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Donald Trump Has a National Security Problem

It's almost impossible to determine who, if anyone, is currently advising Donald Trump on national security — aside perhaps from a retired Air Force colonel from Iowa.
Donald Trump en la Ciudadela, en Carolina del Sur, en 2015. (Imagen por Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

There is a Donald Trump tautology: If he did things like other candidates, he wouldn't be Donald Trump. So it should come as no surprise that when it comes to national security, he carpet bombs and fires wildly.

Part of the reason for this is that the experts, even known right-wing operatives, are steering clear of the candidate. Though former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has spoken to Trump on occasion, and the Trump campaign whispers about a set of discreet New York–based advisors in the business world, what's clear about Trump for President 2016 is not only that the campaign has failed to gather the usual roster of national security experts, but that many in the field are willing to openly question why any national security professional would support him.


It doesn't help that the candidate can't keep his powder dry. Last July, Trump took a shot at Senator John McCain, certainly the most powerful national security Republican in Congress, saying the Vietnam War POW was "not a war hero." At the time, another Senate Republican national security titan, failed presidential hopeful and now-retired reserve Air Force Brigadier General Lindsey Graham, called Trump a "jackass" and a "political car wreck."

Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and political appointee in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, took another whack at Trump in Foreign Policy last month, lamenting his "failure to talk responsibly or learnedly about national security." Feaver says Trump has "the least distinguished national security team in modern memory."

When I asked Feaver who was advising the Donald, he responded in an email, "I am told that some of the names are genuine 'formers,' including a few that [are not] 'nutcases.' Which I took to mean that some ARE nutcases!"

Six retired generals and admirals, all active in national politics, responded similarly to my questions about Trump's national security team. One who was previously advising Jeb Bush and asked that his name not be used called Trump "dangerous," and questioned whether anyone with integrity could serve in his administration. When I told retired Rear Admiral Stephen Pietropaoli that I was searching to no avail for Trump military advisors, he responded, "for the military profession's sake… I hope it STAYS that way."


After Clovis was quoted defending Trump's proposal to bar Muslims from entering the US, the college distanced itself from the professor.

And indeed, if one looks at Veterans for Donald Trump 2016 or the Veterans for Trump organization that was set up after the attack on McCain, there are no prominent names. When a list of New Hampshire veterans for Trump was released, many denied ever having been consulted at all. Regardless, the list didn't include one person who might reasonably be considered advisor material.

And then there is Samuel H. Clovis. He's a retired Air Force colonel, failed Iowa politician, denounced professor at a small liberal arts college — and Trump's national campaign co-chair and chief policy adviser. Clovis joined Trump last August after jumping from the sinking Rick Perry ship, leaving his professorship at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. After Clovis was quoted defending Trump's proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States, the college distanced itself from the tenured professor.

"We find the view that a particular religion should be discriminated against to be repugnant to the values held at Morningside College," the college said in a statement. "When he was on campus, Dr. Clovis was a staunch defender of the Constitution and a strong advocate for religious freedom. His recent comments appear to be at odds with his earlier views. We find his recent position to be outrageous and disappointing."


Morningside removed Clovis's biography from its website, but an archived copy of that bio describes the professor as "a former corporate executive with "Northrup [sic] Grumman and a retired US Air Force fighter pilot." Another bio from his campaign site additionally says that after his military retirement in 1996, he worked for Logicon Corporation (now part of Northrop Grumman) and Booz Allen Hamilton before being named a fellow post-9/11 with the Homeland Security Institute, a government-funded think tank that has since been renamed.

When I called around to Air Force and defense experts in the political world to find out what kind of reputation Clovis had in the military or in industry, I hit dead ends. Clovis responded to neither phone calls nor emails requesting comment.

So who is Trump's top advisor? The 67-year-old Kansas native is a US Air Force Academy grad who served in the military for 25 years as both an F-16 squadron commander and inspector general. In 2014, he lost twice in Iowa politics: in the primaries when he ran for the US Senate and in the general elections when he ran for State Treasurer. He has called himself a "red-meat conservative" and has anchored a conservative AM radio talk show.

"The national security decision-making of a nation is the centerpiece of its strategic vision, forces, and conduct," Clovis wrote in a 1992 War College research paper when he was a young colonel. "It is arguably the single most important element in predicting national behavior. If history is any guide, this country and its national security decision-making apparatus will not be able to function in a crisis situation because decision makers will not be prepared. They will not understand the environment, will be ignorant of crucial facts… and will make mistakes."


The paper reviews the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979 and Israel's decision to invade Lebanon in 1982, then draws conclusions for American decision-makers.

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"What should strike the reader first and hardest from reviewing the two cases is that these nations should have known better, but something or someone got in the way," Clovis wrote. "Factionalism isolated or eliminated perspective" in both countries. Kremlin decision-makers "discounted culture, religion, geography, heritage, and their own doctrine." Israeli decision-makers "wanted something that could never be — a Christian satellite in the north.

"Both nations were guilty of not just bad decisions, but also of being unaware their respective systems had let them down."

Being overly opinionated is not generally the way to rise to the rank of general or admiral, and so like most War College papers, Clovis's had a thesis that is vague but sensible. "It would be naive and irresponsible for decision-makers to believe the national security decision-making system of the United States is without fault," he wrote. He presented potential faults — factionalism, inexperience, isolation — without saying definitively whether they were faults. Nor did he present solutions.

"Regardless of the checks and balances in place," Clovis concluded, "sometimes things can go dreadfully wrong."

Follow William M. Arkin on Twitter: @warkin