There is an old joke about lawyers, well, okay, there are always bitter jokes about lawyers; but this one has a special resonance with this week’s news. This story goes: What are a dozen lawyers, all chained together, right at the bottom of the ocean? The answer: A most excellent beginning.
This answer leaps to mind with the news that 50 international national security professionals – some senior folks, including a former CIA director and several sub-cabinet level appointees, who had all served in Republican administrations as far back as Richard Nixon’s presidency in the late 1960s and early 1970s – had signed a public letter stating that Donald J. Trump was temperamentally, emotionally, and intellectually totally unsuited to become president.
The 50 called Donald Trump unqualified to be president and warned that if he actually were elected, “he would be the most reckless President in American history”. This stark critique of the Republicans’ candidate said that he “lacks the character, values and experience” to be president and the signatories nailed their conviction to the mast rather brutally, saying he would be a dangerous president “and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being”.
They went on to say none of them intended to vote for Trump in November and while some of them have decided to vote for Clinton, others will be sitting out this November choice – or perhaps write in the name of another individual. The letter went on to explain, “We also know that many have doubts about Hillary Clinton, as do many of us. But Donald Trump is not the answer to America’s daunting challenges and to this crucial election. We are convinced that in the Oval Office, he would be the most reckless President in American history.”
Reporting on this development, the New York Times noted that while “no former secretaries of state signed the letter, it carries the signatures of Michael Chertoff and Tom Ridge, former secretaries of homeland security; Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency; John Negroponte, a former director of national intelligence and deputy secretary of state; Robert Zoellick, who also was a deputy secretary of state and president of the World Bank and the US trade representative under George W. Bush; Carla Hills, the US trade representative under George H.W. Bush; and William H. Taft IV, a former deputy secretary of defence and ambassador to Nato under the elder Bush.”
In addition, there were a variety of others who had been senior aides and advisers in the White House, State Department and Pentagon. John Bellinger III (former legal adviser to Condoleezza Rice when she was secretary of state and the drafter of the initial version of this letter) explained to the media that some of those involved with the letter had initially wanted to wait until next month to air their views publicly but that Trump’s behaviour and statements over the past several weeks on foreign policy — from his comments on Nato to inviting Russian intelligence to hack Clinton’s e-mails — had propelled them to move now.
In setting out the bill of particulars, their letter said of Trump – in language that may be rather familiar to those who watched and listened to the Democratic nominating convention – that,
“He appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the US Constitution, US laws and US institutions, including religious tolerance, freedom of the press and an independent judiciary”.
It went on to note,
“At the same time, he persistently compliments our adversaries and threatens our allies and friends. Unlike previous Presidents who had limited experience in foreign affairs, Mr Trump has shown no interest in educating himself. He continues to display an alarming ignorance of basic facts of contemporary international politics.”
In summing up the candidate’s irrevocable flaws, the letter noted that Trump “lacks the temperament to be President” and then offered a scathing assessment of his ability to take advice, discipline himself, control his emotions and reflect before acting.
“He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behaviour. All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the US nuclear arsenal.”
Other than that, a fine guy and someone to give unfettered control over a zillion megatons of nuclear weapons, a dozen or so aircraft carriers and various other weapons of real mass destruction.
Never one to wait until the dust settles before striking back, the candidate issued a statement that said the 50 signatories (remember, they come from the same party) were “the ones the American people should look to for answers on why the world is a mess. We thank them for coming forward so everyone in the country knows who deserves the blame for making the world such a dangerous place. They are nothing more than the failed Washington elite looking to hold on to their power and it’s time they are held accountable for their actions.”
Regardless of the Trumpian riposte this indictment of one’s own party’s nominee basically sets out the case that a Trump presidency would be a disaster for Republicans, the nation, and the world, especially given the Trumpian dialectic about strategic ambiguities in using or threatening the use of nuclear weapons in Europe and against ISIS. (Now, admittedly, the thought does occur that some of these same letter signatories were also in some rather important, powerful positions as advisers and officials when George W. Bush launched his two wars-without-end in Iraq and Afghanistan gambit, so just perhaps there may possibly be a bit of making up for their own previous errors in judgment via this letter, aimed at stopping yet another mistake.) None of these signatories should even think of sending in a resume, should the unthinkable occur and Donald Trump becomes the next president.
