Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt is no Trump cheerleader. During the 2016 campaign, he warned that Trump did not have “the temperament to be president,” and said the Republican Party failing to deal with the consequences of Trump winning the nomination was akin to “ignoring Stage IV cancer.”
And yet over the year of Trump’s presidency, Hewitt has made clear he’s no reflexive #NeverTrumper either, emerging instead in recent weeks as perhaps the most public advocate for Trump’s hawkish new national security team at a time when others, even inside his own party, have voiced increasing fears that Trump is surrounding himself with war-minded hawks who may play to the president’s worst instincts.
An ardent Reaganite who still preaches the gospel of the Gipper on his influential morning radio show, his weekly MSNBC cable show and in his prolific op-ed contributions, Hewitt has not necessarily changed his mind about Trump’s temperament or qualifications for the job. Indeed, he tells me in a new interview for The Global POLITICO that the president “has no strategy” and little to fall back on foreign policy-wise but a real estate developer’s reluctance to burn bridges and a television producer’s flair for drama.
But Hewitt, an influential voice among national security-minded conservatives struggling over what to think of the GOP’s Trumpian remake, has emerged publicly to challenge the foreign policy types in both parties who have criticized Trump for his recent national security purge. He argues that it was “necessary for national security” and that the new team of incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton is an all-star conservative lineup that “reminds me of late Reagan-era breadth and depth of competence,” which is about as high praise as it gets for Hewitt, for whom the Reagan era remains a touchstone for American greatness.
Hewitt’s praise for Bolton, Trump’s controversial pick to become his third national security adviser in little more than a year, is perhaps the most surprising, and even over the top. During George W. Bush’s presidency, a former State Department colleague memorably testified that Bolton was a “quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy,” a line that helped sink Bolton’s confirmation as U.N. ambassador even by a Republican-controlled Senate. But Hewitt tells me Bolton is “as gracious, charming, and good-humored as anyone I know” despite his pugnacious Fox News persona, insists he is a “truly class A intellect” and will run Trump’s National Security Council with a combination of the best principles learned from master national security advisers Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. (A staff purge, Hewitt hints, is almost surely part of it, with Trump “looking for John Bolton to bring a brand new group of people into the National Security Council who can be counted on to be discreet and supportive of whatever the decision is.”)
“I think with this talent,” Hewitt told Meet the Press after the decision, “you have a foreign affairs team to rival Jim Baker, Howard Baker, Colin Powell and George Shultz at the end of the Reagan era. I am overjoyed. John Bolton has prepared for this job his entire life,” Hewitt said.
In this week’s Global Politico, Hewitt expands on why he thinks the Trump national security team could be the second coming of the Reagan dream team, even if the president himself is not quite the Gipper; worries that Republicans are on track to the lose the House this fall; explains why they are sticking with Trump anyways; and recommends some old-fashioned spy novel escapism.
“The second line, as they would say in hockey, has come onto the ice, and it’s going to work much better than the first,” Hewitt tells me.
You can read the rest of our conversation below, or listen to it in full here.
Susan Glasser: Well, hi, I’m Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global Politico. Once again, our guest this week, I’m delighted to say is Hugh Hewitt, the one and only radio host, TV host, columnist, multiplatform decoder of the Trump era. How about that? That’s a new title for you.
Hugh Hewitt: That is. That’s the first time I’ve been called a decoder. I kind of like that. Like the rings you got in Cracker Jack boxes.
Glasser: Well, exactly. I mean in a way, that’s what all those serial guests you’re having on each morning are, are different facets of this very complicated problem the hive mind is trying to figure out, which is, what is the Trump administration, and in particular for our audience, what does it mean for foreign policy?
We’ve had a huge shakeup over the last couple of weeks. Call it a purge if you like; just call it a shakeup; call it a reorg—but, you have been out there saying you think this is going to be a good thing, when it comes to the appointment of John Bolton as national security advisor, when it comes to Mike Pompeo as the new secretary of state. Why are you so confident this is going to lead to a better national security team for President Trump?
Hewitt: Well, thank you for having me, Susan. I am impressed with this selection because it reminds me of late Reagan-era breadth and depth of competence. So, this week I was at the Hoover Institution; got to meet George Shultz for the first time, even though I had worked in the Reagan White House—I was a briefcase-carrying kid, so I never got to talk to the sainted ones, like George Shultz.
