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Talking Transition With Bill Kristol (Who Has Been There And Done That –Well)

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I was joined by Bill Kristol this morning to talk transition topics.  Kristol, famously #NeverTrump, remains nevertheless one folks new Trump Administration appointees ought to be talking with and to about setting the new president-elect up for success:




HH: Joined now by Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Not many people know he has a Dylan shrine in his office, and Dylan music plays round the clock there as Bill relives his misspent youth. Bill Kristol, good morning to you.

BK: Hi, Hugh, how are you?

HH: Good. I did not call to rehash Tuesday night. I called to actually talk with you about governing and transitions, because a lot of people won’t know this. You were Dan Quayle’s right arm in the White House. You’ve been around D.C. for a long time, and you know that the next 77 days will make or break this administration. And I began the program by asking Duane, and I’ll see if you can remember any of these people. Count in your mind how many of these names you remember: Louis O. Giuffrida, Rita Lavelle, Anne Gorsuch, Emanuel S. Savas, Thomas Demery, Philip Wynn, Deborah Gore Dean, James Watt, Melvyn Paisley, James E. Gaines, Victor Cohen, Fred J. Villella, J. Lynn Helms, Bob Nimmo, Peter Voss, J. William Netro. How many did you remember?

BK: Two or three seem like Reagan administration appointees.

HH: They are all…

BK: They didn’t come to a good end.

HH: Yeah, they are all Reagan administration appointees who ended up engulfed in scandal on the front page of the Washington Post. I had a seven hour flight last night, so I went back and looked. They had to have those two things in common – front page of the Post and a Reagan administration appointee. And it comes down to the decisions they make right now, Bill Kristol, will come back to haunt them in the weirdest ways if they hire down. Do you agree with me on this?

BK: Yeah, very much so. And especially, obviously with a president who has never been in Washington, never been in elective office, and you know, has run his businesses in a way that was sometimes effective, maybe, but very much with a small circle of trusted advisors. You can’t really do that in the White House. It’s a big operation, the federal government. So yes, it’s a very important 77 days. Also, I think the tone he sets as president-elect, don’t you think, is really important. I mean, this is someone who will have won a very close election. There’s a lot of suspicion, some of it reasonable, some of it, you know, hyperventilating at this point about what he will do and what he can do. But the way he conducts himself right now, before he becomes president, I think will be fairly important to the success of his presidency, at least in the early days.

HH: Oh, yeah, he has to get these first appointments right. And that leads me to the other, in the inevitability of scandal if you just hand out candy is there, but the big scandals always come from the, I call it transition rule number four. It’s the most loyal staffer in the room who’s going to bring the most pain. They’re the ones with the blind spots, the ‘I can’t fail’ frenzy that will sooner or later grow into a major scandal. And then the Washington Post will be calling and asking for comment, which means, you know, I’m thinking here of Bob Haldeman, Charles Colson, who’s a friend of mine, and I knew H.R. as well, and after his release from prison. I am thinking of Oliver North. I am thinking of a lot of people. The most loyal people are blind. How do you get the balance, Bill Kristol, between the loyalty you’ve got to have in a staff so that they don’t leak and advance themselves, and the blind loyalty that gets you killed politically?

BK: Well, that’s the challenge in all organizations, not just obviously in the White House, but especially there. Trump values loyalty so much that I, you know, would worry that he’ll value it too much. Now obviously, you’re entitled to have loyal people around you, and you’re entitled to reward people who have been loyal to you. But I would say there are specialty jobs, and you know a lot about this, where you want the most, you want people who are not loyal, but who are, let’s put it this way, who are loyal to the law, who are even sticklers, maybe, for the rules. And I said two or three weeks before the election, someone asked, and maybe, I can’t remember, maybe it was you, was there anything that I, Trump could do to convince me to leave NeverTrump. And the answer was probably, was no. But I said you know, one thing I think that would help him politically at the time, it turned out he didn’t need my advice, was say that he was going to take as his Attorney General and as his White House Counsel two individuals of total integrity whom he didn’t know personally, who were not political supporters of his even necessarily, they shouldn’t be opponents, obviously, but people who would make sure that his administration was conducted at the highest level of integrity. He would not meddle in their decisions on these kinds of matters. You know, take a Mike Mukasey and make him Attorney General again. He was there, obviously, the last two years of Bush. And I don’t know who should be White House Counsel. And there are many other people who could do this job, incidentally. Take Joe Lieberman, maybe make him Attorney General, someone who is not a Trump loyalist, someone who maybe isn’t even a particularly partisan conservative Republican and just say I’m going to, you know, I’ve lived my life, I’ve been in business, that’s a different world. I’m coming to Washington. I’m draining the swamp. And part of that is taking people to make sure that I am not going to have the kind of favor trading, back scratching, you know, insider-favoring administration of the kind we’ve seen.