A letter like this is very highly unusual behaviour, to say the least. Over the years, there have always been some from within their respective parties who have decided they simply can’t support their party’s nominee, as with the formation of groups like Democrats for Nixon or Republicans for Kennedy back in 1960. But usually, back in that more innocent time, this was usually about specific policies – or being concerned that there was insufficient backbone on the part of the candidate during the dangerous times during the Cold War.
Back during the election of 1960, to counter a whispering campaign that Kennedy was simply too young, too jejune, or just too much of a person whose born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-his-mouth upbringing had not prepared him for the rigours and stresses of high office, special efforts were launched by Democrats. The idea was to compare Kennedy, the rather newish kid on the block, to the ostensibly seasoned, well-tempered Vice President Richard Nixon, victor of that so-called 1959 “kitchen debate” with Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow amid the appliances in a model kitchen on display at an expo on American life.
In that ad hoc moment, Nixon had sharply contested the natural superiority of Soviet communism over American-style consumer materialist capitalism and gained a reputation as a man who could go toe to toe with those pesky, dangerous Russians. (And, who knows, maybe he was right in a strange kind of way, ultimately. A quarter century later, Ronald Reagan had, after all, finally bested the “Evil Empire”, forcing them to spend themselves into oblivion in a futile effort to keep up with the US in increases in military spending.)
Still, to combat that knock on Kennedy, Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger Jr had been called in to write a smart little campaign volume, styled as a high-brow political science/history study, entitled, Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? Kennedy won the 1960 election in a real squeaker and when Nixon finally became president in 1968, perhaps Schlesinger had unknowingly found a flaw in the man. By the time the Nixon administration had collapsed from the lies and deceits evolving out of the Watergate burglary, it had become increasingly clear that the right sort of temperament really does matter with a president.
Clearly, this time around, this informal group of no-to-Trump former senior advisers has put any possible service in a Trump administration in the deep freeze for themselves – something exceptionally rare in and among the Washington power brokers, think tankers and public policy kibitzers. New presidents really dislike appointing incoming senior officials from among people who have issued a public rejoinder about a candidate’s mental instability.
Given that the Trump camp has, so far, managed to sign on very few recognisable figures with serious reputations to help him create the defined, detailed position papers that candidates like to issue and that help define the tenor of an incoming administration, this could be seen as a kind of professional suicide. (More cynical observers might also say that many of these same individuals – or at least the younger ones – were also positioning themselves for possible service in a Clinton administration despite the party differences, something that does actually happen in Washington, or at least aiming for a more visible role in the think tank world, by virtue of their probity in publicly opposing The Donald before he could do any real harm.) Or, maybe they have just found the inner strength to demonstrate public duty for the greater good.
It remains a question, of course, of just how much impact this letter will have on dyed-in-the-wool, die-hard Trump supporters. Many of these have largely signed on to support Trump with little or no regard over his lack of any understanding of the nuclear triad or the real details of mutual defence responsibilities under Nato, or even the actual circumstances of international trade agreements and government policy-making. The Trump universe seems to be a largely post-factual place – or perhaps one where the facts can be made up on a whim, to be whatever you want them to be – rather resembling the playing card queen encountered by Alice in Wonderland. However, independent, still undecided voters, or simply deeply uneasy regular Republican voters, may be rather more unnerved by this letter and may be nudged away from him as their candidate.
The second blow, and maybe an even more important one, has been the statement by Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins. Collins is one of the last remaining moderates in the Republican caucus and she has even occasionally crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats. Such measures have enraged hardcore conservatives, but those actions have endeared her to her constituents as they see her as a kind of Burkean representative concerned for her constituents but mindful of her own conscience. A public rebuke to her party’s nominee by someone of Collins’ stature may just possibly give protective cover to other Republicans unnerved by the rampages of their candidate.
In her letter on her decision, Senator Collins wrote (and it is worth quoting virtually in full):
“I will not be voting for Donald Trump for president. This is not a decision I make lightly, for I am a lifelong Republican. But Donald Trump does not reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country.
