GOP Factions Battle Over Control of Trump’s Foreign Policy

Establishment Candidates, Outsiders Scramble for Positions of Influence

In recent history, a presidential election which puts the other major party in power has led to a pretty orderly transfer of power, with each party having its own collection of usual suspects that quickly and predictably fill in all the top spots. President-elect Donald Trump’s outsider status, and the number of Republican leadership figures openly opposed to his campaign, means he doesn’t have such a ready-made cabinet, nor likely the inclination to install one.

Instead, Trump’s cabinet is being assembled very publicly, amid a battle that includes neo-conservatives and establishment hawks arrayed against a group of outsiders including the libertarian right, Tea Party Republicans, and a bloc of realists who would normally not be in line for top positions.

Many of the neo-cons and the rest of the establishment had a substantial “Never Trump” bloc that opposed his election  appear to feel entitled to the top positions in the cabinet, and indeed, Trump seems to be entertaining candidate like ultrahawk John Bolton for some of his biggest positions.

These establishment candidates are pushing a predictable line of more and bigger wars and an ever-increasing US military role abroad, in particular playing up the idea that this would “reassure” US allies abroad amid very public concern from many NATO members about Trump’s victory.

The other camp seems more in line with Trump’s own campaign statements, expressing doubts about the relevance of NATO and that this interventionist fervor isn’t in America’s best interest. At the same time, the “outsider” nature of these candidates has many facing an uphill battle to try to be considered serious candidates.

Early foreign policy appointees have fallen outside of the establishment, but also not exactly encouraging from an anti-interventionist perspective, with CIA appointee Rep. Mike Pompeo (R – KS) coming into the House as part of the Tea Party vote, but since then has established himself as a hawk on Syria, an outspoken advocate of government surveillance, and a supporter of torture, placing him far outside of the individualist leanings of much of the Tea Party.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former head of the DIA, was a more predictable candidate when Trump picked him for National Security Adviser. He was a major supporter of Trump’s throughout the campaign, and Trump had made much of his interest in putting former military brass into key positions.

Yet Flynn too defies easy categorization within the context of the battle for cabinet posts. His time in Afghanistan with Gen. Stanley McChrystal has seemingly familiarized him with the concept of blowback a lot more than traditional cabinet choices, and he has been unusually candid since his retirement about policy blunders in the global war on terror.

At the same time, Flynn has not advocated the wholesale changes that his underlying premises would seem to support, recognizing that the drone strikes are doing more harm than good but stopping well short of calling for an end to the strikes. While he can presumably be expected to provide Trump with relatively sound advice on what not to do, it isn’t wholly clear he will advocate heavily against such blunders, or offer real alternatives.

Candidates beyond that are still tentative, but include Gen. James Mattis, another military figure who has been willing to criticize the Obama Administration’s “strategy free” wars, but whose actual positions aren’t particularly well established. Mattis’ comments during his time as head of Centcom certainly position him as extremely hostile to Iran. But, he was extremely skeptical of Obama’s planned war in Syria, which played a role in Obama’s decision to fire him.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.