I do, though, know that era pretty well. Secretary Shultz was at State; Secretary Baker was at Treasury; Howard Baker was the chief of staff; Bob Gates was the head of the CIA; over at Defense you had Carlucci. So, by the end of the Reagan era—of course you had Vice President George H. W. Bush, and you had Attorney General Edwin Meese—by the end of the Reagan presidency, they had a well-oiled foreign policy machine.
But, at the beginning of the Reagan presidency we had Al Haig and an assassination attempt and a lot of chaos, and a great deal of disorientation. So, I always kind of look at the first year of a presidency as a shakedown cruise, and the president—no matter which party and no matter which decade—has to find people with whom he is comfortable—or she, in the future, working—and get them installed. It’s clear he’s very comfortable with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Director Pompeo gave me an interview out at Langley for MSNBC in late June of last year—I think it was his first interview—and at that time he told me on the record—it’s on tape—that he would go four or five times a week to the White House and spend a lot of facetime with the president, and in every meeting North Korea came up.
And so I’m not surprised that he has asked the director to become the secretary. I am hopeful that Shultz sort of competence accompanies him there. I think it will. I’ve talked to Mike Pompeo for a long time, because he’s an Orange County, California, boy, and so I have a natural connection with him because I’ve lived out in Orange County for nearly 30 years. And he is a friend of my dear friend John Campbell, in Congress, and that’s how we were introduced, and I was told by John when he retired—he was a regular guest of mine on the radio—have Pompeo on; he’s the smartest guy in Congress.
And sure enough, he was number one in his West Point class. So, I think raw intelligence is there. A lot of competence; like Shultz, who went ashore at Peleliu, Mike Pompeo has been in battle. Like Shultz, he’s held other jobs before he became Secretary of State, though not as many as George Shultz, was the most experienced Secretary of State ever, I think.
Glasser: I’m still reeling from your disclosure you never met George Shultz before; this is incredible.
Hewitt: Well, yeah, it’s one of those things where, when you’re a briefcase-carrying 30-year-old lawyer in the White House, you don’t go up and tap the Secretary of State on the shoulder and say, “I’d like to say hello, Mr. Secretary.” I got to know General Meese pretty well, and General William French Smith because I worked for them, and Fred Fielding and Dick Houser, but not the State people; they’re different from the political people and the lawyers, and they don’t much like us.
Glasser: By the way, is that how you got to know John Bolton, in the White House counsel’s office?
Hewitt: No. I got to know John Bolton after the Reagan years, because, again, he was the assistant attorney general for the civil division, which was quite—it still is—a vaunted post. That was his first, I think, advise and consent post. I was the special assistant doing FISA work for Bill Smith and Ed Meese, so I was not—I got to go to the staff meetings and sit on the wall and say nothing. Those were the years in which 30-year-olds were expected to take notes, not have opinions.
Glasser: And not run the world.
Hewitt: Yeah. So, in any event,
Bolton I got to know when the ambassador after the U.N. and when he began doing a lot of media, we would cross paths in green rooms. We became friends in the political campaigns that we would both cover, and he would come out to Los Angeles, and I would host him for dinner, have him on the radio quite a lot. And he’s very good friends with one of my law partners, Robert C. O’Brien, who had served with him as a special representative to the U.N., and Rick Grenell—a good friend of mine, a long-time spokesman for John Bolton. So I just got to know him in the last decade, not in the years of Reagan.
Glasser: But you have a very different take on John Bolton than even many other Republicans, even many other staunch conservatives, who have criticized him in the days since his appointment came out, and said he’s neither temperamentally nor policy-wise a good fit for President Trump. You think that’s overblown?
Hewitt: Very. I base this on a couple of things. First, I’ve been with him quite a lot and temperamentally, he’s as gracious, charming and good-humored as anyone I know. I don’t—and it’s only one level of graciousness; it’s complete and he’s got it. And I go back to—professionally, his memoir, Surrender Is Not an Option, I think I did a three-hour interview with him, at least a two-hour interview with him, about his book, which I read very, very closely.
