'What President Trump Meant to Say'
I would have been fired on the spot if I spoke like Donald Trump.
Over the course of nearly seven years, I served as spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon. Using words to explain national security missions was my day-to-day mission: in crisis, to explain changes in foreign policy; in rare moments of calm, to share the stories of America’s intelligence officers and military service members. I served two CIA directors and two secretaries of defense from both political parties.
I sat through hundreds of meetings with foreign counterparts, including allies and adversaries, conducted countless press conferences, and traveled to dozens of countries. From dealing with issues like North Korea, the South China Sea, Iran, al-Qaeda, and NATO, I saw how words matter in advancing American interests—and how words used the wrong way can lead to serious problems.
Given those experiences, it is hard to fathom what it would be like to stand up and represent a Donald Trump administration at the Pentagon or State Department podium. After all, clarity and consistency are the coin of the realm when you need to articulate the position of the United States on issues such as nuclear proliferation, global terrorism, and cybersecurity. Donald Trump is neither consistent nor clear and that makes him dangerous.
Where he’s spoken up on the issues, he’s been reckless. He has taunted our neighbor Mexico, cozied up to an increasingly aggressive Russian President Vladimir Putin, spooked our South Korean allies, suggested that China is going to “rape” our country, and confused and startled Europe with his inconsistent and mystifying comments on NATO.
I would have been fired on the spot had I been this careless in my press conferences.
Trump said earlier this year that when he seeks foreign policy advice, first “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain.” That’s code for “I wing it.” You cannot wing it when you’re looked to for global leadership. I’ve seen reporter interviews go south, leading to tension with foreign officials, and the occasional press conference gaff garble major policy, leading to confusion with other countries and Congress. You cannot just arrive in a foreign country, start talking, and leave with anything but a mess on your hands. Getting foreign policy right takes strategy, planning, and receptivity to advice.
If his personal style, his campaign’s operating mode, and his performance in the first presidential debate are any indication, he would exercise none of those three essential pillars of successful foreign policy. By his aides own admission, he did not pay attention during prep sessions (another firing offense for spokespeople) for what was arguably the most important moment in his life. He flies by the seat of his pants, clearly does not prepare before talking in high stakes situations, and counsels mostly himself on the most important issues in world politics. Even Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate who could not name a single world leader in a recent interview, had the dignity to admit when he does not know what he is talking about.
This is a recipe for an American foreign policy disaster. Presidents need seasoned advisers, from policy experts to communicators to military leaders. One person cannot be an expert on the full range of national security issues. You need a team around you to offer different perspectives, guide your thinking, and help you implement your decisions.
This is what makes Hillary Clinton a far superior leader on foreign policy. As the first debate showed, she prepares. She knows how to frame complex issues and she is rationally decisive. And she knows how to cogently convey America’s interests.
If Trump is elected, we would have four years of spokespeople saying “What the president meant to say,” or “The president apologies to so-and-so leader for his offensive comments.” It would be impossible as a spokesperson to maintain your credibility with reporters and by extension the American people.
Just look at Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines who has vulgarly attacked President Obama and rashly cancelled military exercises with the U.S. military. At the end of the day, the US-Filipino relationship will probably survive. But do we need an American president demonstrating the same kind of erratic conduct that jeopardizes our standing in the world when there are so many threats to face?
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the king laments, “Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” If we elect Donald Trump president of the United States, “words without thoughts” might well become our new foreign policy mantra – and that would be a nightmare for our nation’s security.
We need a steady hand, an experienced voice, and someone who values teamwork to guide our foreign policy into the next decade. Donald Trump falls woefully short measured against those essential yardsticks. He’s the communications equivalent of an unguided missile.
George Little is a partner at Brunswick Group. He previously served as lead spokesman at the Pentagon and CIA, as assistant to the U.S. secretary of defense for public affairs and Pentagon press secretary, and as director of public affairs and chief of media relations for the Central Intelligence Agency.
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