HH: And I can’t emphasize what Bill just said. The White House Counsel is a job little understood. I worked for the great Fred Fielding, who’s still around town. He served three presidents in that job. And you’ve got to be able to tell the president you can’t do that, or you’ve got to be able to tell the president’s spouse we shouldn’t do that, or you’ve got to be able to tell a cabinet member you can’t do that. And maybe Alberto Gonzales was a nice man, but he was in over his head as AG, and we need a Mukasey. And what do you think of sending Andrew McCarthy to the criminal division? That would send a shudder down the IRS people who were screwing around with the conservative movement, Bill Kristol.

BK: You know, it is funny, I mean, look, I was NeverTrump, but that was then and we lost and he won. And as I said, one has to be a magnanimous loser, and also for the sake of the country, obviously, one wants Trump to be a successful president. So I think he has a chance, because he’s such an untraditional politician, if he wanted to make appointments that aren’t your typical ones, and they can be some really excellent ones if he just sort of says I’m going to pick the best people. I’m going to ask people sometimes to just come for two years, to come to Washington to do what they think is right. I’m not, people who don’t, maybe near the end of their career, in some cases, who aren’t looking to climb the pole. Other young people, you know, when you and I were in government, we were pretty young, and that’s also good to have some ambition and work hard and all that. But I don’t know, I think it’s an interesting question, whether Trump can sort of, it could be a moment for Trump to really send a signal, and I just think reassure the country, too. I mean, there are lots of people who are, as I say, some of them excessively, but a lot of them legitimately concerned about Donald Trump in terms of Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense. He could reassure a lot of people with some of his appointments, I think.

HH: And I want to spend a moment on this, because it’s also critical. And I think, I talked to Karl Rove about this once, and I think it was W.’s major failing as a long-term Republican, is staffing the bench. You were brought to Washington by Bill Bennett, who was himself very young and had come up from the NEH, and he has stayed a long time and had the major role. I was brought in by Tex Lezar at Justice to work for William French Smith, and then drafted by Fred to come over. You go out and you find young people, and you give them special assistant jobs. And you can hold an expansion draft. I mean, you could see Donald Trump calling up Tom Cotton and saying, “Senator, who is your very best staffer?” That would be Alex Wong, probably. And then okay, I want Alex Wong for the National Security Council. And you call every Republican, like an expansion draft, and you say I want your very best person, because I don’t know anyone. This isn’t my town. And they have an incentive, then, to help you. But I think the Bush people fell down on hiring campaign operatives, and that’s really the worst place to look for the expertise to run the National Security Council and these other critical agencies. Agree or disagree, Bill Kristol?

BK: No, I do agree, and I think you know, call up Elliott Abrams, the deputy National Security Advisor under President Bush…

HH: Yup.

BK: Maybe he doesn’t want to go back into government. But maybe he would at the right position. But ask him who are the five to ten people we need to interview who could staff senior levels of the National Security Council, senior parts of the State Department. I mean, I very much agree with that. I just think it’s so important. Administrations rise or fall, obviously, primarily on the president, but a lot on these secondary and tertiary appointments, and especially again, with Trump, who he doesn’t come, he wasn’t a governor with a whole bunch of, a Senator, you know, so he’s been at odds with the establishment, which is fine, in some cases, on some of these issues. Again, especially on national security, where he’s been somewhat flighty, where the people around him, I’ve got to say, have not been particularly well known. It would be interesting, I agree, the next 77, is that how many days it is, I think that’s what you said, really are important for the overall success of the Trump presidency.

HH: And I think, actually, NeverTrumpers like you have a very interesting role to play here where everything you write about this will be read as a critic, and someone who is now saying okay, I want you to succeed. And I don’t know, I really don’t know if they have any idea, Rudy will, but Chris Christie’s run New Jersey. He hasn’t been, he’s been a U.S. Attorney. He’s run New Jersey. He has actually no idea what it means to be the deputy administrator of the EPA, I don’t think. And Rudy hasn’t been in town since he was the associate Attorney General in 1984, so he’s been gone for a long time. He knows the people, he knows the upper level, but getting down into the, you know, the assistant Secretary of State for policy planning, or the deputy Attorney General at OLP, which was, became a very controversial position in the course of the Bush administration with the torture memo, or to go over to the NSC and think about who is going to get the Latin American desk? These matter a lot, Bill Kristol, and you can’t, you can’t call up buddies from outside of Washington, D.C. to staff those jobs. Those are specialist jobs.

