The first Donald Trump administration was a tragic endeavor. The allegations against him of collusion with Russia to steal the 2016 election were entirely fabricated, yet these allegations poisoned the political well and generated a climate of suspicion and hostility between the White House, the media and the security services. It reinforced hyper-partisanship in the legislature and nationally, with the result that it took two years for the Trump White House to find its feet.
In retrospect, 2018 marked the tipping point, where Trump finally assembled a coherent team. At its core were Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel and National Security Advisor John Bolton. By 2019, Mark Esper had assumed the position of secretary of Defense and John Bolton was replaced by Robert O’Brien.
The Trump administration never had a stable top and medium echelon, as evidenced by the high rate of turnover on its National Security Council. But it did have a coherent set of decisionmakers who could execute focused national policy. The U.S. expanded aid to Ukraine, marginally increased the military budget, authorized several new long-lead programs for conventional and nuclear deterrence, and executed a Maximum Pressure campaign against Iran that battered the Iranian economy. Its Abraham Accords formed the basis of an Israeli-Arab entente against Iran. It increased some European military deployments and in January 2020 killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s chief strategist — for which it deserves great credit.
The White House’s COVID-19 response suffered needlessly from poor messaging. But the Trump administration did produce a vaccine at breakneck speed and, considering the difficulties of the pandemic’s early days, from the viewpoint of policy, it responded in an understandable fashion.
Overall, then, the first Trump administration was far from disastrous. Up to November 2020, it conducted, albeit with fits and starts, a policy that advanced America’s interests abroad with increasing coherence. Those who executed that policy were by and large honorable men and women who would have been recognizable in any Republican administration: Elliott Abrams, Brian Hook, Nikki Haley, Matt Pottinger, Kenneth Braithwaite — in the main excellent appointees.
Indeed, with few exceptions (Mike Flynn would be one of those), the U.S. had a competent set of policymakers, despite the smoke and heat from the national media.
The danger with a second Trump administration is that events after November 2020, along with current public debate, imply that a less coherent and competent set of senior policymakers would surround Trump. His unfounded allegations of election fraud, which culminated in the January 2021 Capitol riot, have poisoned the political climate for many policy professionals who might have taken crucial posts in his administration, had the close-run 2020 election broken in his favor.
Read the rest at The Hill.
Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.