Susan Glasser: I’m Susan Glasser, and welcome back to the Global POLITICO. We’re here, once again, with Michael Anton, our guest for this week. He’s the White House director of strategic communications at the National Security Council. I’m delighted to be with him here today. We’re here in I believe what was the old State Department diplomatic reception room, at the Old Executive Office Building, back before the State Department moved to other quarters. Very grand circumstances.
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Michael Anton: Yes, this is the room where the Japanese ambassador and his delegation were held on December 7, 1941, while Cordell Hull was in the next room, learning about the Pearl Harbor attack. And they didn’t know about it, that their government had done it, and Hull came in and yelled at them a little bit, and then kicked them out, and they didn’t have their meeting.
Glasser: Now, did they ever get to go home? I don’t think they did, right?
Anton: You know, I don’t know. I should know that, and I don’t know that.
Glasser: Well, we’ll go back and research it. It’s funny, I wanted this to be a whole conversation about you in this fascinating role as sort of a public intellectual turned strategic communications guy/bureaucratic staffer.
Anton: You can say flak, it’s okay.
Glasser: Flak, it’s not the nicest word, but in Washington, it has an elevated stature maybe compared-but so I thought that’s the conversation it would be. As you know, I’ve been trying to get you to do this almost since we launched The Global POLITICO, but I have to start really with the last week, and the news that’s coming out of the Trump White House when it comes to foreign policy, and we’re all-call it whiplash; Mike Allen called it ‘Operation Normal’ today, other people have a different point of view, but basically in the last week, we’ve seen an astonishing amount of news come out of President Trump when it comes to foreign policy.
He has appeared to, or has in fact, changed his position on key foreign policy issues, whether it’s NATO no longer being ‘obsolete,’ or whether he should use force in response to chemical weapons in Syria; whether China is a ‘currency manipulator.’ He said a week ago it was; yesterday, he said it wasn’t. So, you guys have the foreign policy establishment cheering you on, when it comes to some of you foreign policy actions, and you have a lot of people, like you, who were supportive of President Trump when he was candidate Trump, wondering what’s going on.
So, how should we understand this? Is it a major change of course in the Trump foreign policy?
Anton: No, I don’t think so. I mean, we can go down issue by issue-the most notable thing that the president did, obviously, in the last week and a half, is ordering the strike on Syrian air base, and I think the extent to which that’s being touted as some major change is really oversold. And the president actually clarified this pretty definitively in a subsequent interview in which he said, ‘It’s not going to be the policy of this administration.’ His exact words were, ‘I’m not going into Syria,’ or, ‘We’re not going into Syria,’ but the more fulsome statement of that is he doesn’t intend to use the U.S. military to effect regime change in Syria, which is completely consistent with everything he said during the course of his campaign.
Not just about Syria, but about other countries. He never ruled out strikes that he thinks are in U.S. interests. Keep in mind that this was a strike by Tomahawk missiles; there wasn’t even a manned aircraft, much less boots on the ground. So, I don’t see that in any way as an about-face from what the president promised during the campaign. It might be a little bit out of keeping with some of his rhetoric, but he addressed that when he spoke side by side with the king of Jordan; he said that he was very flexible, and he can be a very flexible person, and he responds to events.
Famous politicians have said the same thing. Lincoln always said-Lincoln once wrote in a letter that he confessed that he had not controlled events, but that events had controlled him. That’s not an exact quote, but it’s something like it, and there’s a famous line of Harold Macmillan’s-what do you fear most? He said, ‘Events.’
Glasser: I believe that was when they asked him what his foreign policy doctrine was, and he said basically, I don’t have one. It’s events.
Anton: I think this president has a foreign policy doctrine, but he’s not rigid. I mean, I could quote Lincoln again; I wish I remembered these quotes exactly where Lincoln said something like-someone asked him, what do you do when the facts change? He says, ‘Well, I change my response. What do you do?’ In other words, you don’t just hew to a rigid line, no matter what happens in the world. You’ve got to be prepared to respond and as the president said, he’s flexible, and he responded in a way that he thought best.
Glasser: He’s flexible; is he also unpredictable by design?
Anton: Oh, he definitely-the only thing maybe predictable about his foreign policy is that he says to the world, I’m going to be unpredictable. He’s said many times-he said he thinks that America has been too predictable, and I think he relishes that, to keep adversaries, competitors alike, sort of off balance.
Glasser: So, you said that he does have a foreign policy doctrine. What is the foreign policy doctrine?
Anton: I don’t know if there’s a way you can state it, the way you could state in one sentence the Truman Doctrine or the Reagan Doctrine, or some famous doctrines of the past. His doctrine, I think, it’s still emerging, it’s still coming together, but the outlines of it were clear in the campaign. It was: there’s an approach to the use of force, there’s an approach to putting American interests first, an approach to putting especially the interest of American workers and the American economy first in trade negotiations.
All these things, I think, have a coherence that unites them, and the NSC with our interagency partners are currently in the beginning stages of working on a document that’s required by Congress, called the National Security Strategy, that when that is eventually published-probably in the fall-will be the Trump doctrine, but it won’t be a sentence. It’ll be-I don’t know how many pages, but a number of-a couple dozen pages that explain this in some detail.
