he campaigned on. And Never Trump Republicans have earned the right to continue supporting policies we believe make our country safer and more prosperous than those advocated by the current leader of our party.

Some recent survey data suggests that Republican attitudes are changing on the president’s core issues—and in the direction advocated by Never Trump Republicans. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducts an annual survey of American attitudes on a range of subjects. On all three main issues Trump campaigned on, and on which Never Trump Republicans opposed him (trade, alliances, and immigration), Republican attitudes have shifted significantly in the past year: Their concern about immigration has reached new lows; they have begun seeing international trade in a more positive way; and they are more approving of alliances as an effective foreign policy tool for the United States.

Never Trump national-security experts are not to blame for President Trump’s policies. We used our influence, such as it is, to bring potential problems to voters’ attention during the campaign. We may have done so ineffectually, and may have aggravated anti-establishment frustration in the way we conveyed our message.  But we stand by, and stand for, America leading the liberal international order by means that draw others to our cause. President Trump has been a disaster for America’s soft power, and may well prove likewise damaging to its hard power. Those worried about the consequences of his policies ought to direct their anxiety at his supporters, not those of us who cautioned such policies were likely to be adopted by Donald Trump if he were elected.

* This post originally mischaracterized the nature of Senator Cruz and Cotton's advice. It has been corrected.