This op-ed is part of a series exploring what a second term would look like for either President Biden or former President Trump.
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.
Some repeat appointments are probable. O’Brien would likely return, either as secretary of State or secretary of Defense, either of which he would discharge with competence and good faith. Robert Lighthizer, U.S. trade representative from 2017 to 2021, the architect of Trump’s trade policy, and one of the few officials that served the near-entirety of Trump’s term, would return, likely as Commerce secretary. Combined with Trump’s protectionist instincts and the proclivities of any coalition that elects him, this would signal a hard turn toward protectionism, albeit with a potential and welcome focus on Western Hemispheric trade networks.
Kevin Hassett, Trump’s senior economic advisor, could occupy the position of Treasury secretary or Federal Reserve chair. Peter Navarro, director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, would also likely return in an executive role. Matt Pottinger, the exceptionally competent architect of Trump’s China policy and former deputy national security advisor, could be in line for a major role, either as national security advisor, in Foggy Bottom or in the Pentagon. Elbridge Colby, the New Right’s defense policy sage and former undersecretary of defense for strategy and force development, would also have a position. Ambassadorial roles would be difficult to discern, although noted China specialist Michael Pillsbury could well find himself in Beijing.
But I see at least three problems. First, there is no common theme in these higher-level picks, apart from a generic protectionism and hostility toward China, that could generate the sort of real policy consensus that finally materialized only in the second half Trump’s first term. This implies another two-year adjustment period at best, as the second Trump White House again finds its feet. That could create a dangerous situation with wars probably still raging both in Europe and the Middle East, and perhaps in East Asia as well.
Second, there are few lower and mid-level staffers of obvious competence to fill out the Trump administration’s organizational sheet. This was a potentially crippling issue in the first Trump administration. In the second, this issue will be even more acute. Trump and his new chief of staff will be left with only staffers from the Heritage Foundation, which has lost much of its talent over the last two years, and the Center for Renewing America, whose staff come from more dubious corners of the political right. So the intellectual talent that the second Trump administration could access is thus a large question mark, with potentially deleterious effects on policymaking.
Third, the second Trump administration will be obsessed with righting perceived wrongs, particularly in light of the slew of legal attacks that Trump has faced. Combined with the despicable chaos of Jan. 6 and Trump’s now deep-seated distrust of the intelligence services, military and professional bureaucracy, the obvious result is an administration preoccupied with increasingly theatrical domestic political maneuvers, to the detriment of national policy. And this is the best case. The worst is one in which Trump’s actions, completely unrestrained by competent advisors whom he trusts, take aim at the U.S. constitutional order.
Still, one can identify a handful of themes that will shape a second Trump administration’s foreign policy. It likely will return to its pro-Israel orientation, especially if Jared Kushner again receives the Middle East portfolio. This will have positive effects on the U.S.-Gulf Arab relationship, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE will find Washington more sympathetic to their interests.
Yet there is no guarantee of a productively engaged America, because of the second Trump administration’s other probable orientations on European policy, China and trade.
A second Trump administration would set off an enormous transatlantic crisis. Unlike the Trump of 2018, who was surrounded by advisors who grasped the fundamental relevance of European security to American interests and thereby managed to move lethal aid to Kyiv into the endzone, the Trump of 2025 could well cut Ukraine loose. This would spark an immediate reaction in Eastern Europe that could be mollified only with a major U.S. force deployment from Finland to Bulgaria.
Moreover, Trump would undoubtedly seek to take revenge on the Paris-Berlin-Brussels trio, which could jeopardize the Atlantic alliance anyway. Russia would benefit, validating cries in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing that the U.S. is not a credible partner.
China policy would ostensibly be the second Trump administration’s linchpin. But even if a collapse in European security does not destroy U.S. credibility in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. will still need to do the hard work of surging forces to the region, negotiating base access at scale and sustaining its military.
The second Trump administration’s China policy would almost certainly be a trade policy. Indeed, the second Trump administration more likely than not will seek to extract all it can from the Asian rimland economic system, inducing Taiwanese firms to transplant themselves to the U.S., without credibly increasing deterrence. The goal, in the long-run, is some sort of new isolationism in the guise of realpolitik.
Americans are quite obviously starved for choice. The strategic costs of a second Trump administration are immense, but those of a second Biden administration deserve an equally careful assessment.
Seth Cropsey is founder and president of the Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness. Harry Halem is a senior fellow at the Yorktown Institute.
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This story originally Appeared on The Hill