Glasser: So, I want to back up to the question of how you personally got here, because it’s a pretty interesting story, but let’s first go through this dramatic last week. Syria, we all saw the picture of President Trump and his national security aides in the room, cramped quarters in Mar-a-Lago, making the final decision. You were in the room; you’re in that picture.
Anton: I’m going to dine out on that one for a long time, I think.
Glasser: There’s no signature moment like Hillary Clinton gasping with her sort of hand over her mouth in that bin Laden-
Anton: A couple things to clarify: that picture was not-first of all, there wasn’t a live video feed of the strike, and in fact, when the strike was occurring, the president was still at dinner. The picture was taken after the strike, when the president was receiving updates from his-
Glasser: On how successful it was.
Anton: On how it went, and it was very preliminary information because several of his top advisors made clear that it was going to be several hours-at least six hours or so before much more information came in, and we would have a fuller picture.
Glasser: What was President Trump’s decision-making process in terms of deciding to launch these strikes? Was there a lot of debate and back and forth? Was he clear from the beginning he wanted to do this after the reports and the pictures?
Anton: I would say he was clear from the beginning that he wanted options, but that he wanted to have time to consider the options and really think about them. And be able to ask questions, and get answers. It took-the strike-I’m trying to do this from memory, but the strike happened very early Tuesday morning, and I think the president-
Glasser: The chemical weapons attack, you mean?
Anton: Yes, that’s right-the chemical weapons attack, and the president learned about it in detail in the 10:00 hour or something, Tuesday morning, asked for options, options began being developed, he had a first very large meeting about it the following day-did not make a decision that day. Asked a lot of questions, wanted more information, and was briefed a couple subsequent times before making a decision Thursday afternoon.
Glasser: Was there a lot of disagreement among advisors about how to proceed?
Anton: I’ve got to be careful what I say here. I feel privileged to have been in the room. I wasn’t in every single meeting but I was in most of the meetings, and these are highly classified, and I also don’t want to get-undermine the confidentiality that presidents need and deserve in order to make decisions, so that when they have somebody in the room, they can trust that that person isn’t going to go out and explain everything, and make further decision-making more difficult because they tell everybody who said what, and then nobody wants to speak up.
I will just say that he was presented with, I think, sound options. He chose the one that he thought was the most-the best, the most sound, and he was very comfortable with this decision, and I think the team was comfortable with his decision, and the team executed it well.
Glasser: What do you make of all this very-at times, even over the top praise that President Trump is receiving from groups of people who have not been supportive really of anything he’s done up until now. You have a couple different groups-you have the more traditional Republican foreign policy hawks, who are cheering this, and people that you personally have been sort of taking on in a sort of intellectual war of ideas.
Anton: Had been. I’m retired.
Glasser: You’re retired. Okay, well, we’ve got to get into that. And then you also have, of course, the former Obama aides who tried and failed to persuade their boss to do this.
Anton: I mean, look, I think a lot of this comes down to people misinterpreting the president’s campaign rhetoric. He never campaigned as someone who would not use military power in any circumstance-U.S. military power. In fact, he said quite the opposite.
Glasser: No, that’s right.
Anton: He made it plain that he was willing to use U.S. military power in instances when he thought it was in the national interest. And this is an instance in which he determined it was in the national interest. So, the people who think that this was some-either a pleasant, or a disastrous surprise, I leave pleasant or disastrous to their own interpretation, but surprise, I have to say, is maybe a matter of fact, and it didn’t surprise me. So, I don’t know why it surprised so many others.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. He always had this very muscular-
Anton: Well, let me put it this way: whether he did-maybe that’s the wrong way to put it-it didn’t surprise me. But I think it’s completely in keeping with what he said he might do, and in that regard, I don’t see it is in any way a contradiction of his campaign rhetoric or promises.
Glasser: So, you came to this position as-you say you’re retired now, but basically during the campaign-
Anton: Well, I’m retired as an anonymous pundit, I think. I may be a pundit again someday, but I might as well write under my own name, even though I liked my fake name. I thought it was pretty clever.
Glasser: So, our listeners might not all know yet about your career as an anonymous pamphleteer in the tradition of anonymous pamphleteers going back a long way. You adopted the name-
Anton: Of Publius-well, in traditional Latin, it should be Decius, but it looks like Decius, and so I just always pronounced it Decius. So, Publius Decius Mus, known as Decius, who is a consul of the Roman republic in the 4th century BC, who died-it’s a long story. I like the story, though, so I might as well tell it, and you can edit it out, if you think it’s too much.
So, there’s always two consuls in a battle in the Roman republic, two generals, and they took the auguries, which is basically they cut open a chicken and they study its guts. And they, by studying the chicken’s guts, the augurs, the priests, can predict what they think is going to happen. And they said, ‘Well, the chicken guts say that one side is going to win the battle, and the other side is going to lose a general.’
And so Decius said, ‘I understand,’ and when his wing of the battle was faltering, he dismounted his horse and rallied the troops and was killed in the process, but they won-the Romans won the battle. This is the Battle of Vesuvius.
Glasser: So, instead of being killed, your team won, but you’re here in the White House as your afterlife.
