Shalom Lipner implores qualified Republicans to step forward to serve in the incoming administration of President-elect Trump. This piece was originally published by The Hill.
The campaign, brutal as it was, is now ancient history. And recounts notwithstanding, even President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made it clear that the foremost business at hand must be an orderly transition. Barring any future changes to America’s operating system, this is simply how democracy works in the United States.
In the most immediate term, this means a heap of staffing decisions for the soon-to-be Trump administration. The task is gargantuan and certainly overwhelming to the uninitiated.
The electorate — Republicans and Democrats alike — both deserves and needs the best people to occupy the seats of power in Washington. So do friends of Pax Americana around the world. But preparations for January’s handover have been mired in chaos.
To recap: In March, much of the Republican brain trust signed a public letter rejecting the candidacy of Donald Trump as someone “utterly unfitted to the office” of president. But if the likes of Eliot Cohen, Mary Beth Long and Phil Zelikow don’t report for active duty, then who exactly will? While understandable that they might have declined to support Trump as a mere nominee, we’re now talking about the next leader of the free world.
And indeed, many of the signatories did come around, setting aside earlier pledges to work against Trump’s election and engaging to help smooth the transfer of power and eventual conduct of the Executive Branch. But it takes two to tango, and Twitter has featured reports of transition officials hurling insults at members of this qualified cohort. Many of them have since run for the exits.
Having spent decades in government, I’ve witnessed my share of transitions. Under the best of circumstances, when the incoming squad has previous experience in their respective departments, it’s a messy process. Just getting your room assignment can involve hand-to-hand combat. And those unfamiliar with their new surroundings are often clueless about how to get things moving.
Myriad domestic and foreign challenges await President-elect Trump, a man who has had little relevant exposure to the issues that will confront him.
This proficiency deficit will be shared by many of his Cabinet selections, most obviously corporate barons like Rex Tillerson — the oil executive and heir-apparent to John Kerry as secretary of State — who will come to the table with huge learning curves.
With Trump exercising his prerogative to make unconventional hires, this is no time for the A-Team to sit on the sidelines. The new principals will be acutely dependent on committed public servants with accomplished records in government, people well-versed in policy formulation and implementation. Politics is politics, but we’re quite literally talking about life and death here.
The erstwhile adversaries who reached out to the Trump camp demonstrated civic responsibility. Cynics are of course saying that they never doubted for a second that these men and women of “principle” would rush to seize the reins of power once offered.
But everyone will commend them, if only in silence, for their service to their country. And if the ship of state should be steered to peaceful and prosperous shores, they too will find satisfaction in jobs well done.
Again, this is no less critical for the world beyond America. International affairs are complex enough in times of relative calm. With conflict raging in different corners of the planet, often involving confused alliances between rival states and transnational terrorist factions, there is no luxury of a honeymoon.
This is a time for seasoned hands. The pre-existing knowledge and relationships that the “formers” bring to bear cannot be replicated instantly by those outside this club.
So Donald Trump has a fateful choice to make. Will he raise this gauntlet? He’ll need to display some of the pragmatic deal-making we’ve all heard so much about, get over the insult of being originally shunned by these Beltway mainstays and realize that he desperately requires their professional expertise.
The appointment of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley — who denounced Trump before the South Carolina Republican primary as “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president” — as UN Ambassador is a (welcome) sign that he may be ready to cross this Rubicon.
But that’s not all. The president-elect will actually have to listen and delegate to these people — characteristics he’s not been famous for in the past. Otherwise, not only will they refuse to join his staff, but it would be patently worthless for them do so.
Hopefully, Trump will recognize the value and importance of their contributions to making good on his promise to make America great again.
This cannot be an “I told you so” moment for anyone. Defying countless odds and vanquishing a whole slate of opponents, Donald Trump passed the audition and won the starring part in the ultimate reality show. If his ratings should collapse, consolation prizes will not make anyone feel better.
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.