A major loss has occurred in the Trump administration, one that undermines the hard work to conceive and implement a literal “Trump Doctrine” in foreign policy, and it appears that President Trump is unaware of what fully happened or what’s at stake. He didn’t initiate the change. This action was taken by a group under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a coup by insiders. It’s an abrupt step that has shocked foreign-policy voices as diverse as Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and Newt Gingrich.
Kiron Skinner, a brilliant foreign policy expert and renowned Reagan scholar and one of the nation’s most respected African American intellectuals and conservatives, was fired from her position as director of policy planning in the Trump State Department. That position, as I wrote about here at The American Spectator back in May, is one of the most prestigious jobs in the federal government — also known as the George Kennan seat, in honor of its inaugural holder. It was the esteemed Kennan who, under President Harry Truman, crafted the historic “X” letter/telegram, published in Foreign Affairs in 1947. That statement is credited with creating the policy of containment that became the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. Heirs to the seat included the likes of Paul Nitze, Walt Rostow, and a long line of illustrious thinkers. Dr. Skinner is the first black woman to hold the seat. She was one of the single best Trump appointees — an appointment conveniently ignored by much of the media.
The Policy Planning Staff serves a unique role as effectively the State Department’s and president’s think tank on foreign policy. The director maintains a crucial position, and still more crucial was what Skinner was doing in that position for President Trump and for America’s foreign policy.
As I laid out at length in May, Skinner was skillfully formulating and articulating something badly needed. She was establishing the intellectual architecture for an emerging Trump doctrine. She had identified four pillars of what had evolved into something we could cohesively call a Trump Doctrine: 1) national sovereignty, 2) reciprocity, 3) burden sharing, and 4) regional partnerships.
As someone personally critical of Donald Trump on foreign policy from the outset, especially on NATO and Russia, it was for me a tremendous relief to observe Skinner’s work. To cite just one instance, very much unheralded, in April Skinner had convened a NATO Policy Planners’ conference in Washington. It was the first ever gathering of NATO Policy Planners in the 70-year history of the organization, and it could not have come at a timelier moment.
Skinner was striving to communicate the intentionality and purpose at work in Donald Trump’s evolving foreign policy and to help the president himself coalesce and direct his ideas into strategic doctrine. Further, Skinner was striving to create among the Policy Planning Staff an interdisciplinary team of foreign service officers, civil service employees, and academics, all working together with a particular expertise on Europe, Eurasia, and Asian affairs, and with careful attention to powder kegs like Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. She wanted the team to be non-ideological and non-polemical. She was looking to return the Policy Planning Staff to its think-tank model and Kennanesque roots.
Skinner was doing that not only successfully but also publicly, with a national platform that made news and, by extension, was sketching the contours of a Trump doctrine.
Skinner took much heat as she did so, not only from outside the State Department but also inside. In fact, the animus from within State was such that inside forces worked against her so intensely that she was fired. This came as a surprise to Skinner — especially the unprofessional manner. She was escorted out of the building by security. Pompeo wasn’t there. He was traveling when it happened.
Even then, here’s what may most surprise everyone, Trump proponents and opponents alike: the coup orchestrated against Skinner was not carried out by the so-called Deep State, or by plotting Democrats, but by Never Trumpers. The intriguers are political appointees, GOP establishment and bipartisan elites, with a very low view of Donald Trump. They are Republican neocons, liberal on social policy, and committed not to the Trump view of the world but to the George W. Bush view. They would likely pursue the more costly Bush security agenda that Trump vehemently rejects. Mike Pompeo is now surrounded by them. The degree to which Pompeo is cognizant of this is unclear, as he seems strangely fixated on utterly unrealistic presidential ambitions. Pompeo may be a dupe in this situation.
In short, if you endorse Donald Trump’s view of the world, then this is bad news for you. Skinner was unequivocally and unapologetically pro-Trump, which certain people at State did not like at all. The Trump White House, the Oval Office, had nothing to do with the firing.
As to various theories regarding Skinner’s dismissal, several news stories have appeared. The most sensational was a Politico piece quoting unnamed sources charging Skinner with “homophobic” comments, an abusive management style, and other innuendo.
The “homophobic” charge was quickly rebutted by Drs. Scott Sandage and Carol Goldburg, two openly gay colleagues of Skinner at Carnegie Mellon University, where she has been a professor for years. They rushed to her defense. Her university is standing behind her.
One former senior administration official said Skinner was targeted for being too pro-Trump and that the “homophobic” allegations were “absolutely inaccurate.” “It’s the same exact thing they do to a lot of people in the administration, including the president,” said the official. “They can’t call her a racist, so they call her homophobic.”
Respected voices have rallied to Skinner’s side: Niall Ferguson, Kenneth Blackwell, and Victor Davis Hanson, to name a few. Condoleezza Rice, a mentor to Skinner, is reportedly incensed. The same is true for Kay Coles James, president of the Heritage Foundation, who told Politico, “As a fellow African American female conservative Republican that’s sort of an occupational hazard. When a male does exactly the same thing it’s viewed as someone who stands his ground. We are viewed as witches with capital Bs.”
George Shultz, the Reagan secretary of state, has known Skinner for decades, back to when she was his young research assistant at the Hoover Institution. “Kiron is a first-class scholar,” Shultz told the New York Times. “Beyond her scholarly capabilities, Kiron adheres steadfastly to the principles of honesty and integrity.”
Sympathetic articles have run in the Washington Times, Breitbart, Newsmax, and other sources. The public support for Skinner has been overwhelming, and no doubt reassuring after being dumped by Pompeo and friends. Pompeo is surely taken aback by the flurry of people rushing to Skinner’s corner.
Whatever those exact details may be, the big picture is that this isn’t good for President Trump. Dr. Kiron Skinner was aiming to give Donald Trump precisely what he needed: a discernible, consistent foreign policy strategy going forward. She was helping him define an intelligent strategy, respectable and comprehensible to the nation, the world, and our allies and non-allies, all based on Trump’s personal convictions. No one else was doing this. Skinner was, and now she’s gone.
President Trump, not privy to the daily doings and sniping and infighting in the State Department, trusts Mike Pompeo and is deferring to his secretary of state’s judgment. That’s understandable, but it’s also something he will find regrettable. It’s regrettable because of what Skinner’s forced exit will do to the cohesion that had finally been brought to his foreign policy.
Not good, President Trump. Not good.