Anton: Right, well, the reason I chose the name at the time is because I thought that I was putting at risk a corporate communications career, and if I had been found out, bad things might’ve happened. And there was also, I think, reputational risk, because it was just not-it was a very unpopular stance among any kind of mainstream Republican, and certainly among any kind of intellectual, even a conservative intellectual, to be pro-Trump.
And I’ve taken a lot of ribbing, some of it good-natured, and so of it not so, just to say, well, that was the dumbest fake name-anonymous or pseudonym anyone has ever picked because it all worked out great for you. You didn’t sacrifice anything. Well, yes, okay, that’s basically true, but I think there’s something to the fact that the reputational risk is there. I’ve been called a lot of bad names for what I wrote. A lot of conservatives who used to think reasonably well of me, or at least not hate me, they really don’t like me now.
And it’s because of what I wrote and what I said, and the stance that I took. So, I think there’s something to be said that Decius made a sacrifice.
Glasser: Well, let’s tell our listeners a little bit about what you wrote, for those who aren’t familiar. Probably your best-known work as Decius was an article in the Claremont Review of books called ‘The Flight 93 Election.’ You wrote this under the pseudonym, it came out last fall, it’s been taken as an intellectual statement of Trumpism. In effect, what you wrote was, ‘you’ve got to charge the cockpit or you die.’ And ‘America is headed off a cliff.’
Anton: And it wasn’t-I mean, I don’t mean to discount it, but it was like the least intellectual of a lot of stuff that I wrote in 2016. In fact, there’s a follow-up piece to it called ‘Restatement on Flight 93,’ that’s a lot denser and geekier than-‘Flight 93’ really is a kind of Thomas Paine-esque, you know, barbaric yawp, to add in a little Walt Whitman there.
It’s a yell. It’s kind of a full-throated statement of-
Glasser: Yes, basically, it’s American carnage before President Trump gave us the ‘American carnage’ inaugural. That’s your argument, was that basically we’re screwed.
Anton: My argument was and remains that the two-party system had kind of ossified into an almost de facto one-party system, where the letters after people’s names changed, but the ideology didn’t really change, the ideology didn’t really change, and elections didn’t do much to change the government. And then candidate, now-President Trump was the first to really challenge the system, which explains why there was so much opposition, even within his own party, because he was so different than the entire rest of his own party.
He was-it was almost-I didn’t use this, but it was almost reminded me of the Barry Goldwater slogan: A choice, not an echo.
Glasser: But do you still stand behind some of the more controversial aspects of this, now that you’re working in the Trump White House? I mean, this has not just been seen as a critique of the two-party system as its evolved, but also even many fellow Republicans have argued that it was ‘racist’ or ‘authoritarian’ or ‘anti-Semitic’ or all of the above.
Anton: I deny all of that, every single charge, and I have rebutted it as extensively as I can, with a job like this that takes up a lot of time, but I don’t hold any truck with that, and I can answer every single of one of those charges, and I find them frivolous.
Glasser: You find them frivolous, but your identity was unmasked by The Weekly Standard in February when you had already taken up this job. Did you get any feedback from your colleagues here in the White House? Did they know that you were the author of this before they hired you?
Anton: I don’t think they were fans and readers in the sense that-‘wow, that was you all along?’ It was more like, ‘hey, before you hire me, you need to know the following, because it’ll come out. And I don’t want you to be surprised in hiring somebody and then go, ‘why didn’t you tell us this in advance?” And most of them were like, ‘I never even heard of this, but okay, thanks for letting us know. ‘
Glasser: Well, tell us how you did end up here, though. That seems interesting. Did you know Donald Trump before?
Anton: No, I didn’t.
Glasser: When did you meet him?
Anton: I only met him in the job, and I still haven’t-I’m not one of the close aides who’s around him all the time.
Glasser: Has he read your ‘Flight 93’ article?
Anton: I don’t know.
Glasser: He’s never mentioned it to you?
Glasser: So, how did you end up working at the National Security Council?
Anton: I got involved in the transition because I had worked at the National Security Council before, and was asked to help out on the transition, and ended up being offered a job.
Glasser: And I think you’ve told others that actually it was oddly enough the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel who read your work. You didn’t know him.
Anton: No, I did know him. I actually have known him since we were both in college, going back a long, long, long way.
Glasser: I see.
Anton: And I had lost touch with him. We hadn’t spoken in a while, and he found the work, and then found me, and we reconnected in 2016.
Glasser: And he hooked you up with Michael Flynn.
Anton: He hooked me up with the transition.
Glasser: But it was Michael Flynn who hired you?
Anton: Really, Keith Kellogg who’s sort of the hiring authority, and still is as chief of staff of the National Security Council.
Glasser: Okay. So, everybody now seems fascinated with the inner workings of the Trump White House, and there’s certainly an interesting question as to who is guiding and shaping foreign policy. There’s been nowhere more tumultuous, in some ways than the NSC; you had a national security advisor who lasted only 24 days. Should we feel sorry for you guys here?
Glasser: Is it like Game of Thrones here?
Anton: No. No, I mean, it’s been very, very busy. You’re right; that was an unprecedented situation, but I think we now have-the National Security Council staff is-it actually-I was impressed by how well it worked through such a difficult period. The professional staff, the people from various agencies, plus the direct hires that were brought in with this administration. The business of running the NSC went on and had to go on during that time, and foreign leader calls, and we’re still being made visits, we’re still coming in, interagency meetings were taking place, paperwork had to be prepared, and it all kept getting done very professionally, and well, and on time.