And, like Don Rumsfeld, he—and Dick Cheney—his memoir is of such precision, depth and footnoted complexity that you realize you’re dealing with a truly class A intellect. And I believe a lot that intelligence in diplomacy matters more than in any other of the fields. You can wing it in a few other areas; just eloquence will get you by in a few courts of law; but you’d better know foreign policy inside out; you’d better know who are the players.
And every time I’ve talked to Ambassador Bolton, I can never come up with a question he can’t answer at length and in depth, and he is not unaware of everyone in—like the Politburo of every minor country. Ask him sometime who’s running Belarus and he’ll know. It’s a great capacity for information, which will make him I think a great combination of the Scowcroft and Kissinger model. And those are the two models—there’s an article out today from the Chicago Foreign Relations Council on, is he going to be Scowcroft model, or is he going to be Kissinger model? I think he’ll look to them both. And that will be—
Glasser: The difference, right, is his president. And that’s the question I have, is what kind of a fit do you think he’s going to be with the president, and more broadly, do you see this shakeup on Trump’s foreign policy team—is it about making an ideological or a policy shift, or is it really more about getting people he’s more personally comfortable with?
Hewitt: I think it’s the latter, Susan. I think he is an intuitive president; he’s not someone who came to the office with a great, grand strategy of how the world was going to work. I like to point out that Nixon was planning the opening to China at least from ’66 forward, and wrote an article in Foreign Policy in ’67 about it. That’s not Donald Trump, right? And Richard Nixon did nothing except think about Russia and China for 30 years, and spent a long career getting ready to be president, while Donald Trump was building skyscrapers and running reality television.
So, he needs around him a team in whom he has confidence, and he has got it with—I’ve described it as Mike Pompeo will be his right arm and Jim Mattis will be his left hook, and his corner men will be Bolton and Kelly. And I gather, Gina Haspel as well. I don’t know anything about her other than the near-unanimous praise that has come from inside of the agency by long-time professionals about her competence and courage, as well as her professionalism. So, I’m just going to assume that Director Pompeo recommended her and that she’s had a lot of interactions with the president, but I don’t know that. I don’t know her; I’ve never met her. Have you ever met her?
Glasser: No, I haven’t. We talked about this the other day on the radio. You know, she’s a little-known career insider in the agency. I think it’s going to be fascinating to see whether she can get confirmed. Do you?
Hewitt: That is. I will talk on my MSNBC show with three Hill reporters about that, because Mike Pompeo is widely regarded as an easy confirmation, though. He’ll take some licks in the hearings, but eventually the red state Democrats will vote for him. I can’t imagine Joe Donnelly not voting for him or Joe Manchin not voting for him, red state Democrats who are up for reelection not voting for Mike Pompeo, who has great reviews at the CIA.
But she presents an interesting dilemma as well for Democrats and for some Republicans like John McCain. The circumstances surrounding her posting to Thailand when it was a rendition site will be of interest to everyone during those hearings. And I don’t know what they are—they’re secret. But they’re not going to be secret for long; we’re going to find out a lot about the enhanced interrogation program, and what did she know, and when did she know it, and what did she do, and when did she do it. And I don’t think they would nominate her if it was a problem. I could be wrong. We’ve nominated people before on both parties that have had flaws come out in the process, but I don’t think that’s her.
Glasser: Well, you also—there’s a real question about what is the process that they’re following for these nominations. Just the other day you had the president nominating the White House physician for a position in the Cabinet as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, apparently without an interview, without what looks like a regular order process of much kind. So, there is a little bit of a question on how much vetting, how much planning was done for that nomination at the CIA.
But, let’s go back to the question of the Trump foreign policy, and—you know, you think these folks will be a better fit for him why? Because he likes them? Loyalty is a word that gets bandied about a lot these days. What does that mean in the context of Trump and foreign policy for you?
Hewitt: I think it means argue it out fiercely in front of him, and when the decision is made, stick to what the decision is—don’t try and undo it. I don’t believe H.R. McMaster did any back-fighting or any kind of undermining of presidential decision-making. I do believe that some members of the NSC would undermine the president, as was evidenced by the leak of the memo, the briefing paper, about Vladimir Putin, “Don’t congratulate him.”