BK: Yeah, they are. Of course, those top jobs, National Security Advisor, Chiefs of Staff, matter a heck of a lot, too, and I think it will be important, especially for Trump, for the signal he sends with those kinds of appointments. If it looks like cronies, or if it looks like purely rewarding people who were for him first, and obviously the people who were for him first will get precedent. There’s no question about that. But it would be heartening, I think, if there were a couple of surprise appointment, a couple of appointments of people who have written things critical of him, and maybe not as critical as me, but moderately critical of him, you know, to come in and really, I mean, I think it would just send a very important signal for him. He won a very narrow election, he will have lost the popular vote. That doesn’t matter, and he’s a totally legitimate president, obviously, but I think, you know, just for his sake, for the country’s sake, getting support behind him, he’s going to make tough decisions and has to make tough decisions on foreign policy. He’s going to have to win Congressional support for a lot of what he wants to do. And he’s got a lot of Senators and Congressman he barely knows. I think he’ll have a certain advantage having won, you know, a certain presumption, you might say, of support at the beginning. But yeah, again, it’s a very interesting moment for him.

HH: Last question or two deal with DOD, Department of Defense. The most important appointment he makes is going to be DOD, because it’s a chain of command appointment. That means the president says I want to bomb Afghanistan. He calls up the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of Defense calls the combatant commander. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is Joe Dunford. He’s widely admired, a Marine with extraordinary reputation, but they are beleaguered over there, because the whole campaign’s been beating up on the Pentagon. And they need to be told that they are valued and appreciated, and indeed they are doing a good job. But this DOD secretary and the service secretaries matter quite a lot. What are your thoughts on who ought to hold that job, Bill Kristol?

BK: I don’t know. There are several people who would be qualified. I think Senator Jim Talent’s been a leader on the defense. Former Senator Jim Talent’s been a leader on Defense issues.

HH: Served on the Quadrennial Commission twice, I believe.

BK: Yeah, yeah. There are good people on national security. I do think Trump has taken some cheap shots at the military. I mean, he’s trying to make a point about, you know, we should win our wars and all that, but he does it in a way, he’s done it in a way that’s been sort of, well, unfortunate.

HH: It’s been heard in the building.

BK: Yeah, yeah.

HH: It’s been heard and believed in the building, even though Trump didn’t mean it the way that it’s been heard and believed.

BK: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s why that appointment, I agree, and the deputy Secretary of Defense and other senior appointments over there, the National Security Advisor, look, I think on domestic policy, you know, the Congress will have a big role, and things will get, they’ll compromise on the usual kind of messy sausage-making process. Foreign policy, commander-in-chief stuff, that’s where the most nervousness is. That’s certainly on my part the most nervousness about Trump. He can make a big difference. By January 20th, a Trump administration would look very different with one set of appointment than with another.

HH: If you can stay, Bill, I’d talk to you about State. I didn’t book you for two, but if you can stay, I’d love to talk to you about State.

BK: Okay.

— – – – –

HH: I am talking transition with the editor of the Weekly Standard, because Bill Kristol has been there and done that. And he has done it well. And whether or not he was with Trump, and he wasn’t, nevertheless, he does know what you need to succeed. Department of State, Bill, I’m a big John Bolton fan, because I read his memoir, and I’ve talked to him enough. He knows every detail of every international crisis. Sometimes, it’s astonishing to me how much he remembers. What do you think of Bolton? What other people ought to be on that short list? It’s probably the key appointment for educating the president on, the president-elect on the world as it exists?

BK: I like the idea of John Bolton. He’s a friend, and he did a terrific job at different jobs in Reagan and Bush administrations in the past. And he took on the bureaucracy, but did so in a way that moved the bureaucracy. You know, the one thing I found in government, and I think you found this, too, is look, there are people who go in and just go along and get along, and they become swallowed up by the establishment, by the building, by the bureaucracy. And they, that’s unfortunate if you want to be an agent of change, as they say. There are other people who want to go in who want to bring about change, but don’t know how to do it. Now they try to blow things up, and they often blow themselves up. They damage their boss.

