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Introducing Trumpology

Flynn’s departure complicates the notion of a radical shift of U.S. policy on Russia, but how likely was that anyway?

by Peter Rutland 15 February 2017

The scandal around U.S. President Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia has claimed its first victim. Mike Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor, resigned on 13 February because he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. on 28 December. On that same day, former U.S. President Barak Obama, then still in office, slapped sanctions on the Russian intelligence community for their role in hacking Democratic Party servers.


Intelligence officials gave transcripts of Flynn’s conversations to the Justice Department and before you could say “Watergate” they made it to The Washington Post on 9 February.


Flynn’s demise makes it much less likely that Trump will be able to launch a mold-breaking initiative, such as lifting the economic sanctions on Russia, or recognizing Moscow’s sovereignty over Crimea, since that would provide ammunition to Trump’s critics (in both parties) who are pursuing investigations into the nature of the new president’s ties to Russia. On the other hand, the turmoil in the White House means that the U.S. will be less able to respond to Russian actions, such as the recent deployment of the SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile, which Washington considers a violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty.


In the longer term, however, there are grounds for believing that the pro-Russian sentiments uttered by Trump himself, and by some of his advisors, will not translate into actual policy changes.


In both domestic and foreign policy realms, there seems to be a mismatch between the team of ideological zealots that Trump has entrusted with making policy and the career professionals charged with carrying it out. It is impossible to predict how the struggle between these two groups will evolve, but the ouster of Flynn seems like a major victory for the realists.


The ideologists are mainly driven by a deep-seated fear of “radical Islamic terrorism,” a term much favored by General Flynn. European leaders (including Russian President Vladimir Putin) avoid using the term, because it implies that Islam itself is central to the threat. This is very much at the heart of the world view of Trump’s top advisor, Stephen Bannon, who sees the West as engaged in a global struggle with Islam, and calls for a rallying of “traditionalists” to defend Western civilization. The 31-year old Stephen Miller seems the second most influential ideologist after Bannon. Miller focuses on the American heartland and the populist challenge to the establishment, rather than a global vision. Unlike Bannon, Miller has steered clear of the white nationalist rhetoric of the “alt right.”


The Trump team was shockingly unprepared for taking over the levers of power. Even before Flynn’s departure, it appears that half the 28 top positions in the National Security Council (NSC) were unfilled (as were the vast majority of ambassadorships). It is worth taking a look at some of the people who are now staffing the upper echelons of the NSC.


Sebastian and Katharine Gorka are described by Politico as “the husband and wife team driving Trump’s national security policy.” Sebastian Gorka is a deputy assistant to the president, apparently dealing with Islamist terrorism. He believes that the West is locked in a 1,000 year war with Islam. Gorka was born in Britain in 1970 to Hungarian parents who had fled the Soviet invasion in 1956. After finishing a BA in London he went to Budapest and wrote a Ph.D on terrorism. From 1992-2008 he was mainly living in Budapest, working first at the defense ministry, then for a number of think tanks. In 2008 he moved to the U.S. with his American wife, and served in various roles at a range of defense institutions in and around Washington, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2012. He was an editor at Stephen Bannon’s Breitbart News from 2014 to 2016. In 2016 he published a book titled Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War with the conservative publishing house Regnery. In January 2016 he was arrested at the Washington National Airport for trying to board a plane with a gun: the case was dismissed a year after.


Gorka has also been photographed wearing the uniform of Vitezi Rend, a Hungarian honorary order banned after World War II because of its Nazi associations. Given his career and family background, it is unlikely that Gorka would be very sympathetic to President Trump’s apparent enthusiasm for partnering with President Putin, though in public he has praised Trump’s “pragmatic” approach to Moscow.


On the realist side, we have officials such as Christopher Ford, a Rhodes scholar, lawyer, and 17-year veteran of the Naval Reserve, who joined the State Department in 2003 and served in the George W. Bush administration handling nuclear security issues. Ford has written three books, two of them on China. He is now senior director for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counter-Proliferation.


The acting senior director for Russia is Jeffrey Edmonds, a former army officer with 22 years’ service, including tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. A West point graduate with an MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School, he was director for Ukraine on the NSC during May-November 2014, and after that he served as special assistant for Russia in the Obama NSC. That is, he was in charge of the implementation of sanctions on Russia in response to its actions in Ukraine.


The top four deputies in the NSC include David Cattler who serves as deputy assistant to the president for Regional Affairs. Cattler is a former Navy officer with 20 years’ experience in the intelligence community and Department of Defense. In the Obama administration he served as the National Intelligence Manager for the Near East.


So we see (as yet) continuity in some of the most important and sensitive branches of the National Security Council – those dealing with nuclear weapons, Russia, and the Middle East. The steady hand of these professionals will hopefully mean that there will be more continuity than change in U.S. policy toward Russia and neighboring states.


Meanwhile, there is little sign that the daily stream of scandals and revelations from the White House will let up anytime soon.

Peter Rutland
 is a Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and visiting Leverhulme professor at the University of Manchester. 


Ivory Tower is a new TOL column that will focus on insights into the region’s politics from academic events and publications.  

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