Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative Republican insider, is emerging as President Donald Trump’s choice be Deputy Secretary of State – a pick that could test Trump’s willingness to work with members of a foreign policy establishment that didn’t back him during the campaign, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Trump will meet Tuesday with Abrams, who served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has met with Abrams and wants him for the job, also will attend the meeting.
The deputy at the State Department is a key post that holds considerable influence and responsibility in running the department.
As a former CEO of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson comes to the job having relationships with many world leaders, while Abrams is a well-respected, albeit controversial, foreign policy insider with considerable government experience. Several State Department officials believe he would complement Tillerson.
His appointment has been on hold for weeks as Trump’s senior advisers, led by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, debated whether Abrams, someone from the foreign policy elite, could be trusted.
While Abrams was not part of the “Never Trump” movement and did not sign any of the letters criticizing him in Washington, he is a member of the foreign policy establishment that largely distanced itself from Trump during the campaign. Neocons like Abrams believe the US should use its unrivaled power, with force if necessary, to promote American values around the world.
In May, he penned a column for the conservative Weekly Standard headlined, “When You Can’t Stand Your Candidate,” in which Abrams wrote that Republicans had “nominated someone who cannot win and should not be president of the United States.” He urged the GOP to continue challenge “Trump and Trumpism.”
The possibility of Abrams at the State Department has been welcomed by several career diplomats concerned about the lack of diplomatic experience in the administration and who fear Trump would tap a political operative with no diplomatic experience. Several have voiced alarm over the possible appointment of Matthew Mowers, a young former campaign manager for battleground states, as a White House adviser to the State Department.
Like Trump, Abrams is a staunch supporter of Israel and has been critical of the Iran nuclear deal. But he holds a neoconservative view of America’s role in the world. While in the Bush White House, he worked on promoting democracy in the Middle East and was in favor of the Iraq war, which Trump now calls a mistake although he once supported it.
Abrams also has a controversial past that could complicate his confirmation. While serving at the State Department under Reagan, he disputed alleged human rights abuses by Central American governments close to the US. In 1991, he was convicted on two misdemeanor accounts for withholding information to Congress about the Iran-Contra affair, but was pardoned by President George HW Bush.
Other candidates who have surfaced as possible deputies to Tillerson have been equally controversial. Former US ambassador to the UN and top arms control official John Bolton was on the short list. He has encountered headwinds from some Republicans, including from Tillerson, who was said to have expressed reservations about him.
With widespread concern over Trump’s foreign policy, even several Democratic foreign policy insiders have said Abrams would bring welcome expertise to an understanding of foreign policy to the job.
Politico first reported that Abrams would likely be tapped for the post.