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Trump’s Empty Cabinet

After Brussels, he still has foreign policy advisers who've never met him

Donald Trump gives a brief tour at the construction site for the Trump International Hotel, at the Old Post Office Pavilion in downtown Washington, D.C., Monday, March 21, 2016. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Donald Trump gives a brief tour at the construction site for the Trump International Hotel, at the Old Post Office Pavilion in downtown Washington, D.C., Monday, March 21, 2016. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Donald Trump has taken the traditional step of sharing the list of his foreign policy advisers with the editorial board of the Washington Post. It included two recognizably controversial names and a few unknowns in foreign policy circles. But there was one other problem with the group.  

Of the men on the list, three told the New York Times that they have never met or spoken with Trump.  

Trump’s list of advisers-he’s-never-met comes after months of speculation about whom, if anyone, Trump relies on for guidance in an area of policy where he has no first-hand experience.  

In August, after detailing his commitment to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” Trump told NBC’s Chuck Todd that he got his military advice from “the shows.”  

“I watch the shows. I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show, and all of the other shows, and you have the generals, and you have certain people.” Todd pressed him for more detail. “But is there somebody, is there a go-to for you? Every presidential candidate has a go-to.”  

Does every presidential candidate have a go-to?  Yes, even Donald Trump has a person, as he explained in March on “Morning Joe,” when he was asked who he talks with consistently about foreign policy. “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”  What could possibly go wrong with that approach?  

Trump’s lack of foreign policy advisers would be just another idiosyncrasy for a candidate with many if the world we’re living in were not so dangerous and Trump himself were not so prone to assume he knows everything about it.  

The DIY foreign policy shop in Trump’s head has so far produced a hodgepodge of aggressive declarations — “I’m the most militaristic person” — grafted onto non-interventionist suggestions to let Russia handle Syria, and neo-isolationist thoughts that perhaps the usefulness of the United States’ role in NATO has come and gone.  

He has praised Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and blasted Angela Merkel for “ruining Germany.” He’s called for a ban on Muslims into the United States, without mentioning that the ban would keep out the Muslim leaders of some of the United States’ most crucial allies fighting ISIS, and promised to improve America’s economy with massive tariffs on Chinese goods.  

Trump’s self-reliance is reinforced by his unusually small campaign inner circle. His runs his entire rapid response operation with his cell phone and his Twitter feed.  Nobody wants a president run by his staff, instead of the other way around. But most candidates for president have enough experience to know what they don’t know, and the wisdom to listen to people who do.  

Even Trump needed help this week in crafting his first nuanced foreign policy speech, which he delivered to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday. Trump explained that he reached out, not to his new foreign policy team, but to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a publisher and real estate developer, who is Jewish. “Jared spoke to many of his friends from Israel and we put it together with a lot of great people.”  

Just hours after Trump’s speech to AIPAC, Brussels was attacked by terrorists.  The scope and deadliness of the attacks were a reminder that ISIS remains far from defeated and that protecting the United States from terrorism will be the next president’s most important job. In interviews that followed, Trump said that, if he were president, he would seal American borders and waterboard the Belgian suspects for answers in the investigation.  

Had he spoken with his advisers about those ideas (one of which is a war crime), CBS News asked?  “No,” Trump said, noting he would. “But if they don’t advise me to be very strong, and very tough, at the borders, then I’m probably not a fan of that particular person.”  

There’s a difference between having an instinct for foreign policy, which Trump says he has, and having the expertise to execute it. That’s what a staff and advisers are for, but Trump’s empty Cabinet gives voters very few clues about where he would take the country beyond the breadcrumbs he leaves in phone interviews and on his Twitter feed.  

The strongest signal any candidate can give voters about the type of president they’ll be is the type of candidate they’ve been.  And so far, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, Donald Trump has been all alone.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for the Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill Bureau Chief for Politics Daily and the founder and editor of Citizen Jane. Follow her on @1patriciamurphy.

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