Morning Glory: If Trump outlines his national security team now, he will lock in millions of votes in the Fall

In Tuesday’s column, the question was whether former President Trump, if returned to office, can bring deterrence of our enemies back with him? 

The sub-headline on that column told the story and posed the question: “Since President Biden took office the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Putin invaded Ukraine, Hamas invaded Israel, Iran’s proxies have attacked Americans, and Iran attacked Israel. Would Trump have deterred any or all of that?” 

The answer is that Trump has a much better record of deterring America’s enemies from attacks on us or our allies than President Biden does, but Trump supporters can’t rest our arguments on counter-factual assertions that Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine a second time or Hamas crossed the Gaza border on October 7 if Trump had been president. I believe those assertions to be true, but some voters will not be persuaded. 

There are, however, concrete ways the former president can demonstrate that deterrence will return to the White House with him. Trump will need to be surrounded by serious people in the crucial national security jobs who share his “peace through strength” philosophy to succeed in repairing and restoring American deterrence of the world’s rogue regimes in rapid fashion. He can take steps now to persuade the electorate that it can trust him to bring the best appointees in the most important jobs along with him. 

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Eight days ago I asked the former president: “Would you consider putting out a list of your national security team possibles – I mean, people like Ric Grenell and Robert O’Brien and Mike Pompeo and John Ratcliffe? I mean, they’re all going to be there somewhere. You don’t have to name where they’re going – Tom Cotton, Michael Waltz…”

“Yeah, that’s an interesting, that’s an interesting question,” former President Trump interjected. “And the answer is yes, I think it’s a great idea….It’s a very good idea.”

“I will be putting out a Supreme Court list,” he added, making a bit of news as that issue of appointments to the Supreme Court, unlike as in 2016, is not a top five issue in 2024 though of course it is of huge consequence if Trump gets to make another or even two more SCOTUS nominations. But unlike 2016 where a critical slice of the electorate focused on the vacancy on the Court created by the untimely death of Justice Scalia and the courageous decision of then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to refuse all hearings and votes on any rushed nominee from President Obama, the Court is not a majority-maker issue this cycle. (Inflation, the border, the defense rebuild, support for Israel and President Biden’s infirmity are the crucial issues this year in my view but there are a score of topics that push voters’ buttons on the left and right.)

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Rebuilding our withering defenses is a complicated, multi-year effort and it will require a five star team of professionals across all of the key national security posts and may well require a shake-up of some of the Joint Chiefs and of some of the heads of the combatant commands. 

Whomever Trump taps for the Department of Defense —probably the single most important appointment he will make given the perilous situations across the globe— should commit to Trump to stay for the entire term, as should the nominees for Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Director of the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence and Director of the FBI jobs and of course as White House Chief of Staff and the president’s National Security Advisor. 

The Secretary of the Navy will also be a high profile appointee if the former (and future) president carries through on his commitment to a rapidly expanding fleet. The country needs another John Lehman, Ronald Reagan’s legendary SecNav. The Secretary of Homeland Security is another of the offices that Trump must prioritize for early confirmation as to that individual will fall the nuts and bolts of finishing The Wall and restoring the Remain in Mexico policy.

A Trump-approved list of possible appointees for all of these jobs is the most succinct way of telegraphing seriousness of purpose for the former president. Trump could be as specific as, say, “Cotton, Pompeo or Waltz for SecDef, Grenell or O’Brien for State, Cotton or Ratcliffe for AG” etc, or just publish a list of a dozen names like former Senator Jim Talent —who could do any of the serious jobs and do it well. Accompanied by Trump’s declaration that his national security team will be drawn from among those names, a list of national security heavy-weights will put many fears to rest and get many undecided voters off the fence and committed to the Trump re-election campaign. 

Specificity would be great for the key jobs, but even a short list of men and women certain to be asked by him to fill out his team will contrast quickly and thoroughly with Team Biden, whose many failures from Afghanistan to imposing an arms embargo on Israel. 

Full disclosure: Almost all of the people named are friends. I recruited former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and former National Security Advisor Ambassador Robert O’Brien to chair “The Nixon Seminar” which met nine times a year for three years to address the critical issues of national security facing the country.  My son worked for Pompeo at State and currently works for Congressman Mike Waltz. Ambassador O’Brien was my law partner for the last decade I practiced law before retiring to full time law teaching and broadcast. Ambassador Grenell has been my guest at the Nixon Library and is a longtime friend in the lists of GOP partisans in the Golden State. Senator Talent has been a weekly guest on the radio program for more than a decade. 

