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When There are No "Adults" Left, Who Will Run a Second Trump Administration?

01 Mar 2024
By Dr Adam Bartley
President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a Make America Great Again campaign rally at International Air Response Hangar at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona. Source: Gage Skidmore /

The “adults” of the former Trump administration have abandoned the GOP favourite and want nothing to do with him. Who will run the government if Trump wins?  

Ample discussion has been dedicated to the implications of a return in the United States of Donald Trump to the White House and what this may mean for foreign policy. In Australia, this has particular significance for defence policy with the AUKUS pillars I and II agreements, as well as other regional challenges, mainly in deterring China from invading Taiwan or abusing its neighbours. While Trump may have a soft spot for Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and even Kim Jong Un, this should concern us less than his leadership capabilities and his proclivity for fly by the seat of his pants policies and decisions. For one with little vision of the big picture of American grand strategy and global order, and little intuition for how to achieve his political agenda, this is troubling indeed.

In the first Trump administration, these characteristics of the “Toddler in Chief,” as the political scientist Daniel Drezner famously called his book, were an unknown. There was at the time in 2016, in some circles at least, the credible expectation that Trump’s leadership qualities, certified as a billionaire real estate mogul, were well placed to lead the country. This claim was never really tested, and should have been revisited when only in the first weeks of his administration Trump’s national security adviser, retired General Michael Flynn, was forced to resign for breaching government protocols over conversations with the Russian ambassador about lifting Russian sanctions. Flynn would later be convicted and then pardoned by Trump for his violations of national security.

Flynn’s resignation would prove more symbolic than many realised as the new administration blundered into the first year. White House aids burned out with an attrition rate of 80 percent. Two-thirds of the assistants to the president by the end of the first year had moved on. In the more important offices and cabinet positions, retention of key leaders was also a problem. Flynn was to be followed by H. R. McMaster, John Bolton, and Robert O’Brien, each adding their own leadership style and flaws to the running and implemention of national security strategy. At Defense, former General James Mattis was a welcome stabilizer who performed and managed his department well, but did not get on with Trump. Mattis left in January 2019, resigning in protest of Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria, leaving local allies exposed. Mattis was followed by Patrick Shanahan (acting, 173 days), Mark Esper (acting, 21 days), Richard V. Spencer (acting, 8 days), Mark Esper again (formal, 109 days), Christopher C. Miller (acting 72 days), and David Norquist (acting, 2 days) as respective heads of the Department of Defense. For contrast, including acting positions, George W. Bush had only two secretaries of defense over 8 years, Obama four, and Biden one (2021 to present).

Why is this important? I have written on this issue elsewhere, and it is worth quoting again here:

instability at the top adds force multipliers to disruption as changes further cascade down through the ranks, eroding key relationships and breaking trust networks pivotal to interagency collaboration. In a networked context… leadership instability often causes reprioritizations among organizations as the policy priorities of the new leader often differ from the old. In the process, projects can be delayed by months as priorities are sorted. “This could go so far as effectively ignoring the previous unit’s work and effectively starting over or even reversing progress.

With such challenges as the war in Ukraine, war in Gaza, and great power competition with China, having a stable secretary of defense is pivotal. Perhaps even more important, however, is the role of the secretary of state, who is the first line of defence in keeping diplomacy and peace ahead of war. During his four years Trump managed to stick to two secretaries (not including acting), but over time undermined them, reducing the cabinet to a second rank agency. For his part, Secretary Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobile, participated in the reduction of the department by some “60 per cent of career ambassadors, 42 per cent of career ministers, and 17 per cent of minister counsellors.” Through attrition and direct termination, the brain and relationship trust of government was terminated with high proportions of these vacancies going “on to effect posts key to the administration’s emphasis on strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific.” Tillerson had difficulty running the department in part because Trump had begun funnelling further authorities to Defense or through his son-in-law Jared Kushner, special assistant to the president. “Kushner at stages was charged with managing a Middle East peace plan, renegotiating NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement), organising a U.S.-China trade deal, and running the Office of American Innovation all independent of State and Tillerson, who he did not get along with, and outside of any coordination from the Chief of Staff and the National Security Adviser.” Mike Pompeo, who was to replace Tillerson after the first year was able to keep his position because he refused to restrain the influences of Kushner, “who did not operate within the structure of the interagency system or maintain a budget and staff to appropriately carry out his roles.”

In the National Security Council, leadership dysfunction ate away at promises to introduce a whole-of-government approach to national security. McMaster, much like Mattis, proved a stabilizer and effective worker, but in the end could not run his office due to Trump’s often ad hoc repudiations and shifts in policy. By the end, McMaster fell into an emotional dejection as his position was increasingly eroded by his president. As Patrick O’Keef has written for the New Yorker, given over to “cavalier existentialism in meetings with some of his foreign counterparts,” all talk of government business became punctuated by the disclaimer that “I might not be here next week!” This behaviour would at times penetrate the responsibilities and officers of other key leaders and their respective staffs,  including Tillerson, National Security Adviser Bolton, chief of staff John Kelly, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and FBI director James Comey.

Again, it is worth quoting what this does to the chain of command and what the impacts are likely to include:

the departure of a single National Security Adviser results in additional NSC departures – adding to the disarray, inhibiting performance, raising the anxiety levels, and decreasing the level of expertise (among other dysfunctions). In some instances, a new National Security Adviser will not only bring new staff into the office, but restructure the office in significant ways that add further disruption.

Going into Super Tuesday (5 March) of the American presidential primaries, these impacting and alarming characteristics of Trump leadership behaviour are not getting the attention they should. The outcome of the 2016 elections produced an anxiety-inducing shock to the system that was at least dissipated somewhat by the “adults in the room.” These adults have since abandoned Trump and want nothing to do with him. Those that remain are the same members and proponents of the former administration, mostly low-level figures, and who may now take on important roles in government. They are still around because they have supported the big lies and conspiracies that Trump has propagated in defence of his legacy and loss in the 2020 elections.

This all brings to question, who will run the government if Trump wins? With the adults gone, a real danger exists that the American government will cease to properly function. The world’s most powerful military will not be able to work through its many challenges, diplomacy will be neglected, and democracy will erode. The Australian government needs a plan for what happens next.

This article is adapted from an academic article by the same author. Whither the Whole of Government? The Trump Administration, National Security, and the Indo-Pacific Strategy (2022).

Dr Adam Bartley is the managing editor for AIIA’s Australian Outlook and weekly columnist for The Week in Australian Foreign Affairs. He is a former Fulbright Scholar and resident fellow at the Elliot School for International Affairs, the George Washington University. Adam also has positions as post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Cyber Security Research and Innovation RMIT University  and as program manager of the AI Trilateral Experts Group. He can be found on Twitter here.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.