Imagine being Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Or national security adviser John Bolton. Here are two of President Donald Trump’s most loyal lieutenants. They have taken no small number of slings and arrows from bipartisan critics in the U.S. foreign policy community on his behalf. As befits their positions, they have a reasonable expectation they will be the president’s key advisers on foreign policy and seen to be such by American and international observers.
How, then, do they explain their relative place in the Trump hierarchy after Ivanka Trump’s prominent participation in the president’s trip to Asia last week?
Ivanka, who holds the title of adviser to the president, was seemingly everywhere. Here she is offering a video readout, tweeted by the White House, of the president’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Here she is standing in a photo line of world leaders. Here she is inserting herself — painfully, awkwardly — into a conversation among French President Emanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Theresa May and International Monetary Fund Chairwoman Christine Lagarde.
She was publicly thanked by Trump as Pompeo’s equal on a stage before U.S. forces in South Korea. And, most shockingly, she accompanied Trump to the Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas before his sit-down with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
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Meanwhile, Bolton had been dispatched to Mongolia.
The implications of this performance are serious — for the effective conduct of U.S. foreign policy, for our own democratic institutions and traditions, and for what it tells us about the president’s future intentions.
In the first instance, when the president’s daughter (and son-in-law, Jared Kushner) are elevated in this way, it renders all other officials in the U.S. government afterthoughts. Why would any foreign leader invest in their relationships with Pompeo, Bolton, or other Cabinet officials when it is perfectly clear that their influence pales in comparison to the president’s family? Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June how he was often cut out of key conversations with his counterparts in key countries such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico, hampering his ability to do his job.
But it is not just the Cabinet-level officials whose standing suffers when the president surrounds himself with his children. Presumably they knew, or should have known, more or less what they were getting into when they hitched their wagon to Trump. More serious is that it undermines an entire strata of U.S. government professionals with knowledge and experience in foreign countries, languages, and ways to advance U.S. interests on whom we depend to conduct diplomacy with foreign governments. Foreign officials now understand that American ambassadors and lower-ranking diplomats, most of whom have no access to the First Family, may have little of value to offer as a channel reflecting U.S. government views. If you don’t hear it from a Trump family member, it is as good as useless.
The result is that the U.S. government is rapidly becoming perceived — abroad and at home — as a family business. If the only people who matter are the president’s relatives, we have strayed far from our traditions as a republic led by a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” For foreign officials, the temptation to bypass efforts to identify common interests between our nations in favor of flattery and currying favor with family members — surely the path of least resistance — will be irresistible. The opening this arrangement provides for full-on corruption is undeniable. We used to call out this corruption when we saw it in other countries, such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, where leaders have surrounded themselves with, and even handed off power to, family members.
As the president prepares to run for re-election, the American people have a right to consider what the administration in his second term would look like. Most administrations that serve two terms tend to double down on their behavior in the first term. Released of the worries posed by a re-election campaign, they act more freely. If ethical standards have been breached in the first term, the floodgates tend to open in the second term.
What Trump and his daughter seemed to be doing on this recent Asia trip is providing hints about the future. The president has previously considered Ivanka Trump for appointments as U.N. ambassador and president of the World Bank, but demurred while grousing that he would be accused of nepotism, which he clearly viewed as unjustified.
But his — and her — intentions are clear. At a minimum, the goal is to raise Ivanka Trump’s profile as a key player on the global stage on behalf of the United States, alongside her husband, Jared Kushner. This in turn would force foreign governments to treat her (as they already do Kushner) as one of the most important players in U.S. foreign policy. And it would further diminish the professionals, and even political appointees, representing the United States abroad.
And if they are going that far, why not Secretary of State Ivanka Trump? Assuming a compliant, Republican-controlled Senate, what is to stop them? Not concerns about nepotism, clearly. Not a realistic assessment of her qualifications, which are close to nonexistent. Not any Cabinet officials capable of protecting their own turf.
In the second term, Mongolia may not be far enough away to send the national security adviser.