WASHINGTON — An already shallow national security bench is getting thinner for the Trump White House as government workers and national security hands worry over possible blowback from accepting a job with the incoming administration.
“Normally you’d be attracting the best and brightest at the beginning of an administration, but people are nervous,” one US intelligence official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the transition. “Is this a sure bet, or is this a house of cards that’s going to fall apart?”
The Trump transition team has already started farming Capitol Hill staffers and Washington think tanks for potential administration gigs, but there’s a running hesitation over what a position with the Trump White House even looks like, and whether it could be kryptonite for future career advancement, particularly within the national security world.
“I just don’t know who’s going to run foreign policy, in terms of organizationally, and I also don’t know who the personnel will be. Of the people who are being discussed, none of them inspire much confidence,” said one think tank analyst, who declined an approach by the Trump campaign for a potential foreign policy position. “There’s an argument out there that ‘it’s a patriotic duty to join, that it’s the right thing to do,’ but the more I hear from people who are actually talking with the campaign, the more people are starting to back away. It’s a nasty, vindictive place to work already….not really a good recruiting tool.”
That government workers and think-tankers are hesitant to take a Trump gig underscores just how unusual — and unprecedented — the next five weeks of administrative transition will be.
Government officials, including Republicans, are flying almost completely blind on potential national security nominations. Speculation on who the Trump team will tap to lead the CIA and fill other intelligence and national security posts is changing by the hour. It’s difficult to sift through what the Trump camp may actually be thinking, and which names are just passing through the proverbial DC echo chamber.
A conversation has emerged on social media in recent days, too, sparked by Eliot Cohen, a respected foreign policy voice on the right, on whether government workers should volunteer to serve the incoming administration. After briefly recommending government staffers serve Trump, he rescinded that recommendation in a series of tweets Tuesday.
The hesitancy to take Trump gigs is a catch 22 for those worried about the president-elect's inexperience on national security issues. On one hand, they like the idea of helping to shape policy, and feel their expertise is needed. But worries over retribution, and the possibility that the Trump White House could go up in figurative flames is enough to make many of them stay away.
“This is a whole new paradigm where people are actually leaving government, not just because of the pay or the hours, but because of the actual people running it," the think tank analyst said. "Across the board, people are running away.”
Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ali Watkins at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.