Everybody worked through it almost as if none of that stuff was happening. It was pretty inspiring to see, to be honest.
Glasser: Lot of questions about the role that the president’s political strategist Steve Bannon has been playing on the National Security Council. Last week, in addition to all these other developments we talked about, he was also removed quietly from the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. What role was he playing, and is he still playing?
Anton: He was removed simply from a memo that named him as a permanent member of the Principals Committee. But-
Glasser: So, he’s still going to the meetings.
Anton: He still goes to the meetings. I mean, he doesn’t go to every meeting. He goes to the meetings the president wants him in or that he ought to be in. As you know, the picture that you just referenced, he was in the room for that. The meeting-one of the meetings that I was in where the decision was discussed and debated when the president was in-he was in that.
He’s still a close advisor, has a broad portfolio, and it’s appropriate for him to be in any meeting-the president’s entitled to the advice he wants from any of his advisors, and they can be in any meeting that the president wants them in.
Glasser: So, do you give any credence to the reports that the knives are out for him, or that he might not be long for the White House?
Anton: I don’t pay that much attention to it. It’s just-there’s too much to do in the day to day to day, and everything I ‘know’ — and for listeners, I’m using my fingers here to do air quotes, so I’m putting ‘know’ in air quotes-everything I ‘know’ about this, I read in the papers, when I read those stories.
So, I don’t really know anything because the-I can tell you, it’s not an issue in day-to-day work here. You don’t see this stuff going on, you don’t hear about it, it’s not talked about, everybody gets along. You see people in meetings, they work together collegially, they contribute, they’re doing their jobs. So, that’s the way it looks to me from the inside, plus, I’ll be perfectly honest, I’ve had to deal with a lot of reporting in my job that’s reporting directly on things that I see firsthand, that I know is either wrong, or really shaded in a way that is sort of technically right in certain aspects but wrong in the macro.
So, when I see stories like that, I have to take them with a big lump of salt.
Glasser: Now, you have-Steve Bannon has been very publicly very complimentary of you, and your writings. He said that you’re ‘one of the most significant intellects in the nationalist movement’. You’re seen as one of the staffers in the White House who most represents this kind of populist, nationalist strand of President Trump. Clearly, there are other viewpoints that are competing, whether how fiercely or not, we may not know, but there are different camps of thought about what Trumpism actually means.
Other people have called Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and some of the other advisors from Wall Street, representatives of a more globalist viewpoint. Do you see-walk us through the sort of different schools of thought about how Trump’s foreign policy should play out?
Anton: Well, again, I don’t want to get into internal debates, because I think that deprives the president of the advice that he deserves to get, because without confidentiality, his advisors won’t feel free to-
Glasser: Sure, I understand that, but we need to try to understand these disparate events, which right now, are pretty confusing, as you can imagine.
Anton: Like I said, though, I don’t think they are that confusing. I’m not at all-if I were back out there writing as Decius, or even under my name and outside the administration, I would have no problem whatsoever understanding the Syria strike as completely consistent with my own-even my own vision of what the Trump foreign policy ought to be, and certainly with what the president said on the campaign trail. It doesn’t confuse me a bit.
Glasser: So, what is the Decius headline on the article about the last week in Trump foreign policy? My headline was President un-Obama, or President Not-Obama.
Anton: Well, look, the president did deliberately contrast his actions with President Obama, which I think is fair. I think that’s one of the reasons why he took the action he did. I think he felt that U.S. credibility had been undermined by the stating of a red line, and the refusal to act when that red line was crossed, even though he himself hadn’t stated a similar red line. I think he thought that an assertion of American strength in the face of a clear provocation would be valuable to the restoration of American prestige, and American credibility and resolve in the war.
Which might, in fact, deter future actions along these lines, and that would be in American interests, and in allied interests.
Glasser: So, you think the President Not-Obama theory has a certain resonance, in terms of how he’s making decisions right now?
Anton: I think, yes, the president himself has made a contrast between himself and President Obama on many issues, foreign policy certainly among them.
Glasser: So, tell us a little bit about your-your title is the sort of grand but amorphous director of strategic communications. Your predecessor in the job under President Obama, Ben Rhodes, ultimately had a pretty expansive role, and was seen as President Obama’s mind meld when it came to foreign policy and communicating about it. What is your job description?
Anton: I think mine is-I certainly wouldn’t claim a mind meld with the president. I would say that there’s an element of the very traditional running of a public affairs operation within the NSC. It helps support the White House communications office on foreign and defense policy, support the press secretary, especially; get out a positive message about the president’s foreign policy; respond to media inquiries of which we get many hundreds a day, with as much factual information as we can give, keeping in mind that a lot of what we deal with is classified, so we have to be very careful about what we say and what we don’t say.
And just overall, helping the administration shape its message in the foreign policy and national security areas.
Glasser: So, what does it mean to-in terms of the strategic piece of it, obviously this is a president who’s best known for communicating about not just foreign policy but in general, in tweets. Can you be strategic in a tweet?