“When the primary season started, it soon became apparent that, much like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mr Trump was connecting with many Americans who felt that their voices were not being heard in Washington and who were tired of political correctness. But rejecting the conventions of political correctness is different from showing complete disregard for common decency. Mr Trump did not stop with shedding the stilted campaign dialogue that often frustrates voters. Instead, he opted for a constant stream of denigrating comments, including demeaning Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) heroic military service and repeatedly insulting Fox News host Megyn Kelly.
“With the passage of time, I have become increasingly dismayed by his constant stream of cruel comments and his inability to admit error or apologise. But it was his attacks directed at people who could not respond on an equal footing — either because they do not share his power or stature or because professional responsibility precluded them from engaging at such a level — that revealed Mr Trump as unworthy of being our president.
“My conclusion about Mr Trump’s unsuitability for office is based on his disregard for the precept of treating others with respect, an idea that should transcend politics. Instead, he opts to mock the vulnerable and inflame prejudices by attacking ethnic and religious minorities. Three incidents in particular have led me to the inescapable conclusion that Mr Trump lacks the temperament, self-discipline and judgement required to be president.
“The first was his mocking of a reporter with disabilities, a shocking display that did not receive the scrutiny it deserved. I kept expecting Mr Trump to apologise, at least privately, but he did not, instead denying that he had done what seemed undeniable to anyone who watched the video. At the time, I hoped that this was a terrible lapse, not a pattern of abuse.
“The second was Mr Trump’s repeated insistence that Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge born and raised in Indiana, could not rule fairly in a case involving Trump University because of his Mexican heritage. For Mr Trump to insist that Judge Curiel would be biased because of his ethnicity demonstrated a profound lack of respect not only for the judge but also for our constitutional separation of powers, the very foundation of our form of government. Again, I waited in vain for Mr Trump to retract his words.
“Third was Donald Trump’s criticism of the grieving parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq. It is inconceivable that anyone, much less a presidential candidate, would attack two Gold Star parents. Rather than honouring their sacrifice and recognising their pain, Mr Trump disparaged the religion of the family of an American hero. And once again, he proved incapable of apologising, of saying he was wrong.
“I am also deeply concerned that Mr Trump’s lack of self-restraint and his barrage of ill-informed comments would make an already perilous world even more so. It is reckless for a presidential candidate to publicly raise doubts about honouring treaty commitments with our allies. Mr Trump’s tendency to lash out when challenged further escalates the possibility of disputes spinning dangerously out of control.
“I had hoped that we would see a ‘new’ Donald Trump as a general-election candidate — one who would focus on jobs and the economy, tone down his rhetoric, develop more thoughtful policies and, yes, apologise for ill-tempered rants. But the unpleasant reality that I have had to accept is that there will be no ‘new’ Donald Trump, just the same candidate who will slash and burn and trample anything and anyone he perceives as being in his way or an easy scapegoat. Regrettably, his essential character appears to be fixed, and he seems incapable of change or growth.
“At the same time, I realise that Mr Trump’s success reflects profound discontent in this country, particularly among those who feel left behind by an unbalanced economy and who wonder whether their children will have a better life than their parents. As we have seen with the dissatisfaction with both major party nominees – neither of whom I support – these passions are real and the public will demand action.
“Some will say that as a Republican I have an obligation to support my party’s nominee. I have thought long and hard about that, for being a Republican is part of what defines me as a person. I revere the history of my party, most particularly the value it has always placed on the worth and dignity of the individual, and I will continue to work across the country for Republican candidates. It is because of Mr Trump’s inability and unwillingness to honour that legacy that I am unable to support his candidacy.”
Going forward, it is going to be extremely important to watch as other Republicans, increasingly emboldened by the statements of the national security “Gang of 50” and Senator Collins, come out into the sunlight. Will former Republican secretaries of state and even former presidents (a.k.a. father and son Bush) also add their voices to this chorus? And what of the various Republican governors, mayors, and state legislators? As the polls continue their demonstration of his slide in voter support, will Republican candidates down ballot figure out ways to identify with Republican virtues and values and distance themselves from Trump? There are lots of things to watch in the final now-less-than-100 days of this race. DM
Other Republicans now already on record as not willing to vote for Trump
Photo: Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump delivers his address during the final day of the 2016 Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, 21 July 2016. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
"Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone" ~ Mark Twain on Jane Austen