There is a sharp bifurcation emerging in the Trump cabinet, underlined by the imminent nomination of Jon Huntsman as U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Should Huntsman be nominated and confirmed (and there is no reason to think that won’t happen), the onetime Utah governor, Obama ambassador to China and presidential candidate will join what is emerging as a somewhat unconventional but surprisingly strong defense and foreign policy team.
Former Marine general Jim Mattis at Defense is widely respected as one of the foremost military leaders of his generation; National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster is, like Mattis, a thinker and strategist known for speaking truth to power; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson doesn’t have a track record in foreign affairs but the former ExxonMobil CEO is a savvy international negotiator; former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, now ambassador to the U.N., is also not long on the usual experience for that role but is already proving herself to be no pushover; and former Iowa governor Terry Branstad has deep ties to Beijing that will likely serve him well as ambassador to China.
If Branstad needs a sounding board, he’ll have Huntsman, who proved to be a strong voice for America in Beijing (despite the wags who say he doesn’t speak Mandarin as well as advertised).
And if Huntsman wants some tips on how to deal with Vladimir Putin and the myriad other problems he will face as our man in Moscow, few people in corporate America were able to deal with the Russians as well as Tillerson.
On the campaign trail, Trump frequently said he would hire the best, and that is starting to look half true.
However, while the cadre charged with defending the republic and representing the country’s interests abroad has depth and in most cases earned credibility, Trump’s domestic policy crew is mostly a mish-mash of politicians and aspiring politicians without a shred of experience in the departments to which they have been assigned (Rick Perry at Energy and Ben Carson at HUD); pols and aspiring pols with an agenda (Tom Price at Health & Human Services, Scott Pruitt at the EPA and Betsy DeVos at Education); big-time donors (Linda McMahon at the Small Business Administration); and the Wall Street guys who have been handed the keys to the economy (Steve Mnuchin at Treasury, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross). One outlier is the Homeland Security chief, former General John Kelly.
In Huntsman, Trump gets not only an experienced diplomat but a former business executive with significant experience in international trade, having served at Commerce and as deputy trade representative. The president also gets another billionaire; Huntsman’s family business is the hugely successful chemicals company Huntsman Corp.
But the larger question is: Why is foreign affairs in such seemingly solid hands while the home front is being manned by so many amateurs?
Donald Trump has had business dealing around the globe, including some that are highly suspect. In fact, the current issue of The New Yorker does a deep dive into a questionable Trump Organization project in Azerbaijan. But foreign policy is hardly his forte.
So if the team he has put in place is a recognition by the president that he knows what he doesn’t know, that’s a good thing.