Donald Trump's fanatical braintrust: Why his foreign policy advisors are even worse than you think

After the events in Brussels yesterday, the prospect of these guys running national security becomes even scarier

Published March 23, 2016 4:15PM (EDT)


What could be more terrifying than the collection of lunatics providing foreign policy advice to Ted Cruz? How about the collection of lunatics providing foreign policy advice to Donald Trump. It's as if there is a competition between the GOP candidates to see which campaign can amass a group of advisors with the highest collective body count attached to their names.

(Yes, I know Hillary Clinton has spoken well of Henry Kissinger, whose body count tops all of them all by himself. She’s still less frightening than the goons running for the GOP nomination. Admittedly, it’s a low bar.)

In a moment of bitter irony, Trump unveiled the names of five members of his foreign policy team barely 24 hours before bombs exploded across Brussels. The terrorist attack gave the walking sweet potato who currently leads the GOP field a chance to look presidential for the voting public. If you’re a Trump supporter, you were probably cheering when he showed up on TV to give his diagnosis and propose solutions to the problem of terrorism. If, on the other hand, you are a person of sound mind, you were likely either terrified or furious that this man is anywhere near a major party’s nomination for the presidency.

Theoretically, Trump’s foreign policy would be a non-interventionist one. In practice, his recent interview with the WaPo’s editors reveals a foreign policy that sounds as if the candidate pieced it together from conversations he heard in a Queens barbershop: The United States is heavily involved with NATO? Eh, why are we doing all the heavy lifting? Let those lazy Germans handle something for once. Asia? What do we get from continuing to protect South Korea? Trump will just push the Chinese to “disappear” Kim Jong Un, and all will be well on the Korean peninsula, presumably. Why he imagines that China would undertake such an effort at the same time that President Trump is insulting the country and telling its leaders he’s essentially going to wage economic war on them by toughening its trade policies is beyond me.

What Trump might actually want to use troops for is to grab the Iraqi oil he thinks the United States is entitled to. He has said this before, and he essentially repeated the call in his interview with the Post’s editors:

TRUMP: We then got out badly, then after we got out, I said, “Keep the oil. If we don’t keep it Iran’s going to get it.” And it turns out Iran and ISIS basically—

HIATT: How do you keep it without troops, how do you defend the oil?

TRUMP: You would… You would, well for that– for that, I would circle it. I would defend those areas.

HIATT: With U.S. troops?

TRUMP: Yeah, I would defend the areas with the oil.

Essentially, his foreign policy can be summed up as “Whatever makes us not look like politically correct nancy boys.” So on terrorism, it means waterboarding every terrorist we don’t blow up first. But on the foreign alliances we have led or supported for the past seven decades, it means, “Eh, let someone else handle it.” That this is a simplistic worldview which fails to recognize global interconnectedness is probably lost on Trump. Maybe it wouldn’t be lost on his advisors, but he promised to not listen to them if he disagreed with their positions anyway.

About those advisers: Trump’s foreign-policy braintrust is chaired by Jeff Sessions, Alabama senator and member in good standing of the Lollipop Guild. Sessions is bad enough on his own – in his Senate career, he has taken a hardline anti-immigration stance and was one of only nine senators in 2005 to vote against a legislative amendment that would have essentially banned torture.

As for the other five, they may not be household names outside of Washington policy circles, but they do seem to fit Trump’s “non-interventionist on everything except killing terrorists and stealing Iraqi oil” stance:

Keith Kellogg is a retired Army Lieutenant General who has worked for a variety of defense industry contractors and consulting firms. The most infamous was probably CACI International, which was implicated in the abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison a decade ago. Kellogg briefly served as the chief operating officer for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. That was the organization charged with managing and rebuilding the country in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003. We all remember how smoothly that process ran.

Then there is Carter Page, whose official bio on his company’s website says that he is a graduate of the Naval Academy who later earned an MBA and worked as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch. He founded Global Energy Capital, “an investment management and advisory firm focused on the energy sector primarily in emerging markets.” Hm, an energy-industry lobbyist working as a foreign policy advisor to a candidate who in the past has stated that the U.S. should seize Iraq’s oil fields as compensation for all the resources we invested in rebuilding that country, after our military had destroyed it in the first place. Neat.

Then there is George Papadopoulos, who spent the first part of the campaign working as an advisor to Ben Carson -- which, right off the bat, should be enough to disqualify his judgement on anything, let alone advising the leader of the free world. Like Page, his area of expertise is the oil and energy industries. He also worked for the Hudson Institute, a right-wing think tank whose past and present trustees and fellows reads like a litany of advocacy for failed and discredited policies.

So that’s a military contractor and two oil-and-gas lobbyists so far. I’d feel better if Trump had just pulled random names out of a phonebook.

The final two names on Trump’s team are Joseph Schmitz and Walid Phares. Schmitz was infamous working as the Defense Department Inspector General during the George W. Bush administration. He resigned over allegations he had tried to obstruct an FBI investigation into a fellow Bush appointee at the Defense Department. He landed on his feet though, going to work for Blackwater and contributing to reports like this one, positing that sharia law is the greatest threat facing America in the Obama presidency. The report was written for the Center for Security Policy, founded by Frank Gaffney, the infamous islamophobe currently advising Ted Cruz. (Gaffney also contributed to the report.)

Basically, Schmitz is Milo Minderbinder if Milo had a fear of Muslims and a lifetime of access to the wingnut welfare circuit.

Walid Phares, meanwhile, is an academic who specializes in Islamic terrorism and the Middle East. Sounds pretty anodyne, until you find out that in the 1980s, Phares was a high-ranking official in a Lebanese Christian militia that carried out massacres not only of Muslims, but also of rival militia leaders. A guy who once ran right-wing death squads in a Third World country? Sounds like the perfect Republican! Hard to believe Ted Cruz didn’t recruit him first.

This is, as you can see, quite the collection of miscreants. But then, what has always been scary about Trump is that he doesn’t understand, or at least care, about diplomatic norms any more than he understands political ones. Which might be attractive to his supporters, but will piss off every foreign friend and foe of the United States. Combined with a team of foreign policy advisors culled straight from lobbyists for the most destructive industries, and academics from the nuttiest conservative intellectual chop shops, this is a recipe for disaster.

Of course this probably means his poll numbers will see an enormous bump in the next few days. Because to his true believers, nothing matters so long as we don’t turn into the “horrible” cities that Paris and Brussels, according to Trump, have become.

By Gary Legum

MORE FROM Gary Legum

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