In off-the-record conversations with outsiders, the Trump administration’s senior national-security officials all stay in the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy. They recognize the threat from Russia, often with great passion. They reject the notion they are protectionist, instead championing bilateral deals as an alternative to mega trade pacts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They steadfastly back U.S. allies, especially those in NATO. They even make favorable reference to the much-derided liberal international order.
Above all, they ask outsiders to consider their actions, not the president’s tweets, which usually elicits nervous laughter from those assembled. Officials focused on Europe cite the extra resources dedicated to the defense of the Baltics. Those working on Asia talk about the South China Sea and the deepening of the alliance with Japan. Those looking at the Middle East speak about a sophisticated approach to containing Iran that does not give Saudi Arabia carte blanche.
Talking with these officials is usually a surreal experience. They are smart, effective people in command of their brief. They are usually known to and liked by whatever audience of experts they’re addressing. They are often regarded as operating behind enemy lines. What they say strikes a chord and leads to reactions like “they just cited something I wrote” or “that’s similar to what Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton would have done.”