Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
At the most basic level, the first two nights of the RNC displayed the foreign policy risks of another Trump term – including the refusal to honestly acknowledge both successes and failures, to candidly come to grips with the actual threats and opportunities, and to put protecting Americans ahead of promoting personal politics.
But even before diving into the details of what was said, it was who said it that should give Americans real cause for concern. The world saw for itself that the underlying current in US foreign policy under Trump is hypocrisy. And the messenger was none other than the man who’s supposed to advance the nation’s foreign policy, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
Arguably we knew that before the convention began Monday. Pompeo demands democratic freedoms abroad while failing to defend them at home, and even sometimes attacking them himself. But Pompeo’s decision to speak at the RNC drove home that hypocrisy and undermined his already embattled credibility as a policy-driven official.
The fact that the nation’s chief diplomat chose to break protocol and potentially the law just to stump for Trump speaks volumes about this President’s priorities: politics trump policy, no matter the stakes. Pompeo had to know that his presence would raise questions about the politicization of his position.
His Tuesday speech from Jerusalem didn’t happen in a vacuum, and it sends a dangerous message to both his staff and to the world. Internally, Pompeo is signaling to State Department personnel that he holds himself to a different standard than he holds them. He is openly flouting his own guidance to State staff on political activities. Morale at State was reportedly already low after a series of events that included attacks on career diplomats. Pompeo’s presence at the RNC is the opposite of leading by example. It’s the opposite of leadership at all.
More broadly, the message heard around the world is that the Secretary of State is willing to potentially break the law just to please POTUS. That’s not a vote of confidence when it comes to America’s ability to promote the rule of law overseas – historically a key State Department function.
Pompeo knows the stakes. He just must not care. He also knows what it takes to survive this administration – a willingness to do whatever it takes to placate Trump means you don’t get voted off the proverbial island.
When it comes to actual foreign policy content, we heard the usual top hits list and diatribes against China. Pompeo described a track record on China that was the definition of incomplete: he did not (nor did any other official or member of Trump’s family or fan club) acknowledge Trump’s ongoing praise of China up until Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the US.
When it came to North Korea, the RNC underscored just how little success there’s been with “denuclearization.” Pompeo touted the fact that Trump “lowered the temperature” with North Korea and got leader Kim Jong Un to meet with him. He didn’t mention Kim bragging about increasing his nuclear capabilities or Trump bragging about his love affair with Kim while Kim threatens America and its allies.
And, when it comes to the Middle East, Pompeo (who was in Jerusalem to work on Israel’s deal with the UAE and other issues) and Eric Trump showered the President with praise. Eric implied that his father has accomplished peace in the Middle East which is factually untrue – the UAE has agreed to normalize relations with Israel but there are no agreements between the Palestinians and Israel, conflicts are ongoing in Iraq and Syria, and much more.
Nor was there much comfort from another top foreign policy speaker, former US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. I worked on several of the foreign policy topics that RNC speakers addressed, and her claim that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden let North Korea threaten America and that Trump rejected that weakness was a jaw dropping moment in light of North Korea’s ongoing threats to us all.
Haley also noted that “Obama and Biden let Iran get away with murder and literally sent them a plane full of cash,” that the Obama administration had “led the United Nations to denounce our friend and ally, Israel” and that she’d been proud to cast the American veto when the UN tried to condemn Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Conveniently, she left out the fact that Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon today than when Trump took office and that Trump himself recently said he moved the embassy to Jerusalem for domestic political reasons – to court evangelical Christians – rather than policy reasons.
We also heard the oft used, not to mention inaccurate, tirades against Obama and Biden’s policies on Iran, the rewriting of history on ISIS, and the myopic focus on cost-saving rather than the broader importance of alliances and multilateral organizations.
But you know what we didn’t hear much about? Russia. You’d think that someone would have spent serious time talking about the threat from Russia, which is still trying to interfere in US elections. The fact that Russia didn’t get much of a mention isn’t surprising and probably wasn’t an accident – Trump probably doesn’t want to risk upsetting Vladimir Putin this close to the November election. This egregious omission speaks volumes about how this administration views foreign policy – it focuses on what’s politically expedient.
Overall, the foreign policy content at the RNC was a great metaphor for Trump himself: misleading, unethical if not unlawful, and self-serving.
Arguably even more critical than what decisions the US President makes is how that President arrives at a decision. I haven’t worked for Trump so I can’t speak directly to his process (or lack thereof). However, Trump’s trademark is gross negligence. He claims not to have known about intelligence that is ostensibly uncomfortable for him inconvenient or his personal goals – Russian election attacks, Russian bounties, or the threat of white supremacy for example – while paying disproportionate attention to issues that fit his perceived political needs, like threatening Antifa or focusing on a narrow aspect of border security.
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As a former civil servant, I have worked for a Republican and a Democrat administration. I spent a year in Iraq under President George W. Bush. After returning stateside, I went to the White House to work for President Obama. You don’t have to be a history expert to know that those two Presidents had very different foreign policies. I got to see those differences play out as we designed and executed their foreign policy agendas. I saw firsthand how much the President – the commander-in-chief – determines foreign policy.
Trump 2.0 would mean more of the same, and that’s a terrifying thought not just for US democracy, but for a world that would benefit from sensible guidance from a global leader.