Well, that’s a staff recommendation. It’s up to the president of the United States whether or not to use the language, and that it got leaked was an obvious attempt to embarrass the president. I don’t believe that’s General McMaster doing that; he’s far too savvy a strategist to try and embarrass his boss that way; it’s not good for our relationship with Russia; it’s not good for anything. But somebody did it, and so I think he’s looking for John Bolton to bring a brand new group of people into the National Security Council who can be counted on to be discreet and supportive of whatever the decision is.
But what I have noted about the first year of the Trump presidency—I’ve been critical of some parts of it, very supportive of others. I think Scott Pruitt’s doing a great job, and that’s why the left is throwing stones at him every day. I think that Rick Perry is doing a great job; that’s why he’s in for attack. It’s the ones who aren’t doing very well that we don’t see much about.
But the one thing I’ve heard consistently is the president puts everybody into the room; they argue it out, sometimes repeatedly at length, and then he makes a decision and he expects them to execute.
Glasser: I think on foreign policy, one of the challenges, though, is that we’re still somewhat confused about what Trump’s actual foreign policy is on many of these key areas. And just this week we had a few good examples that I’m curious what your thoughts are on that.
For example, he said—I think it was just yesterday—“Well, we’re going to be getting out of Syria very soon,” which is a direct contradiction of something that Secretary Mattis had said, and our policy to remain there indefinitely. On Russia, obviously, there remain the question marks of the gap between our official policy and President Trump’s rhetoric. On South Korea, we made a trade agreement, and then Trump said, “Well, actually, maybe we’ll hold off on that until I make my North Korea deal.”
So, there’s a lot of confusion that I still have about what is the president’s foreign policy orientation on some of these key issues.
Hewitt: His foreign policy is not a strategy that anyone’s laid out, right? It’s contingent on events. He did not arrive in the White House intending to launch cruise missiles at Syria; then Syria used chemical weapons and he asked for options, and I believe he took the option that General Mattis, Secretary of Defense Mattis, suggested to him, among the options. No one planned on that; it evolved.
He wanted to improve relations with Russia, but then Russia used the chemical in Salisbury, and basically sickened 130 Britons and attacked an ex-GRU agent against the rules of the intelligence game, who had been exchanged for a KGB/FSB person working in the United States, and a few others. And so nothing was as it’s expected. He’s gotten along better with China than we expected, and who would have thought North Korea would be thinking about sitting down with the United States a year into the Trump presidency, after 24 years of frustration, beginning with Jimmy Carter’s unauthorized trip to the Korean Peninsula as Bill Clinton was preparing for possibly war.
He doesn’t have a strategy. He didn’t have a plan to go with this recipe of events that have been thrown up, but he’s dealing with it on a contingent basis, case by case. I think he would still like to go back and have some kind of a rapprochement with Russia. Admiral Stavridis was my guest today, and I asked him what do you think we should do with Russia? And he said, “Well, I would like to have like 60 days of everyone just calming down and not doing anything.”
Hewitt: Let’s not fire off any more ICBMs; let’s not close any more consulates; let’s not expel anymore—and certainly, let’s not poison anyone with weapons of mass destruction on a NATO country. And then let’s see where we cooperate, where we can, and confront where we have to.
Of course, the admiral is one of the most eloquent observers of foreign affairs in the world, and so that’s a great summation. Cooperate where we can; confront where we have to. And I would say that pretty much defines the Trump presidency today.
Glasser: Somebody said to me that they thought the comparison between John Bolton and Trump when it came to foreign policy is that what they have in common is a form of “muscular unilateralism.” I’m wondering what you think of that.
Hewitt: John Bolton is very much for a muscular American foreign policy in the Reagan mold. I think, as I said to you on the radio the other day, he is a Reagan conservative full stop. He’s not a neocon. He wasn’t ever a Democrat. He came out of Yale and Yale Law School as a fully-formed Reaganaut, and was happy to work as a Reaganaut, and I went back to his U.N. confirmation battle, when he was nominated to be the ambassador and did not get successfully confirmed, and was eventually appointed via the recess power.
He got a letter from Cap Weinberger and 60 other Reagan-era diplomats endorsing him as being the real deal conservative. Peace through strength, 600-ship, Reagan conservative. And that’s what I think appeals to a lot of us about having John Bolton in the White House. We don’t know that there were many people who believed in the vast defense build-up that we need, similar to the defense buildup that President Reagan had to implement following the hollowing-out years of Jimmy Carter. We’ve been through those hollowing-out years again because of the sequestrations. That was a bipartisan blunder, by the way, that wasn’t just on President Obama; that was agreed to by the Republicans, and it was a disaster for the Pentagon.