To this list I would add recently retired Congressman Mike Gallagher who chaired the House Select Committee on Engagement with the Chinese Communist Party and who would make a terrific Secretary of Homeland Security or a visionary Secretary of the Navy.  Mary Kissel, who moderated the gatherings of Nixon Seminar for the past two years and was among Pompeo’s closest aides at State and would shine as our Ambassador to the U.N.   Nixon Seminar members Lanhee Chen, Elbridge Colby, Christopher Cox, Monica Crowley, Alex Gray, Morgan Ortagus, John Noonan, Matt Pottinger, Kimberly Reed, Nadia Shadlow and Alex Wong are all the sort of people who could get confirmed quickly to senior positions. Any or all of them could serve as Cabinet or agency heads, Deputy Secretaries, on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board or in various White House offices. Finding an experienced hand who doesn’t want to return to government on a full time basis to serve as the chair of this vital Board is a key priority and it ought to be someone Trump feels very comfortable with in wide-ranging discussions. Other advisory boards, especially those concerned with procurement at the Pentagon, also need appointees who arrive with the respect of the defense industry. 

The Nixon Seminar was intended to “keep the band together” on a regular basis after President Biden won in 2020 and was sworn in. Over three years and more than two dozen meetings and at an annual Grand Strategy Summit in D.C. for the past two years, the Seminar members gathered to discuss, and often sharply though civilly debate, the most pressing issues of world security either among themselves or with guests like the late Dr. Kissinger or technologist Peter Thiel. There wasn’t the need for a huge think tank and redundant staff or a big building and fancy offices. This “think tank” was virtual and it worked. 

Some centers of serious thinking like The Hudson Institute, led by John P. Walters, also stepped into the gap in national security strategy created by the ossification of some old think tanks and the corruption of others by foreign money.

The folks at Hudson, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Reagan Foundation and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy have kept the “peace through strength” candle burning during these years of appeasement under President Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. 

The former president knows whom he can trust and who also know the world as it really works very well indeed. Don’t be surprised to see former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and Ambassador George Glass playing crucial roles in the formal transition effort that launches in the summer as it has for every major party contender for decades. 

In 2016 many national security professionals signed “never Trump” declarations which seemed to them like a good idea to them at the time, but which they almost immediately regretted. A few but not many sunk into meaningless indeed endless fulminations against Trump since he won, but some struck out in positive directions. Now we all are living in a world in chaos thanks to our enemies and our incompetent leadership, and many of the Trump skeptics of 2015 and 2016 actually want to help Trump, not defeat him. The second Trump transition should put those old scores aside and look ahead. I hope the former president directs them to do just that. 

This time around the former president will also have his guard up, and not allow himself to be ambushed by the likes of former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan and former DNI James Clapper. Even before Trump was sworn in this trio had helped launched the Russia hoax that crippled the Trump presidency from day one. 

The old saying applies: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Trump won’t get fooled again by the left that has burrowed into the permanent government. He can’t afford a slow start, he can’t trust the permanent government —and neither can the country. Listing part or even most of his intended national security team will help Trump expedite the return of deterrence and “peace through strength.”

Hugh Hewitt is host of “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” heard weekday mornings 6am to 9am ET on the Salem Radio Network, and simulcast on Salem News Channel. Hugh wakes up America on over 400 affiliates nationwide, and on all the streaming platforms where SNC can be seen. He is a frequent guest on the Fox News Channel’s news roundtable hosted by Brett Baier weekdays at 6pm ET. A son of Ohio and a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Michigan Law School, Hewitt has been a Professor of Law at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law since 1996 where he teaches Constitutional Law. Hewitt launched his eponymous radio show from Los Angeles in 1990.  Hewitt has frequently appeared on every major national news television network, hosted television shows for PBS and MSNBC, written for every major American paper, has authored a dozen books and moderated a score of Republican candidate debates, most recently the November 2023 Republican presidential debate in Miami and four Republican presidential debates in the 2015-16 cycle. Hewitt focuses his radio show and his column on the Constitution, national security, American politics and the Cleveland Browns and Guardians. Hewitt has interviewed tens of thousands of guests from Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to Republican Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump over his 40 years in broadcast, and this column previews the lead story that will drive his radio/ TV show today.

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