The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir
One attraction of being National Security Advisor is the sheer multiplicity and volume of challenges that confront you. If you don’t like turmoil, uncertainty, and risk—all while being constantly overwhelmed with information, decisions to be made, and the sheer amount of work, and enlivened by international and domestic personality and ego conflicts beyond description—try something else. It is exhilarating, but it is nearly impossible to explain to outsiders how the pieces fit together, which they often don’t in any coherent way. I cannot offer a comprehensive theory of the Trump Administration’s transformation because none is possible. Washington’s conventional wisdom on Trump’s trajectory, however, is wrong. This received truth, attractive to the intellectually lazy, is that Trump was always bizarre, but in his first fifteen months, uncertain in his new place, and held in check by an “axis of adults,” he hesitated to act. As time passed, however, Trump became more certain of himself, the axis of adults departed, things fell apart, and Trump was surrounded only by “yes men.” Pieces of this hypothesis are true, but the overall picture is simplistic. The axis of adults in many respects caused enduring problems not because they successfully managed Trump, as the High-Minded (an apt description I picked up from the French for those who see themselves as our moral betters) have it, but because they did precisely the opposite. They didn’t do nearly enough to establish order, and what they did do was so transparently self-serving and so publicly dismissive of many of Trump’s very clear goals (whether worthy or unworthy) that they fed Trump’s already-suspicious mind-set, making it harder for those who came later to have legitimate policy exchanges with the President. I had long felt that the role of the National Security Advisor was to ensure that a President understood what options were open to him for any given decision he needed to make, and then to ensure that this decision was carried out by the pertinent bureaucracies. The National Security Council process was certain to be different for different Presidents, but these were the critical objectives the process should achieve. Because, however, the axis of adults had served Trump so poorly, he second-guessed people’s motives, saw conspiracies behind rocks, and remained stunningly uninformed on how to run the White House, let alone the huge federal government. The axis of adults is not entirely responsible for this mind-set. Trump is Trump. I came to understand that he believed he could run the Executive Branch and establish national-security policies on instinct, relying on personal relationships with foreign leaders, and with made-for-television showmanship always top of mind. Now, instinct, personal relations, and showmanship are elements of any President’s repertoire. But they are not all of it, by a long stretch. Analysis, planning, intellectual discipline and rigor, evaluation of results, course corrections, and the like are the blocking and tackling of presidential decision-making, the unglamorous side of the job. Appearance takes you only so far. In institutional terms, therefore, it is undeniable that Trump’s transition and opening year-plus were botched irretrievably. Processes that should have immediately become second nature, especially for the many Trump advisors with no prior service even in junior Executive Branch positions, never happened. Trump and most of his team never read the government’s “operators’ manual,” perhaps not realizing doing so wouldn’t automatically make them members of the “deep state.” I entered the existing chaos, seeing problems that could have been resolved in the Administration’s first hundred days, if not before. Constant personnel turnover obviously didn’t help, nor did the White House’s Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes (“war of all against all”). It may be a bit much to say that Hobbes’s description of human existence as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” accurately described life in the White House, but by the end of their tenures, many key advisors would have leaned toward it. As I explained in my book Surrender Is Not an Option,1 my approach to accomplishing things in government has always been to absorb as much as possible about the bureaucracies where I served (State, Justice, the United States Agency for International Development) so I could more readily accomplish my objectives. My goal was not to get a membership card but to get a driver’s license. That thinking was not common at the Trump White House. In early visits to the West Wing, the differences between this presidency and previous ones I had served were stunning. What happened on one day on a particular issue often had little resemblance to what happened the next day, or the day after. Few seemed to realize it, care about it, or have any interest in fixing it. And it wasn’t going to get much better, which depressing but inescapable conclusion I reached only after I had joined the Administration.