Anton: A tweet can be part of a strategy. I don’t know that it in itself is strategic. But that is-nothing-no single piece is. I mean, even the biggest communications tools that a president has-a speech to a joint session of Congress, for instance–is not in itself a strategy. A strategy is bigger than that, and involves many components.
Glasser: So, are you saying these tweets that we see from the president early in the morning are strategic or are you as surprised as the rest of us when you see them?
Anton: I think the president, as he said the other day, he’s his own strategist, and I think he got second-guessed constantly throughout 2015 and 2016 by people-person after person, pundit after pundit, assuming that everything he did was off the cuff, seat of his pants, and he didn’t have a plan. He seemed to outfox them all, time and time again, so I don’t know why people still underestimate him so much, but I think it’s risky to continually underestimate him, given what he’s shown he can do.
Glasser: So, in terms of going back to the strategy or the Trump doctrine or whatever it’s going to ultimately end up being, you find a through line with him when it comes to unpredictability, which he’s talked about; muscular responses; a different set of instincts than President Obama. Unlike a lot of other people, you actually spent a fair amount of time last year, though, also trying to construct Trumpism out of President Trump’s statements. Tell us a little bit more on the substance of it. A lot of what we’ve talked about so far are his attributes of decision making or how he approaches a problem. But what about the world view of Trumpism?
Anton: The world view of Trumpism-I think you could sum it up with this phrase that he’s used many times: America First. He’s been criticized for it because of the American First Committee, which opposed American entry into World War II, but the phrase itself is so tautologically sane, you wonder how anyone could object to it.
The purpose of any government is to put its own citizen’s interests first, and I think the president identified not just on the campaign trail, but long before he even took the campaign trail, that that had ceased really being the operative principle of the American government, and he was going to reorient every aspect of American policy-not just foreign policy, but of course, also foreign policy-back to that single standard: Is what we’re doing in the interest of American citizens?
Glasser: Do you regret now having gone back and tried to sort of resurrect or to reinterpret the reputation of the America First-
Anton: I didn’t really try to reinterpret-I mean, resurrect the…. People were outraged. ‘Well, he can’t use this phrase because it’s affiliated with this group, with this disreputable group.’ My view of the group is that they were wrong on a matter of a very important policy, to oppose entry into World War II. But if you actually take yourself back to 1939, 1940, it seems obvious now in hindsight why American interests were at stake, and why America should get involved in World War II, and why it turned out ultimately to be in America’s interest to get in World War II.
It wasn’t obvious, really, necessarily, to the average person in 1939 or 1940, especially only less than 20 years after World War I, which was highly unpopular, until America got into World War I, and everybody rallied around the flag. But there’s still a lot of questions about was that really the right thing to do? Do we need to get into yet another war in Europe? It’s so far away. These dangers can’t come to our shores.
It took somebody very far-sighted like F.D.R. to realize that this ultimately is going to be a necessity, and the danger will come to our shores.
Glasser: Right, but the critiques-
Anton: F.D.R. himself had to deal with the public opinion that didn’t want it. And it took Pearl Harbor to turn public opinion around, and even all the things he did to support England during 1940, ’41, before Pearl Harbor, were-he almost had to pretend he wasn’t doing them, in order to keep public opinion at bay. And it was very tricky to get Lend-Lease passed, and so on.
Glasser: Right, but the argument that people have had with you is not trying to look back at the rational basis of isolationism before World War II; it’s specifically the fact that people who were connected with the America First Committee, like Charles Lindbergh, had a strain of anti-Semitism that was part of the rationale, and that has been the critique, really, that aren’t you just carrying water for both anti-Semitism, or-
Anton: No. Of course I’m not. I mean, there were anti-Semites affiliated with the America First Committee, and supporting the America First Committee. But is there still a separate rationale, which is the America First Committee rationale for being was isolationism, not anti-Semitism. So, there were some isolationists who were anti-Semites, who affiliated with the America First Committee.
And I’m not justifying that at all; I’m just saying when President Trump uses the phrase America First, the idea of delegitimizing America First by associating with the committee… it’s a kind of faulty logic. You have anti-Semite here; you have the America First Committee here, and then you have President Trump use America First, and so the whole thing kind of comes under this one disreputable banner. And I think that’s completely unfair, to him and to me.
Glasser: Many people said, during the campaign last year, that the use of these phrases was sort of a dog whistle to the anti-Semitic world of the internet that’s out there, to a lot of racists who are out there.
Anton: I don’t believe that at all.
Glasser: Did it make you uncomfortable, that those people were cheering for President Trump?
Anton: Sure. Definitely. I think it-and I know it made him uncomfortable.
Glasser: What’s your response to them? Did you criticize them?
Anton: I think I did. I don’t remember every single word that I wrote during the 2016 campaign, but I definitely criticized a lot of the disreputable stuff that people said during the time.
Glasser: But being in an intellectual foxhole with people like that-
Anton: No, I never thought of myself as being in any kind of an intellectual foxhole with people who hold those views. It’s-the question reeks of a kind of-to be perfectly honest-a kind of guilt by association tactic that I find unfair.
Glasser: Look, a lot of people on both right and left have weighed in, since you were publicly unmasked in February, on this subject, and I’m sure becoming public in this fashion has been a new phenomenon for you, right?