So, before we can actually confront some of the greater challenges around the world, we have to rebuild the fleet. I mean, the fleet is 280 or less ships, as opposed to Reagan’s nearly 600. We have to replace—people used to laugh at me during the campaign when I’d bring up the Ohio-class submarine aging out—but it is. So, we tested a Trident missile in response, I think, to the Russian Satan II, I think they’re calling it, last week, and I thought to myself, there you have it. We’re back to needing SSBMs right away and the Columbia class is 15 years away from being in the water.
Glasser: But so, Hugh, I totally get why you and others who identify with sort of muscular Reaganism would be cheering for the John Bolton appointment. But is Donald Trump a Ronald Reagan conservative? There’s not a lot of evidence of that in his prior history.
Hewitt: I would point to the Philadelphia shipyard speech during the campaign, which he pledged to a 350-ship Navy, a pledge that he actually incrementally increased in his speech on the Gerald Ford to a 355-ship Navy, and a 12-carrier group, possibly 13-carrier group Navy, to the idea that he would build two super-carriers at the same time, to the idea that the F-35’s got to get squared up, and in the meantime we’re going to buy more F-18s. And to the actual line item addition of a line for the Columbia class. And I haven’t seen as much of it as I’d like to see, but he is clearly a believer in the great fleet approach to international power, and I’m a big believer in sea power, because we are a sea power.
And he likes—I think he called Putin—I saw a report; I haven’t seen it confirmed out of the White House yet—on the phone, that, “Hey, if you want to have an arms race, we can have an arms race, and I’ll win.” And he always makes it personal, right? When you learn how to listen to Trump.
Glasser: Yeah, I saw that.
Hewitt: Yeah. I will win. Ha. And Reagan would have said, “And we will destroy you,” or something, or you’ll end up on the ash heap of history. But Donald Trump says, “I will win.” That’s quasi-Reaganesque, right?
Glasser: Well, I don’t know. I mean, you know, Reagan is the guy who is your hero. Do you really want to compare him to that? I mean, it’s taking—
Hewitt: I’m not comparing him; I said it’s quasi-Reaganesque in that he’s not going to get beaten by the Russians in the way that Reagan said “ash heap of history.” And yes, I greatly admired President Reagan for his diplomacy, but so too, HW, so too, W. And they operated from positions of strength, vis a vis their adversaries.
President Trump is not, because of eight years of President Obama. And I think we should return to that. He inherited a mess, and what Lindsey Graham—who I saw box with Donald Trump throughout the entire campaign, and I would never have thought they’d be friends, right? Never.
Hewitt: Never fails to remind me that he inherited a mess at every level on every continent because we tried for eight years—what happens when we withdraw American power from the world? When we go soft power exclusively, and we cut our defense budget, and we antagonize our allies like Israel, and we seek to empower long-standing foes like China and Russia? We end up with Russia in Syria aligned with Iran and Hezbollah with an axis leading from Tehran to the sea. It was predictable, but evidently, we had to try to prove it to ourselves again.
Glasser: So what—I mean, there’s clearly been an enormous amount of turnover and feeling your way; you could call it the first year problem, which you pointed out does happen in many White Houses. If so, it’s an unusually, extraordinarily high level of turnover, but still, you could say it’s part of settling in.
Do you feel that there’s a real risk of Trump falling out with this new set of advisors as well, given his personality and background?
Hewitt: Yeah, I do think there is a risk. I hope it is minimized by the enduring presence of—Pompeo is not new to the administration in the way that Bolton is. He’s a continuation in a bigger job. Secretary Mattis is still there. Against all reporting of two months ago, John Kelly is still there. And Gina Haspel represents continuity, not change, at the CIA. It’s understaffed at State; in fact, when Secretary Pompeo steps in, he’ll have, I believe, nine advise and consent positions to fill, which will give him the opportunity to bring in a bench that Rex Tillerson never really thought he needed. I never understood why; I don’t know Mr. Tillerson. I’m glad he was willing to serve, but I don’t think he had the skillset for the State Department; very few people do.