Former Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, a mentor of mine, liked to say, “In politics, there are no immaculate conceptions.” This insight powerfully explains appointments to very senior Executive Branch positions. Despite the frequency of press lines like “I was very surprised when President Smith called me…,” such expressions of innocence are invariably only casually related to the truth. And at no point is the competition for highlevel jobs more intense than during the “presidential transition,” a US invention that has become increasingly elaborate in recent decades. Transition teams provide good case studies for graduate business schools on how not to do business. They exist for a fixed, fleeting period (from the election to the inauguration) and then disappear forever. They are overwhelmed by hurricanes of incoming information (and disinformation); complex, often competing, strategy and policy analyses; many consequential personnel decisions for the real government; and media and interest-group scrutiny and pressure. Undeniably, some transitions are better than others. How they unfold reveals much about the Administration to come. Richard Nixon’s 1968–69 transition was the first example of contemporary transitions, with careful analyses of each major Executive Branch agency; Ronald Reagan’s in 1980–81 was a landmark in hewing to the maxim “Personnel is policy,” intently focused on picking people who would adhere to Reagan’s platform; and Donald Trump’s 2016–17 transition was… Donald Trump’s. I spent election night, November 8–9, in Fox News’s Manhattan studios, waiting to comment on air about “the next President’s” foreign policy priorities, which everyone expected would occur in the ten p.m. hour, just after Hillary Clinton was declared the winner. I finally went on the air around three o’clock the next morning. So much for advance planning, not only at Fox, but also in the camp of the President-Elect. Few observers believed Trump would win, and, as with Robert Dole’s failed 1996 campaign against Bill Clinton, Trump’s pre-election preparations were modest, reflecting the impending doom. In comparison with Hillary’s operation, which resembled a large army on a certain march toward power, Trump’s seemed staffed by a few hardy souls with time on their hands. His unexpected victory, therefore, caught his campaign unready, resulting in immediate turf fights with the transition volunteers and the scrapping of almost all its pre-election product. Starting over on November 9 was hardly auspicious, especially with the bulk of the transition staff in Washington, and Trump and his closest aides at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Trump didn’t understand much of what the huge federal behemoth did before he won, and he didn’t acquire much, if any, greater awareness during the transition, which did not bode well for his performance in office. I played an insignificant part in Trump’s campaign except for one meeting with the candidate on Friday morning, September 23, at Trump Tower, three days before his first debate with Clinton. Hillary and Bill were a year ahead of me at Yale Law School, so, in addition to discussing national security, I offered Trump my thoughts on how Hillary would perform: well prepared and scripted, following her game plan no matter what. She hadn’t changed in over forty years. Trump did most of the talking, as in our first meeting in 2014, before his candidacy. As we concluded, he said, “You know, your views and mine are actually very close. Very close.” At that point, I was widely engaged: Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; Fox News contributor; a regular on the speaking circuit; of counsel at a major law firm; member of corporate boards; senior advisor to a global private-equity firm; and author of opinion articles at the rate of about one a week. In late 2013, I formed a PAC and a SuperPAC to aid House and Senate candidates who believed in a strong US national-security policy, distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to candidates and spending millions in independent expenditures in the 2014 and 2016 campaigns, and preparing to do so again in 2018. I had plenty to do. But I had also served in the last three Republican Administrations,2 and international relations had fascinated me since my days at Yale College. I was ready to go in again. New threats and opportunities were coming at us rapidly, and eight years of Barack Obama meant there was much to repair. I had thought long and hard about America’s national security in a tempestuous world: Russia and China at the strategic level; Iran, North Korea, and other rogue nuclear-weapons aspirants; the swirling threats of radical Islamicist terrorism in the tumultuous Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen), Afghanistan and beyond; and the threats in our own hemisphere, like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. While foreign-policy labels are unhelpful except to the intellectually lazy, if pressed, I liked to say my policy was “pro-American.” I followed Adam Smith on economics, Edmund Burke on society, The Federalist Papers on government, and a merger of Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles on national security. My first political campaigning was in 1964 on behalf of Barry Goldwater. I knew senior Trump campaign officials like Steve Bannon, Dave Bossie, and Kellyanne Conway from prior associations, and had spoken to them about joining a Trump Administration should one happen. Once the transition began, I thought it reasonable to offer my services as Secretary of State, as did others. When Chris Wallace came off the Fox set early on November 9, after the race was called, he shook my hand and said, smiling broadly, “Congratulations, Mr. Secretary.” Of course, there was no dearth of contenders to lead the State Department, which generated endless media speculation about who the “front-runner” was, starting with Newt Gingrich, proceeding to Rudy Giuliani, then Mitt Romney, and then back to Rudy. I had worked with and respected each of them, and each was credible in his own way. I paid special attention because there was constant chatter (not to mention pressure) that I should settle for being Deputy Secretary, obviously not my preference. What came next demonstrated Trumpian decision-making and provided (or should have) a cautionary lesson. While all the early “leading contenders” were broadly conservative philosophically, they brought different backgrounds, different perspectives, different styles, different pluses and minuses to the table. Among these possibilities (and others like Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman), were there common, consistent attributes and accomplishments Trump sought? Obviously not, and observers should have asked: What is the real principle governing Trump’s personnel-selection process? Why not have Giuliani as Attorney General, a job he was made for? Romney as White House Chief of Staff, bringing his undeniable strategic planning and management skills? And Gingrich, with decades of creative theorizing, as White House domestic policy czar? Was Trump looking only for people from “central casting”? Much was made of his purported dislike of my moustache. For what it’s worth, he told me it was never a factor, noting that his father also had one. Other than shrinks and those deeply interested in Sigmund Freud, which I assuredly am not, I don’t really believe my looks played a role in Trump’s thinking. And if they did, God help the country. Attractive women, however, fall into a different category when it comes to Trump. Loyalty was the key factor, which Giuliani had proved beyond peradventure in the days after the Access Hollywood tape became public in early October. Lyndon Johnson once reportedly said of an aide, “I want real loyalty. I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses.” Who knew Trump read so much history? Giuliani was later extremely gracious to me, saying after he withdrew from the Secretary of State melee, “John would probably be my choice. I think John is terrific.”3
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