Glasser: Well, let’s go back here to where we’re sitting in the National Security Council, and you worked in the Bush White House, there was also plenty of criticism of the policies of the Bush White House. How is working in the Trump White House different than working in the Bush White House?
Anton: It’s a little more freewheeling. That’s the way to put it. It’s a little more freewheeling. It’s exciting, maybe because you really feel like things are changing here, things-there’s a real possibility, like I say, of a real realignment, that history is being made. Obviously, history was made in the Bush administration, too, but I get the feeling that maybe history is really being made here in a way that it hasn’t been made in a long time.
Glasser: Yes, you had another very interesting article recently, about the liberal international order, and how the foreign policy ‘priesthood’ in both parties really had sort of-
Anton: Yes, it gets back to what I was saying earlier about that there doesn’t seem to be that much difference, especially on the foreign policy side. If there’s bipartisan cooperation, that’s honestly one of the striking facts of our time, is there’s so much bitterness and division on the Hill, and you’d think the parties have never been further apart, but policy-wise over the last couple decades, they seem like they’ve never been closer together, and that’s really been quite true on foreign policy above all.
Glasser: Right, that there’s a relatively narrow spectrum. Now, you have made your own journey from a more traditional Republican, when during the Bush White House years, you were in favor of the Iraq war, along with other people. You’ve since changed your mind about that, right?
Anton: I think the facts just bear it out that it didn’t work the way the administration wanted it to work, hoped it would work, thought it would work, and it just because plain for any eye to see. Like I said, I quoted Lincoln earlier when he says-when he was asked what do you do when the facts change? He says, ‘I change my opinion. What do you do?’
Glasser: As this new administration encounters the facts, a lot of people have the view that he will move away from revolutionary approaches, and more towards the way Washington really works. There’s an old saying that Washington is like a casino; the house always wins, sooner or later. Do you take that view, having worked here before?
Anton: I think to some extent-there’s another saying that campaigning is poetry, governing is prose. There is some extent to which governing always involves compromise, as the president has often said, too, he’s a deal-maker, and one of his tactics is to stake out a pretty ambitious goal or demand that it’s not as real necessarily as a real demand. It’s a negotiating demand and the deal gets worked out in the negotiating.
I think you’re probably going to see some of that, and you maybe have already seen some of that, and that, in one sense, that’s no different than what’s happened to other presidents, but in another sense, I think it will be different; the tactics and the way you’re going to see it implemented will be different than what other presidents have done.
Glasser: But so, you are familiar with how another White House has worked. What does that mean in practice? Are you seeing a lot of strategizing over deal-making and leverage and things like that? Give us some granularity.
Anton: I’m not in any domestic policy discussions, so when it comes to negotiations with the Hill on the healthcare bill, I don’t see any of that firsthand. I see mostly the interagency process of the formulation of foreign policy, which isn’t deal-making. I do see the president interact with foreign leaders sometimes, so I see that, but it’s early days, and most of these meetings are first meetings, and relationship-building meetings, and not meetings that take place months later when you’re at the table, working on a specific deal.
I think we’re going to see that later in the year and throughout the rest of the administration, but in the first six months, the vast majority of these meetings are preliminary. They’re people he’s never met, or he’s only talked to on the phone.
Glasser: Right, these foreign leaders, he’s spent a lot of time actually with-both in person and on the phone, although he doesn’t seem to be traveling abroad. Are we going to see him travel more?
Anton: Yes, he’s already said that he will go to the NATO summit in Brussels in May, and to the G7 in May, and to the G20 in July, and I think you’ll probably see other foreign travel, too, although we haven’t announced anything.
Glasser: But it’s not going to be-President Obama, I think I looked this up, took ten trips his first year. It’s not going to be at that level.
Anton: I don’t have any other trips than those to announce at this point. But I would say stay tuned.
Glasser: Okay, so what has impressed you or what you have been surprised by if anything in all of those early calls and meetings. He’s clearly spent a lot of time with leaders from the Middle East. Just last week, we had both the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan here.
Anton: I guess one of the things is that he’s really good at building a personal rapport with people who you think have just-are so different from him, and have such different experiences, backgrounds and cultures and religions and so on, that where’s the bridge going to be? And he finds a way to do it, every time.
Glasser: Who has he gotten along with best, personally?
Anton: Best, personally? Oh, God, there have been so many great meetings. He got along tremendously with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, with [British Prime Minister] Theresa May, with [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi. Maybe the most surprising would have been [Chinese] President Xi. You’d think that there would be a big gulf between the two there, and they spent two days together-or maybe not quite. Over the course of two days, they spent a lot of time together, and really hit it off well.
Glasser: What was the basis do you think-the commonality that made them hit it off?
Anton: Hard to say exactly what the basis was. I think that they both recognized that they were trying to do the best for their individual countries. I think they both appreciated the tough stand that each took, in being-in trying to mix a friendly rapport and building a personal relationship, while still being very stalwart about what they were trying to accomplish for their own side. I think he saw in President Xi the kind of negotiator that he is, and that he respects.
