President Donald Trump’s recent choice of the relatively unknown Congressman John Ratcliffe for Director of National Intelligence and his elevation of Kelly Craft as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—despite concerns about her inexperience—illustrates the power vacuum within Trump’s cabinet, and the opportunities this opens up for interventionists like National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The rash of remarkably unqualified and inexperienced candidates for top slots points to a presidency that values personal loyalty to Donald Trump above the ability to govern effectively. This atmosphere favors those with Washington insider status and the policy goals to bring it to fruition, say defense analysts who spoke to TAC.
Trump’s recent picks “fit the pattern of the eroding of competence which is particularly happening in the national security apparatus,” said Trita Parsi, associate professor at Georgetown University, in an interview with TAC. These are “clearly people that are just willing to go along with whatever the political agenda is.”
Unfortunately, that agenda may be wielded now by the most experienced, and powerful senior officials left standing—Bolton and Pompeo—whose aggressive foreign policies sometimes clash with their president’s.
“My view on this is that any appointment on Trump’s foreign policy staff after the ascent of Bolton will reflect Bolton’s will,” said Mark Perry, TAC senior writer and author of The Pentagon’s Wars. “Which is to say: if Kelly Craft meets with Bolton’s approval, it’s because he views her as weak.”
Almost everyone else who originally held a senior national security job has now left the Trump administration, including the defense secretary, national security adviser, attorney general, FBI director, secretary of state, White House chief of staff, secretary of Homeland Security, and director of the Secret Service.
This week, the Senate confirmed multi-million dollar Republican donor Kelly Craft to replace Nikki Halley, who left her post as ambassador to the United Nations at the end of 2018. Craft was mostly absent from her previous position as Trump-appointed ambassador to Canada. Before that she was appointed delegate to the UN by President George W. Bush, and headed her own business advisory firm in Kentucky. That is where her resume seems to end. She has no other government or foreign policy background, academic or professional, to speak of. This makes her one of the least experienced people to ever hold the post.
“Craft’s appointment as UN ambassador is just one more step towards the ‘Trumpification’ of government functions, whether it’s putting his unqualified family members in key White House roles or rewarding countries that patronize his businesses with sweetheart deals,” Emma Ashford, a research fellow in defense and foreign policy for the Cato Institute, told TAC.
“Rather than simply pointing out how unqualified Kelly Craft is for the United Nations job, I think it would be wise for us to reconsider the idea of politically appointed ambassadors entirely,” Ashford said. “Is there really any ambassadorial appointment so unimportant that it should be handled by a donor, rather than by experienced diplomats? The whole donations-for-ambassadorships system is bad for U.S. diplomacy and national security.”
Given that John Bolton once suggested that if the United Nations building “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference,” it is possible that the choice of Craft reflects the Trump administration’s disregard of the institution. Nothing says that better than putting an entirely unqualified person in the job.
And it would also play into the hands of Pompeo and Bolton, who have already ensured that Craft’s position will be demoted from the president’s cabinet and placed back under the Secretary of State’s purview, the way it was under President George W. Bush.
“Certainly, having an entirely inexperienced diplomat in the United Nations role will probably empower Pompeo, and is reflective of Bolton’s own antipathy towards international organizations,” said Ashford.
Inexperience in so many top national security slots is “going to make it easier to have a non-fact based foreign policy, a profoundly confrontational foreign policy, that will please John Bolton but that will not in any shape or form serve U.S. national interest,” said Parsi, who added that Bolton seems to be determined to “neutralize these positions.”
Since Bolton joined Trump’s cabinet, the Pentagon has begun referring questions about troop deployments to the National Security Council, which is in his purview. As TAC reported previously, Bolton appeared to take a page from former vice president Dick Cheney’s playbook when he took the highly unusual step of convening a meeting about a possible confrontation with Iran not at the White House but at CIA headquarters. Bolton is an unapologetic Bush-era war hawk with four decades of experience inside the Beltway, who has used his long career to advocate for regime change in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran.
Like Craft, the new Pentagon chief and former Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper is unlikely to serve as a backstop to empty or wrongheaded proposals, particularly when there’s so little longevity within Trump’s cabinet.
“We’ve seen people that push back being replaced with people without any capacity to push back,” said Parsi.
Trump’s choice of Ratcliffe to replace Dan Coats as Director of National Intelligence was so weak that the president ultimately withdrew his name from consideration on Friday. While the man he would have replaced was a former Indiana senator, U.S. ambassador to Germany, and one of Trump’s least difficult Cabinet confirmations, Ratcliffe is a former U.S. attorney who has engaged in some serious résumé inflation, and was only recently elevated to a seat on the House Homeland Security and Judiciary committees.
Coats famously contradicted Trump on the threat posed by Russia and North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear arsenal, whereas Ratcliffe appears to have been chosen for his Trump boosting questions at the Mueller hearing, a performance that thrilled the president.
Ratcliffe apparently was surprised by the intensity of the reaction after his name was floated. His credentials were so thin that it led some to question whether Trump can field a bench and if anyone vets his picks before he announces them.
But an inexperienced DNI would allow Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to continue heavily influencing the U.S. intelligence community, as he has done for over a year since leaving the CIA, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials.
“Pompeo, who was Donald Trump’s first CIA director, is now serving as a key intermediary between Trump and the U.S. intelligence community, the officials say, a very unusual role for the secretary of state, who is supposed to be a customer of the intelligence community, not its master,” The Intercept reported. “Pompeo has emerged as the administration’s de facto intelligence czar.”
Not everyone shares the concern that a relative lack of experience means that a candidate will be ineffective. Maryscott Greenwood, former chief of staff to the U.S. ambassador to Canada during the Clinton administration, told TAC that applying that criticism to Craft is “a reach.”
“I think a better way to judge someone is by the work they do, so whether you’re physically sitting in the embassy in Ottawa or somewhere else, the better question is: are you doing the job, are you advancing the goals of the country?” said Greenwood. “The narrative that she was absent or didn’t uphold her duties [as ambassador to Canada], that’s not what I observed. I saw her as a workaholic.”
“It’s not easy to be a Trump ambassador,” she added. Due to Trump’s “particularly confrontational style,” which “makes the job of diplomacy more challenging,” it’s particularly impressive that Craft was able to “keep the relationship going extraordinarily well on behalf of the U.S. and Canada” throughout the renegotiation of the trade deal and the “daily work of solving border issues.”
“Craft played a key role at a time when” the role of ambassador to Canada was particularly difficult, said Greenwood.
It is also worth noting that Trump doesn’t have much experience. And no matter how aggressive the positions of his advisors, in the final analysis, as Trump frequently likes to remind us, the commander in chief is his own man.
“I have John Bolton who I would definitely say is a hawk. And I have other people that are on the other side of the equation,” Trump has said. “Ultimately I make the decisions so it doesn’t matter.”
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.