President Donald Trump is confronting another crisis in the Middle East this week without a permanent national security adviser – a role he hopes to fill with someone who shares his foreign policy views at a moment they appear newly muddled.
Since firing John Bolton by tweet a week ago, Trump has interviewed or spoken with several candidates for the job, according to officials familiar with the matter. Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday, the President named five of them.
They include a former deputy national security adviser who is well-liked inside the Pentagon; the hostage negotiator Trump personally dispatched to help free a US rapper from Swedish prison; the top foreign policy aide to the vice president; the Energy Department’s top nuclear official; and a well-known former government official who appears frequently on cable news.
The President hasn’t made a final decision, and later his press secretary said there were some names the President did not list who are under consideration.
The job opening provides Trump an opportunity to name someone more likeminded, but a crisis over Saudi oil fields that were brazenly attacked this weekend lays bare his dueling instincts in the region, inclinations that ended Bolton’s tenure and are bound to complicate his replacement’s.
Following the attacks, Trump huddled at the White House on Sunday and Monday with his national security team, including the Bolton deputy, who is now filling the adviser role in an acting capacity. Other senior officials have also taken a lead in coordinating a US response to the attacks, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is expected to travel to Saudi Arabia this week at Trump’s behest.
In the sessions, officials presented Trump with his military and nonmilitary options, including new sanctions, according to an administration official. In mulling his options for responding, Trump finds himself drawn in opposing directions. While he has long sought to appear strong on Iran, he has promised voters he won’t be drawn into another Middle East war and says he’s open to talking.
Some of those in this week’s meetings have included potential successors to Bolton, an Iran hawk who departed partly over disagreements on the issue. In his interviews and in interactions over the past days, Trump has sought to gauge whether those vying for the post agree with his overarching view that the United States should limit its activities abroad, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump has solicited recommendations on the selection from advisers and friends, but officials said he would likely rely principally on advice from Pompeo, whose stature in the administration has increased. Trump said last week that he’d asked his chief diplomat if he was interested in also taking on the national security adviser job but that he had declined.
Trump could look to choose someone with a lower profile than Bolton, who was a television commentator before the President hired him, according to one source familiar with the process, who cited Trump’s tendency to overcompensate in reaction to events like Bolton’s ouster. In that scenario, the job would appear more like a traditional staffer.
While Trump said in his tweet dismissing Bolton that he’d name a new national security adviser this week, White House officials have been more circumspect in the timing of an announcement. It’s not clear whether a new adviser will be in place when Trump travels next week to the United Nations General Assembly or for a state visit on Friday by Australia’s prime minister.
“I’m not sure when he’s going to name that person,” spokesman Hogan Gidley told CNN at the White House on Tuesday. “There are a lot of folks who want that position, he’s been in talks with many of those people. He wants to make this a really strong pick to protect the American people but also to carry out his policies, and that was something that wasn’t happening.”
Some lawmakers have already expressed concern that Trump is confronting increased tensions in the Middle East without a national security adviser or the seasoned military officials who once populated his Cabinet.
“I’m not encouraged because, frankly, some of the people I wish were there – I wish Jim Mattis was in the room right now, I wish H.R. McMaster was in the room,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, naming the generals who once served as Trump’s defense secretary and his second national security adviser.
“He doesn’t even have a national security adviser. So that’s a worry,” King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said on CNN’s “New Day.” “This is a decision that should be based upon a lot of consultation with allies and with advisers. That doesn’t seem to be taking place.”
It’s not the only area Trump is relying on acting officials; he entered hurricane season without a permanent Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator or a confirmed secretary of homeland security.
As he looks for someone to replace Bolton, who clashed with Pompeo and other members of the national security apparatus, Trump hopes to find an individual willing to carry out his policy directives and defend them on television.
He’s interviewed Ricky Waddell, who acted as a deputy to McMaster and is now assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Waddell enjoys support inside the Pentagon and from Pompeo, who has also voiced support for Robert O’Brien, the Trump administration hostage negotiator who interviewed for the post last week.
Trump said as he flew between Albuquerque and Silicon Valley on Tuesday that he liked Waddell “a lot” and that O’Brien is “fantastic.”
Other officials being considered include Keith Kellogg, the national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence.
“I love Keith Kellogg. Keith Kellogg, he’s been with me from the beginning. He’s great,” Trump said.
Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, the current under secretary for nuclear security at the Energy Department, and Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst who served as chief of staff of the National Security Council last year, rounded out Trump’s list.
Other officials believed to be under consideration include the US special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, who is close to Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, but who was criticized as a “Never Trumper” by other advisers. Trump had also been considering Rob Blair, a national security aide to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who is nonetheless considered a long shot inside the West Wing.
Even as he searches for a national security adviser more aligned with his stance, Trump has sent confusing messages about his goals abroad and contradicted some of his most senior aides. The inconsistencies expose the hazards for any potential national security adviser hoping to help Trump shape his foreign policy ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
After declaring Sunday that the US was “locked and loaded” to respond to the attack on Saudi oil fields, Trump appeared more restrained a day later, saying he did not want war. And after top advisers, including Pompeo, named Iran as the culprit, Trump appeared less certain, saying he was waiting for the final intelligence reports to assign blame.
He was also directly at odds with Pompeo – and himself – when he claimed it was wrong to say he would meet without conditions with Iranian leaders, something he had said himself on two occasions that he would do and that his top diplomat repeated often.
He’s not expected to decide on a response until his secretary of state returns from the region, according to administration officials. Trump has yet to assign firm blame on Iran, saying he’s waiting for the Saudis to name the culprit themselves.
After two days of sometimes opposing messages, administration officials on Tuesday seemed careful to strike a middle ground. Trump is not “going to take anything off the table” or “put anything on the table,” Gidley told reporters at the White House.
Pence, speaking at the conservative Heritage Foundation, sought to distill Trump’s message.
“I promise you we’re ready. As the President said, we don’t want war with anybody. But the United States is prepared. We’re locked and loaded and we’re ready to defend our interests and our allies in the region, make no mistake about it,” he said.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.