Glasser: So, what about Russia and Vladimir Putin. We haven’t talked about this a lot, but obviously, it’s been a huge question mark surrounding what does President Trump really think. He hasn’t met Putin face to face yet in this new role. Obviously, Rex Tillerson was there this week. He said very admiring things publicly about Vladimir Putin, and even now, when there’s much more perceived coldness towards Russia in the wake of Syria and it seems like we’re no longer headed for Russia reset three, at least not now. How should we understand this, and what do you personally make of President Trump’s statements that seem to be admiring of Putin’s rule?
Anton: Well, I would go by his most recent statements in particular, and what he said yesterday with the secretary-general of NATO standing by his side, that he acknowledged that relations seemed to be at a very low point right now, but he’s still hopeful that the relationship can get better, and that he can even build a positive relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Glasser: But even then, it was interesting, he didn’t personally criticize Putin.
Anton: No, but he acknowledged the currently poor state of U.S.-Russia relations, at a moment when his secretary of state was in Moscow, and had met with Putin. I think the meeting was already over by the time the president went out and spoke. I mean, it is a sign that Putin gave Secretary Tillerson two hours. Now, I’m not sure that they were the two most warm, cordial, friendly, fuzzy hours of all time, but if the Russians-
Glasser: Words never associated with Vladimir Putin.
Anton: Right, well, but if the Russians really wanted to snub the United States, there was a lot of things they could do, and one of them was don’t give the secretary of state two hours of the president’s time. And they did that. I think that shows, at least, some little opening to maybe further improvement, and Secretary Tillerson and the Russian foreign minister both acknowledged that things had to get better, and that they immediately-they recognized it, and they set in place some mechanisms to get that going as soon as possible.
Glasser: So, you still think that President Trump is hopeful that there will be a moment in time at which there can be sort of a reset in relations?
Anton: I don’t know that I would use that word. That was a sort of Obama administration word. We’ve never used the ‘reset,’ except to criticize it as a failure, which I think is fair. What he’s said is he wants better relations. He even said at his big press conference in the East Room now a month and a half ago or so, I’d like to make a deal with Russia. I don’t know if I can, but I’d like to. I think that’s a completely reasonable approach.
Who wants bad relations with a country that big, with that large a role in the world, a nuclear arsenal and so on? Nobody should want poor relations with a country of that strategic importance. We should all want better relations. We just should want those better relations on terms that are favorable to U.S. interests, and that’s the one thing I absolutely trust President Trump to do is not to make a bad deal for America, just for the sake of getting a deal.
Glasser: So, a lot of people say, if you look at the history of the modern presidency, that the first year in office almost invariably there is a major crisis, a major foreign policy crisis that comes from nowhere, and really defines the administration, so we can talk about doctrine and strategy and all that kind of stuff, but in the end, it’s the crisis that often dictates how we remember these presidents. That was certainly true for George W. Bush, who came in talking about a different kind of presidency than the one he ended up having. A lot of people think North Korea might be the big crisis for President Trump.
Anton: Although I would immediately say you can’t call North Korea a crisis that came out of nowhere. It’s been brewing since the early 1990s, at the very least, and has caused problems for at least four, now five-I’m thinking-certainly for Clinton, W., Obama, so at least four, and at the tail end of the Bush 41 administration, although it wasn’t yet quite what it became in ’93, ’94 for Bill Clinton. This is one of the world’s most kind of obvious festering problems for two decades-two and a half decades now.
Glasser: Is there now a linkage in our policy with China between trade and more cooperation on North Korea?
Anton: Well, the president made such a link in a tweet-
Glasser: Yes, that’s what I’m referring to.
Anton: And like I said, that’s one of the-he chooses to reveal as much as he wants to reveal. I don’t see it as my role to reveal more than he wants any of the staff to reveal, so I’m going to leave that one alone, but certainly one of the things that we’re contemplating, we know-let me put it this way, the American administration knows that making progress on North Korea absolutely requires Chinese cooperation, because China alone among the nations of the world has real leverage over the North Korean regime, and if China agrees to use that leverage more fulsomely than they have hitherto, we think that can make real progress.
And so we’re exploring ways to persuade China to use the leverage that we think they have-that we know they have.
Glasser: And if that doesn’t work out, which is certainly possible, do you believe there is a real military option with North Korea?
Anton: I would say the following about that, that the military-no U.S. president since North Korea emerged as a serious problem has ever taken military action off the table, but no U.S. president has hitherto used it, either. So, it’s certainly not something anyone wants to elevate to option number one, and it’s certainly not even something anyone wants to be forced to resort to.
For reasons of prudence, it can’t be taken off the table at a juncture like this, but every other option is going to be explored first because the consequences would be pretty dire, as we know for the region and for our allies, and for ourselves, and for a lot of the people.
Glasser: So, one of the observations people have made about the Trump National Security Council, even compared with its predecessor, is that it’s a pretty militarized group here. There’s a lot of colonels; of course, you now have General McMaster as the new national security advisor. His predecessor General Flynn was also a general. You’re kind of a civilian in-
Glasser: Of course. But you’re definitely a kind of a civilian intellectual type in their midst. How much do you think it’s been a correct analysis to say this is a pretty militarized kind of foreign policy, that team that’s being set up?
