By Barbara Slavin
It has only been a week since the election, but it feels like an eternity.
Despite some gestures toward those who voted against him, Donald Trump appears to be having great difficulty simply putting together a team to organize the transition from the current administration.
His choice of Stephen Bannon, editor of the right-wing, nationalist Breitbart news site, as a senior councilor in the White House has unnerved many Americans who are appalled by the articles Breitbart has run and by Bannon’s bigoted, misogynistic speech.
Names floated for senior Cabinet positions are also discomfiting, among them former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani and Iraq and Iran hawk John Bolton as Secretary of State.
Assumptions that Trump aides would reach out to mainstream Republicans after the election are looking shaky. Eliot Cohen, a former senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration who had advised other Republican national security experts to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, tweeted Tuesday: “After exchange w Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming “you LOST!” Will be ugly.”
After exchange w Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming “you LOST!” Will be ugly.
— Eliot A Cohen (@EliotACohen) November 15, 2016
Mike Rogers, a respected former congressman and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee charged with handling national security for the Trump transition, quit abruptly on Tuesday with no explanation.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a governor and former congressman, remains in charge of the transition, having taken over from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after the election. But as of this writing, Pence had yet to sign the documents entitling transition officials to have access to government departments and the briefing books that are being prepared on key issues.
The Trump team is charged with recruiting more than 4,000 political appointees to staff the next administration. Stephen Rademaker, an arms control expert who served in the George W. Bush administration, told an audience at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank, on Tuesday that Trump “won’t have trouble finding 4000 people to accept jobs.”
But how long will it take and what caliber individuals will they be?
While much attention has focused since the election on disarray within the Democratic Party’s ranks, there are major gaps among Republicans over the future direction of the country. On the domestic side, deficit hawks will have trouble digesting massive new infrastructure spending and tax cuts.
On foreign policy, Trump must win over the internationalist wing of the party that supports free trade and especially those who have a much more antagonistic view of Russia than the president-elect has expressed.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, delivered a shot across the Trump team’s bow on Tuesday with a statement about U.S.-Russia relations.
McCain noted that Russian forces had resumed large-scale bombing of Syrians and warned against trusting Russian President Vladimir Putin – who telephoned Trump on Monday after being one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate him after the election.
“With the U.S. presidential transition underway, Vladimir Putin has said in recent days that he wants to improve relations with the United States,” McCain wrote. “We should place as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies, and attempted to undermine America’s elections.”
McCain continued that efforts by the Obama administration to improve relations with Russia had culminated in “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and military intervention in the Middle East. At the very least, the price of another ‘reset’ would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people. That is an unacceptable price for a great nation. When America has been at its greatest, it is when we have stood on the side those fighting tyranny. That is where we must stand again.”
There are potential benefits to a new U.S.-Russia reset if it helps to end the carnage in Syria and stabilizes eastern Ukraine. But Trump has given no indication so far that he will seek any concessions from Russia; the reverse appears to be the case.
Several other issues loom as potential obstacles to a U.S.-Russia lovefest. Russia has historically objected to U.S. missile defense programs, which are far superior to their own. Lt. Gen. Evgeny Buzhinsky, a former senior Russian nuclear negotiator, told the Center for the National Interest that Russia would tie any future arms control agreements with the United States to the negotiation of a new, full-fledged anti-ballistic missile treaty like the one abrogated by the George W. Bush administration in 2002. Missile defense has been a favorite of establishment Republicans.
Buzhinsky said Moscow and Washington would also be at odds if Trump goes through with his threat to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran that was negotiated with the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
“The deal is good,” Buzhinsky said. “I’m sure Russia will try to do everything possible [to convince Trump] not to break the deal completely. Some parts of the deal may be adjusted.”
Republicans in Congress, however, have vowed to bury the agreement with new sanctions and it is unclear whether Trump would stand in their way.
In keeping with U.S. tradition, President Obama has offered the Trump team all possible assistance in helping it get up to speed on so many issues of consequence.
Hoping to preserve some of his legacy, Obama told a press conference before setting out for his final foreign trip as president that “the federal government and our democracy is not a speedboat, it’s an ocean liner … It took a lot of really hard work for us to make significant policy changes — even in our first two years, when we had larger majorities than Mr. Trump will enjoy when he comes into office.”
Right now, a legitimate question is whether the U.S.S. Trump can stay afloat as it heads into turbulent seas.