In the weeks after his election, Donald Trump considered former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for secretary of state, tapped Michael Flynn to be his national security adviser, and pondered appointing John Bolton to a senior foreign policy post.
But the advisers briefing Trump last week ahead of his first military strike represented a much more mainstream bunch. In launching airstrikes on Syria, Trump relied on intelligence from national security adviser H.R. McMaster; Defense Secretary James Mattis; Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Meanwhile, his far-right political guru, Steve Bannon, was removed from his unorthodox position on the National Security Council, diminishing his power in the administration. And on Sunday came the news that K.T. McFarland, the former Fox News analyst who was Flynn’s choice for deputy national security adviser, will leave her post and become ambassador to Singapore instead, a sign of McMaster’s consolidation of power.
The shift in the people Trump surrounds himself with is being cheered by Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
“There are more mainstream elements in there than one might have thought there would be on Nov. 9,” said Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who oversees the Project on International Order and Strategy. “It’s premature to say it’s totally normal, but it’s hyperbolic to say that it’s as bad as we could possibly imagine. The big game-changer was his appointment of the generals.”
Those appointments have resulted in a more conventional foreign policy approach — so far — than what was expected from the untested president. Trump campaigned on breaking foreign policy traditions and vowed during his inaugural address that “from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.”
Stylistically, Trump has broken all the norms. Never before has the country seen a president whose worldview is so shaped by cable news shows, who has appointed his own family members to senior roles in the West Wing, and who accuses senior members of the previous administration of criminal activity. His personal style with foreign allies — like his enchantment with Vladimir Putin and awkward non-handshake moment with Angela Merkel — also represents a break from international traditions.
But the substance of Trump’s decisions in his first 79 days in office reveals a surprisingly conventional approach, with personal quirks layered on top, according to a half-dozen foreign policy experts.
In interviews, those experts pointed to the elevation of McMaster and the firing of Flynn as the turning point in the mainstreaming of the Trump administration’s relationship with the rest of the world.
“He’s moving toward a more traditional foreign policy, and that’s a very encouraging thing,” said Anja Manuel, a former special assistant to Nicholas Burns, an undersecretary of state in the Obama administration.
She pointed to Trump’s softening his campaign trail rhetoric of slapping across-the-board tariffs on China, as well as a moderate NAFTA proposal that no longer includes the threat of withdrawing from the trade alliance. Manuel also credited McMaster with putting together a “thoughtful, moderate, nuanced review” on North Korea.
Even Trump’s former rival, Hillary Clinton, said in a speech hours before Trump launched more than 50 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield that she would have done the same.
Getting off on a strong foot with key allies in the Middle East like Israel, Jordan and Egypt, as Trump has done, is a traditionalist stance — as is demanding that Israel stop building settlements in the West Bank. So was Trump’s formal dinner for the Chinese President Xi Jinping last week: On the campaign trail, Trump had said he would feed the Chinese delegation McDonald’s hamburgers and forgo state dinners.
A Trump administration official protested the “conventional” label, saying it was too soon to pass judgment on his foreign policy approach because much of it remains unformulated. An NSC spokesman declined to comment for this story.
But Trump’s early moves are seen by foreign policy experts as much more orthodox than anyone was expecting.
“When you look at Trump’s foreign policy, you should look at what it does rather than what the president tweets,” Manuel said.
Trump isn’t the first president who has come into office only to discard his foreign policy and national security campaign rhetoric and hew to a norm. As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, close Guantanamo Bay, and secure all nuclear weapons materials within four years. He found himself compromising on all those issues.
While Trump might never adhere to the formalities of the presidency on the world stage, his team is becoming closer to that of a traditional administration on international affairs.
Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff under Leon Panetta at the Defense Department and then at the CIA, said the appointment of McMaster combined with deputy national security adviser Dina Powell constituted a “more competent team.”
“On decision-making process, I wouldn’t say he’s there yet. I’d say he’s getting to a more competent approach,” Bash said. “For a president who came in with a more isolationist approach, he’s learning quickly that that approach will not work in an era in which American leadership is indispensable.”
But Bash said he’s still concerned that Trump’s policies are all over the map, including his about-face on taking on Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s regime.
“It’s helpful to have deep and substantive knowledge of the world and a clear idea of the role you want America to play on the stage,” Bash said, “and I don’t think that is highly developed.”
If he does not have a fully formed worldview, Trump does appear to be moved, at moments, by photographs. Trump appeared shaken by the images of children murdered by chemical weapons in Syria. Twice, he mentioned the tragic images of “beautiful babies … cruelly murdered.”
It was reminiscent of his reaction in 2015 to the image of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy, that washed up on the beach. After seeing the picture, Trump temporarily flipped his position on accepting Syrian refugees in the United States, calling it “an unbelievable humanitarian situation.” But he eventually toggled back to his original stance, vowing to "suspend the Syrian refugee program."
That is what concerns foreign policy experts. They worry that a president with no ideological core will continue to flip-flop on his positions, particularly when it comes to global economic policy.
The effect of Trump’s personal style, and his proclamations on Twitter, also cannot be dismissed. Experts cited Trump’s policy on Russia and his embrace of false information as ongoing causes for concern.
And no matter how many seasoned generals cram into the War Room with Trump, the president, at the end of the day, sets the tone from the top.
“The personality of the commander in chief will always impose itself on the administration,” said Wright. “There is still systematic risk there with Trump.”