President-elect Donald Trump is scrambling to line up senior officials to run the government’s sprawling intelligence and homeland security bureaucracy.
Team Trump is struggling to fill numerous key slots or even attract many candidates because hundreds have either sworn they’d never work in a Trump administration or have directly turned down requests to join, multiple current and former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the transition efforts told The Daily Beast.
Team Trump didn’t expect to win until the campaign’s internal polling a month before the election signaled a possible victory. That’s when senior Trump officials went into overdrive, trying to build a bench of experienced national security candidates with top secret clearances willing to work for a Trump presidency—and they met resistance across the landscape of experienced GOP national security professionals.
One person who met last month with Trump’s national security and homeland security transition team leader said that she confessed that many candidates had flatly rejected attempts to recruit them, believing that Trump was unfit to hold the office of commander in chief.
“She said that it was going to be very difficult to fill positions in that space because everybody that had experience was a never-Trumper,” this person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
“She wasn’t even sure that she was going to be able to fill a transition team,” much less find people to serve in government positions, this person said.
“In theory, 20 people are supposed to parachute into the Department of Homeland Security [during the transition between administrations]. And I don’t think they have anybody to do it.”
A second individual, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed this person’s account that there are a large number of vacancies to fill without a clear plan of how that will happen. Since Trump’s improbable win, Team Trump has been aggressively reaching out to possible candidates with a flurry of meetings in New York and Washington, D.C.
Two career U.S. officials, currently serving in the government, also said they were unsure whether they would continue in their positions, which are slated to last into the next administration.
On Monday morning, a group of officials working on a range of national security issues including the resettlement of refugees and methods for countering terrorists’ violent rhetoric met to discuss their progress. But it wasn’t at all clear whether a President Trump would even continue those initiatives, one participant said. Trump has promised to ban Muslims from certain countries from entering the United States and has claimed he knows better how to combat terrorists than military generals and intelligence officials.
But before he can take the axe to Obama-era programs, Trump has to staff up his own administration. It won’t be easy.
It was clear the Trump team would have trouble staffing their national security bench nine months ago, when more than 100 Republican national security leaders signed an open letter vowing not to support him as the GOP nominee and “working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.”
“Everybody who has signed a never-Trump letter or indicated an anti-Trump attitude is not going to get a job. And that’s most of the Republican foreign policy, national security, intelligence, homeland security, and Department of Justice experience,” Paul Rosenzweig, who held a senior position at the Department of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration, told The Daily Beast. (Bush told reporters on Tuesday that neither he nor his wife, Laura, cast a vote for president.)
Rosenzweig predicted that Trump would be able to fill positions at the Cabinet level, the secretaries and administrators who lead agencies and departments. But the people below them, from the deputy level on down, are the ones who actually run the government day-to-day, and there are few takers for those jobs, he said.
“The problem is going to be finding the deputy secretary, and the head of customs, and the general counsel, which are the jobs that fundamentally matter,” Rosenzweig said.
Since the public letter in March, more people who served in key positions in Republican administrations have stepped forward to disavow Trump and take themselves out of the running for jobs in his administration.
Last week, former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden went so far as to accuse Trump of being a tool of the Russian government.
Trump had consistently refused to agree with the U.S. intelligence community's unanimous assessment that Russia was responsible for a campaign of cyber attacks and leaks against the Democratic Party, which officials said was intended to “interfere” with Tuesday’s election.
“Rejecting a fact-based intelligence assessment—not because of compelling contrarian data, but because it is inconsistent with a preexisting worldview—that’s the stuff of ideological authoritarianism, not pragmatic democracy. And it is frightening,” Hayden wrote.
The likely pool of Trump administration officials now will come from a second-tier of younger and less experienced people, Stewart Baker, the former general counsel of the National Security Agency, told The Daily Beast.
Baker, who also served in a senior position in the Department of Homeland Security during the Bush administration, said these less-experienced candidates weren’t necessarily without talent, but he acknowledged that more seasoned people like himself were not likely to be joining the new administration.
Trump will take over an intelligence community that is already in his cross-hairs, after he said in the third presidential debate that he doubted its assessment on the Russian hacks. Trump has also talked openly about information that was relayed to him in classified briefings given to him and Clinton, and current and former officials have said they worried that Trump wouldn’t be able to keep confidential information secret.
“The intelligence community has had presidents before who were deeply skeptical about their role, their product, and their value,” Baker said. “The intelligence community, I predict, will work very hard to demonstrate its value to the new president. Because if they don't have support from the White House, they don’t really have much influence in the interagency debate.”
As the dust settled on a historic election, the plans for a would-be Clinton administration also became clearer, and they appeared much farther along than Trump’s.
Clinton had planned to launch onto the world stage with a series of international summits in the Mideast, Europe and beyond, to reassure fretful allies weary of the global retrenchment of the Obama administration, according to senior advisors to the Clinton campaign interviewed in the run-up to the stunning election upset.
The muscular reassertion of American power was to include a stepped-up campaign against militants in Syria and Iraq, and a pushback against Russian expansionism and Iranian meddling in the Middle East.
Yet Clinton pulled her punches on that message during her campaign, so as not to alienate the Obamas and their supporters who were seen as key to clinching the election.
No roles had been assigned in a Clinton “war cabinet” nor specific policies chosen, the senior advisors said, but the Clinton transition team had been staffed since early this year with experienced policy wonks and former senior administration and military officials, like former National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen and former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell.
Those officials chewed over many of the toughest foreign policy issues. And in least one case, an answer was emerging from those discussions that might be music to Trump’s ears.
Most involved in the early Clinton transition discussions agreed that few good options remained in Syria, because of Russia’s backing of President Bashar al-Assad. Establishing a no-fly zone would have inevitably meant shooting down a Russian jet, “because they would test us as soon as we established it,” one adviser said.
So negotiating via Russia was emerging still as one of the best options—and teaming up with Putin in the Middle East was something Trump repeatedly promised to do.