Anton: I think the bulk of the National Security Council staff is typically made up-typically, by that I really mean always, because that’s just the way it’s structured. Career civil servants, military, and intelligence officers from within the government who served one- to two-year terms on detail and go back. And we have, just like any other NSC, a range of foreign service officers, some U.S.A.I.D. civilians, D.O.D. civilians, serving military, retired military, intelligence officers. We’ve got that mix.
Typically, the single largest component of people-the single largest source-let me put it that way-of any-on the NSC staff, is the State Department. So, State Department civilians. I don’t think this NSC is any different in that. I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head and what the agency mix is. The fact that you haven’t had a serving officer to head the NSC since Colin Powell-when the person at the top is an active duty, not even retired lieutenant general, that gives a certain appearance. But if you look below that, and you look at actually at the staff, I think you’ll see, it’s not radically different than it has been in prior administrations of both parties.
Glasser: But have things changed a little bit around here, since General McMaster came in? There were a lot of reports of bad morale and concern that the professional staff felt they weren’t being included in things? Did he make structural changes to address those complaints?
Anton: He did make some changes. In fact, one of the first things he did was call an all-hands meeting, and asked for staff input. And people wrote down their ideas on cards, and he analyzed that entire package, and after some due deliberation, made changes based on staff input and then sent out a memo informing the staff, and then called the second all-hands meeting, in which he discussed those, and took further questions.
So, he definitely put his own stamp on the institution, and he did that, in part, based on his own ideas, and in part based on the feedback that he got from the staff.
Glasser: What do you feel like was a big thing that changed as a result of that?
Anton: I don’t think he did anything that was too radical. I think the main change between this and the prior administration was-and is ongoing-it’s getting smaller. It had peaked, not-this is well before the end of the last president’s last term, but the National Security Council staff had peaked at well over 400, and it’s been in the process of coming back down ever since.
And I think you’ve also seen a re-delegation of authorities back to agencies that should-that in General McMaster’s view, and in the president’s view, and in the principals’ view, ought to reside at those agencies, and not be run through here in an operational manner.
Glasser: Do you see this as a leakier White House than its predecessors?
Anton: I don’t-you know, it’s a good-I mean, all White Houses leak. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have anything to read in the papers every day, and since the papers have been publishing now for hundreds of years, I assume that this has been going on-
Glasser: There seem to be extra stories, though.
Anton: That could be. That could well be. I don’t know how to measure it, though.
Glasser: Fair enough. Well, you’ve been very generous with your time today. I thought we’d just close on this. We’ve talked a little bit about your untraditional background here, but you’re certainly the only person in this White House who’s written a whole book on fashion and Machiavelli, so two final questions. Number one, what do you think Machiavelli’s advice would be for Donald Trump? And number two, on fashion, it’s not a super fashionable place. Aside from you yourself, who would you say is the other best dressed staffer?
Anton: I think it’s sort of a skinny tie, skinny lapel era right now, which I’ve never been that into, but Jared Kushner clearly has very good taste, although he dresses very, very soberly. It’s usually just some dark gray, white shirt, and a solid tie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything else. And you know, skinny lapel, skinny ties are not kind of my things, but it works for him.
Glasser: And I should note, you’re wearing a very nice looking sort of black and white suit with a pale pink shirt, and a black and white tie, at the moment. Machiavelli, what’s his advice to Donald Trump?
Anton: As much as I know Nick, as well as I know Nick, and Nick and I have known each other for about 30 years, I always hesitate to say what he would say in a current circumstance. I think he would like the president’s unpredictability. I think he certainly would like his focus on putting the citizens of his own country first; he would like his small r-republican spirit.
I don’t know exactly what he would say beyond maybe keep doing what you’re doing. And I have to caveat that now, by saying that Nick has a bad reputation because of all these outrageous things that he said. This is one of the other things maybe that Decius has in common with him, and that’s part of the reason that I chose the name. I think Machiavelli knew when he wrote his books that the things he was writing were going to give him a bad reputation, but he felt like the intellectual climate of his time required shock therapy.
And if he just wrote a regular sort of sober treatise along scholastic lines, nobody would read it. It wouldn’t have the effect that it had to have. And so, he needed to deliver some shocks to the system, which he did, in pungent language, and which have, for 500 years, given him the reputation that he has. And he was willing to accept that.
He knew that would happen, and he thought it was the price he had to pay. But if you spend time with his books over a very long period, you realize how actually philosophic and humane he is underneath the outrageous surface. So, when I say that he might pleased with some of President Trump’s actions, I hope no one interprets that as saying that the murderous Machiavelli, as Shakespeare’s Richard III calls him, is the one I see approving of President Trump’s actions, I mean Leo Strauss’ Machiavelli, the great mind who revived Western philosophy in the 16th century.
Glasser: That’s a pretty nuanced view. Do you think President Trump has anything like that kind of a view of Machiavelli?
Anton: I don’t know.
Glasser: Never discussed it with him?
Glasser: All right. We’re going to leave it at that. President Trump and Machiavelli. Thank you so much. My guest this week is Michael Anton at the National Security Council. I’m Susan Glasser at The Global POLITICO. I’m delighted that you joined us today, Michael, and also to our listeners, thank you again for joining us. I hope you’ll subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. I hope you’ll give us feedback. You can email me any time at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send me more suggestions for names of people to interview, as you already have, and thanks again to Michael and to you, the listeners.