The #NeverTrump ties of one leading candidate to succeed John Bolton are coming under increasing scrutiny as President Donald Trump considers whom to tap as his fourth national security adviser.
Before joining the Trump administration, senior State Department official Brian Hook co-founded a network of veteran Republican foreign policy hands known as the John Hay Initiative, which sought to counter, in their telling, “the neo-isolationist strains of thought in both of our major political parties” and to defend “conservative internationalism.”
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The group’s members provided advice and guidance to all of the Republican presidential candidates who sought it. There were just two who didn’t: Rand Paul and Donald Trump.
That Hook, who is currently the U.S. special envoy for Iran, has climbed the ranks of the Trump administration and is now under consideration to be the national security adviser, is a reminder of the difficulties Trump has faced not just finding foreign policy advisers who agree on the issues — but who didn’t openly denounce him during the presidential campaign.
“You get beyond Carter Page and George Papadopoulos and it’s pretty thin pickings,” said Randy Scheunemann, who served as foreign policy adviser on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Scheunemann, along with the vast majority of veteran Republican foreign policy hands, signed two anti-Trump letters during the 2016 campaign that served as a self-generated blacklist for transition officials.
Even those who didn’t sign the letters, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, as well as two of the president’s former national security advisers, John Bolton and H.R. McMaster, have often vehemently disagreed with Trump on the issues.
While the anti-Trump utterings of would-be administration officials were once disqualifying — an aide to Housing and Urban Development Secreatry Ben Carson, for example, was fired after his criticisms of the president surfaced in the vetting process — the administration has relaxed its standards with time, allowing onetime Trump critics to serve in posts outside the White House that don’t require Senate confirmation. A top aide to Pompeo, for example, joined the administration in November 2018 after vocally criticizing Trump during the campaign.
Nowadays, such criticisms will likely come into play only if all else is relatively equal, Trump insiders say.
“That could tip the balance if other candidates are on similar footing and POTUS questions compatibility,” a senior administration official said.
Trump allies are already using their influence to warn him against tapping Hook, who is now serving as the U.S. special envoy for Iran under Pompeo. The day of Bolton’s dismissal, Tucker Carlson singled out Hook on his Fox News program, deriding him as an “unapologetic neocon” who has “undisguised contempt for Donald Trump.”
Carlson, who had for months pushed the president, in private phone conversations, to get rid of Bolton, said of Hook, “A choice like that … is really no choice at all, it’s more John Bolton with the same predictable, disastrous results.”
Hook declined to comment for this article. The president has said he intends to announce a new national security adviser this week after telling reporters Friday that Pompeo would not serve both as secretary of State and national security adviser even temporarily.
While Carlson and his allies paint Hook, who served as a State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, as a warmongering “neocon,” Bolton’s allies see things differently. In fact, Hook has been in a state of semiopen warfare with several Bolton aides on the National Security Council who view the Iran envoy as insufficiently hard-headed, mostly through leaks to the news media, since Bolton took the reins in April 2018.
Since firing Lt. Gen. Michel Flynn, his first national security adviser, just weeks into the administration, the president has struggled to find foreign policy advisers who share his views. Flynn’s successor, McMaster, was a career military man who largely kept his political views under wraps, but clashed with the president in both substance and style. And if Bolton’s combative defenses of Trump had appealed to the president in appearances on Fox News, it was the same stubbornness and belligerence that cost him his job.
Hook has been better than any of the three at working Trump circles. He joined the administration as the State Department’s director of policy planning under Tillerson and used the position to ally himself closely with Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. After Tillerson’s unceremonious dismissal, Hook was the only one of his inner circle to survive. Kushner has since drawn him into his work on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and defended him against charges of disloyalty to the president, according to two sources familiar with the deliberations.
As special envoy for Iran, Hook has been the face of the administration’s Iran policy. Working for Tillerson, he pressed the president not to scrap the Obama era nuclear deal, and as Iran envoy, he has been caught between its European signatories, on the one hand, who are trying to salvage the deal, and Trump, who has been trying to hobble the regime through economic sanctions.
Hook entered the Trump administration after working in traditional Republican circles — first, on former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s 2008 presidential bid and then on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.
The John Hay Initiative was founded out of the ashes of the Romney campaign, when Hook and his colleagues decided to continue working together, churning out policy papers and briefing candidates and lawmakers.
Hook’s co-founders, Eliot Cohen and Eric Edelman, became vocal anti-Trumpers, signing both of the letters circulated among the GOP foreign policy community before the 2016 election. Cohen in particular has continued to inveigh against the president, warning friends from working in the administration and declaring Trump’s foreign policy a disaster.
Hook never signed the anti-Trump letters, though the reason why has become a matter of dispute. Some members of the group, including Cohen, say Hook cited contractual obligations to consulting clients that prevented him from signing. Another member said Hook told him at the time he believed the letters were a bad idea.
“If he thought that, he never mentioned it at the time,” Edelman said.
In a book of essays published by the John Hay Initiative in 2015, Hook, Cohen and Edelman argued for continued American engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, two places Trump has insisted on withdrawing U.S. troops. “Indeed, after a decade and a half of conflict in the Middle East and South Asia, some Americans have concluded that the best thing to do is to pull back from the world and its troubles. … We disagree,” they wrote.
Similar ideological sins have gotten would-be administration officials bounced from White House jobs. First there was Elliott Abrams, who, like Hook, hadn’t signed either anti-Trump letter but whose bid for the No. 2 State Department job was spiked by the president after Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky brought his belief in a muscular American foreign policy to the president’s attention.
A year later, Secretary of State Pompeo tapped Abrams as U.S. envoy to Venezuela, and administration officials say the outright ban on anti-Trumpers has evolved into an unofficial administration policy that allows for their hiring so long as they don’t work in the White House or require Senate confirmation.
Case in point: Jon Lerner, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s deputy, was set to join the White House as Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser but was yanked at the last minute after the president learned he had worked during the campaign for the Club for Growth, which had opposed Trump’s candidacy during the primaries.
That position was no different than the one many other White House officials had taken, but Lerner hadn’t campaigned on Trump’s behalf, either.