Here’s a hypothetical. What if you are interviewing someone for a senior position in your company, and they give an entertaining interview, but when you check their references, the overwhelming majority of people from their last workplace say that not only is the person not fit for the job, but they’re a danger to any company, are deeply enmeshed with your company’s chief rivals, they exhibit no loyalty, will not be trusted by partner organizations and could bring your whole company crashing down?

Everyone knows the person would not be getting a job offer, regardless of whatever skills that person had.

Yet that’s the position America finds itself in as Donald Trump seeks another term as president. And there are significant negative implications for America’s national security.

If you think I’m exaggerating, just look at recent statements from the senior leadership in the last Trump administration. Former national security adviser John Bolton, a rock-ribbed Republican who has supported every Republican for president since Barry Goldwater, recently opined that “If Trump is elected, there’ll be celebrations in the Kremlin. … Putin thinks that he is an easy mark.”

Trump supporters often retort that Bolton has always been a controversial character who doesn’t play well with others and always wants to go to war. This is a trope that Bolton’s left-leaning political opponents used against him for decades, even filibustering his attempt to stay on as United Nations ambassador. But it was never true. And until lately, it wasn’t anything that Republicans would say.

But Bolton is not the only former Trump national security official saying things like this. It’s also former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. And former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Former Attorney General William Barr has given similar warnings. So have former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger.

Some of these men were military men, some were former members of Congress, some cabinet officials in other administrations, some came straight from the private sector. They all say the same thing: Trump is unfit for office.

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Trump’s second secretary of defense, Mark Esper, deemed Trump a “security threat.” Former Homeland Security Secretary and White House chief of staff John Kelly, puts it most succinctly: “God help us” if Trump wins again. While most presidents have at least one or two former officials that break with them publicly, the number and the ferocity with which Trump’s former top-level national security officials denounce their former boss is unprecedented. (Let’s not forget that the last person standing between Trump and the GOP nomination was his former U.N. secretary, Nikki Haley.)

The only real retort from the Trump echo chamber is the vague claim that these people are simply “the establishment” or “swamp creatures.” It’s a demagogue’s response that by necessity ignores the specifics. Far from a ragtag group of self-seeking lobbyists or special interest hucksters, these are people of character. Career military men, experienced diplomats and high-level law enforcement officials with little to gain and a lot to lose. Each also has a high-level understanding of what America’s foreign and national security policies require, and why it is important. They may be mistaken on this issue or that, but they are serious people with serious concerns.

Their concerns cannot be ignored. American foreign policy cannot be remade anew every four years, and experienced, knowledgeable officials are essential. Part of Trump’s original sales pitch was that he would hire “the best people” to handle such things which he plainly did not understand. And it was people like McMaster, Bolton, Mattis and Esper that were able to steer Trump away from wildly impulsive and destructive decisions and make sure that things did not go too far off the rails. That they are now saying he is unfit for office is disturbing. America won the Cold War because there was continuity in its policy.

The policy of calculated confrontation and containment, instituted by Harry Truman, a Democrat, survived the transition to Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, and successive administrations of both parties. Those who seemed to threaten this policy were promptly shown the door. Eisenhower’s chief reason for running for president was in order to stop isolationist Republican Sen. Robert Taft, R-Ohio, from reversing America’s post-World War II commitments. And Richard Nixon thrashed Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., because America rejected McGovern’s “neo-Isolationist” policies.

Trump’s current stance, encouraging Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” with fellow NATO countries unless they spend what Trump believes is sufficient on defense (even though NATO countries are massively, rapidly ramping up their defense spending) is such a threat. Bolton recently explained that Trump’s goal is to “lay the groundwork to get out” of NATO, as he nearly did in 2018. This would be a reckless, disastrous policy in the best of times. During a time when an expansionist Russia is almost literally knocking on NATO’s door is worse than reckless. It is a betrayal of a trust that has lasted for generations.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, explained starkly in a recent interview, “The United States … has the reputation of a global leader … (it) prescribes the rules of coexistence in the world.” He pointed out that America should consider “how will it be perceived by the other countries” — and not just democracies — should it abandon its role.


America’s character cannot ultimately be separated from its power or interests. More than any other nation, America’s power and influence is built on trust. Power, resources, technology and geography are important, but over time, they will mean little if America’s allies do not believe that America will stand by its friends and steadfastly oppose its foes. It has done so, imperfectly but clearly, for more than 80 years.

Some Trump supporters acknowledge his deficiencies in character, but argue his policies are better than his opponents’. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t solve the foreign-policy problem. People, and especially nations, need to believe these long-standing policies will be carried out, and that our allies and their interests will not be betrayed. If this is ever not so, America will cease to be a world leader.

Trump’s former national security cabinet officials understand this, if Trump doesn’t. It is why so many have overlooked their own political futures and warned America about the coming storm. America should heed their warning.

Cliff Smith is a lawyer and a former congressional staffer. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works on national security related issues. His views are his own.

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