The soul-searching among Republicans disenchanted with President-elect Donald J. Trump intensified this week as Brent Scowcroft, a pillar of the Republican national security establishment, called upon fellow Republicans, and Democrats, to put country above political party and accept posts in the incoming administration, if asked to do so.
Frail and ailing, the 91-year old Scowcroft issued what several participants described as an emotional appeal Monday at an off-the-record luncheon honoring him at the Willard Hotel, a few blocks from the White House. His call to public service was remarkable given the bitterness of the presidential campaign and the fact that Scowcroft, who has served four Republican presidents, was among the high-profile former Republican officials to cross party lines and endorse Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
According to several accounts of the luncheon, Scowcroft indicated that he remained concerned that Trump was ill-prepared and unsuited to be commander in chief. But precisely because the incoming president lacked experience and expertise, Scowcroft told some 40 national security experts, Trump would need sound guidance. Calling upon those assembled to put aside partisan differences and earlier vows to spurn Trump, Scowcroft urged them to join the new administration if jobs were offered. "He needs you," was how one attendee at the luncheon characterized Scowcroft's message. "Your country needs you."
Whether Trump will come to a similar conclusion remains to be seen. Early reports suggest fierce jockeying within Team Trump over who should occupy the administration's senior posts. Campaign sources say that some team members adamantly oppose the appointment of any of the more than 120 Republican national security analysts who denounced Trump's views and policies in a letter last June; they also vowed never to work in his administration, should he triumph. "For many Trump loyalists, the 'Never Trumpers' are worse than pond scum, worse than Democrats," said one person close to the transition team. "They are on Trump's 'enemies list.'" The question, said another luncheon guest, is "not whether estranged Republicans will serve, but whether Team Trump thinks they need you."
The luncheon itself was a throwback to a less partisan era, in which presidents often reached out to experienced talent from the rival party. The tribute to Scowcroft was organized by the Aspen Strategy Group, a 30-year-old, bipartisan group whose members have held senior posts in Democratic and Republican administrations. The Strategy Group was established during the Reagan era to find common ground between Republicans and Democrats and fashion pragmatic, non-ideological solutions to national security challenges (I was a member for ten years). Luncheon guests included President Obama's defense secretary Ash Carter and Department of Health and Human Services secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, several former deputy secretaries, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, and Carla Robbins, a former deputy editorial page editor of the New York Times. James Baker, a former White House chief of staff to President Reagan and secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, sent a videotaped tribute to Scowcroft. So did Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state under George W. Bush.
One participant called Scowcroft's plea on behalf of nonpartisanship "poignant," but also something of an anomaly, given the growing polarization and partisanship of the national security establishment. Lauded as a man of principle unafraid to speak candidly, even in public, Scowcroft alienated the George W. Bush administration, which he was informally advising, by publicly warning against going to war in Iraq in 2003.
President-elect Trump now faces the task of recruiting well-qualified people to fill roughly 4,000 posts—1,000 of which must be confirmed by the Senate. It might not be easy. During the campaign, many traditional-minded Republicans came out against Trump, angered by his criticism of NATO and conciliatory words for Russian president Vladimir Putin, among other things.
Among them is Eliot A. Cohen, a former counselor to the Department of State under former Secretary of State Rice, who helped organize the Republican letter denouncing Trump and his policies. After Trump's election victory, Cohen seemed to soften, writing in The American Interest that Trump might "not be as awful as we think." He also declined to discourage "younger friends" from accepting posts in a Trump administration, provided they were saying "Yes out of a sense of duty rather than mere careerism." Five days later, however, Cohen changed his mind. On Tuesday, he tweeted a warning about Trump's transition team. Citing friction with team members, Cohen, now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, advised fellow Republicans to "stay away." "They're angry, arrogant," he said of the Trump team. "Will be ugly."
Cohen did not respond to questions about his Twitter feud with the Trump transition team. A spokesman for Scowcroft said that he would not comment on the Willard meeting or his advice to the Aspen Strategy Group. Trump's incoming administration will surely need experienced foreign policy hands, but whether Republicans respond to a call for public service or spurn appeals to join Trump's administration remains to be seen.