HH: Yup.

BK: They often damage the president. There’s a happy medium in between. I think Bill Bennett, when I worked for him as education secretary, was a good example of that.

HH: Yeah.

BK: There were plenty of others who go in, they understand that they’ve got to occasionally set off little hand grenades. They also understand they’ve got to win over people. They’ve got to work with some of this structure you’ve got. And there are people in the building who will want to make changes. The Defense Department, State Department, they’re not happy, a lot of the employees there. They didn’t sign up for that job in civil service or in the military to watch America decline. So I think someone who knows both how to work with people, when to shake things up, when to let some things go, frankly, it’s not worth picking a fight about, that’s, it’s a tricky, you know, being a successful political appointee as high levels in a federal government like the one we have is a tricky and complicated thing. Some people will err too much on the side of going along, getting along. Some people will err too much on the side of coming in like a bull in a china shop. But yeah, John Bolton’s terrific. Look, if he doesn’t himself get an appointment, he’s the kind of person Trump needs to be talking to and saying well, who are the five, ten best people you’ve worked for? Who are some of the out of box picks, people you’ve met and don’t have much government experience, but also who, Eric Adelman, who was his deputy Secretary of Defense under Rumsfeld, under Bush, terrific. He was a foreign service officer. That gets a lot of conservatives nervous, totally principled conservative, has taken on elements of the foreign policy establishment while knowing how to make things happen at a place like the State Department or the Defense Department, a great number two, someone like that.

HH: And I go outside of the, yeah, I would go outside of the box, too. I think Adelson, yeah, a terrific idea. But I’d also go, and I’d find former General Stanley McChrystal and say come run DHS, because you turned around special forces in Iraq. You’ve got to turn around the culture of that place. It’s not working. And it’s not working as effectively as it needs to be, and I think McChrystal has got no ties to anyone. He’s not political. But it would send a message. Let me ask you about the vice president’s team. You were the chief of staff to what was a very successful vice presidency. Vice President Quayle is a friend of mine, and he’s a friend of yours. And people forget what a successful vice presidency he had, because he never had the chance to run for office as an incumbent vice president, losing in the second term. What is your advice to Mike Pence as he staffs up, because I’m sure there’s a tendency, I’m sure he has great people from Indiana, just to bring the Indianapolis staff along with you, and I just don’t think that’s a good idea.

BK: Well, he was also a senior member of Congress, obviously, so he should know what’s needed. I mean, I’m partial to vice presidents, having worked for one. They can make a big difference…

HH: Yup.

BK: …because they don’t have much line responsibility, but they are hopefully someone who can tell the president the truth occasionally in private about hey, this is kind of getting screwed up, or here’s an innovation that I’ve heard about, here’s an article I read. It’s outside the bureaucracy. The bureaucrats don’t like it, but why don’t we take a shot at something like this, or at least look at it. He could really, if Mike Pence is willing to sort of be a guy who brings in thinkers, who tries again break away from the normal, from sort of business as usual, he could be a very important figure in the Trump administration. It’s pretty hard to believe. I haven’t quite used the word, I haven’t done much interviews, or many interviews, or talked to anyone. The last days have just been busy doing other stuff. And just using the word Trump administration, I’ve got say, I’m not sure I’d actually said that phrase until just now.

HH: There you go. We have it on tape, the first time.

BK: I’m getting used to it. It sounds a little weird.

HH: It takes a while to say President-Elect Trump. Last question, when President-Elect Obama came to town, he held a very famous dinner meeting at the house of George Will at which a number of conservatives, including you, went. I was not there, but I thought that was a hopeful sign. Unfortunately, he never repeated it, and he became isolated from his critics. I think it’s very important for Donald Trump to talk to liberal intellectuals like Nick Kristof. And there are a lot of them, E.J. Dionne, Maureen Dowd. To do that, what Obama set a precedent for, if he had done again and again and again, would have kept him out of the echo chamber that he lived in, which allowed him to be stunned by Tuesday night. Do you think Donald Trump has it in him to bring in the left in the way that on dinner was? We have one minute, Bill Kristol.

BK: I don’t know if he has it in him, and I don’t know that he personally needs to do it. A lot will depend on where the senior people in his administration, do a little reach out on a few issues where there might be agreement. There’ll be some bipartisan agreement on some issues, and people might be invited to the White House. They don’t have to be, it doesn’t have to be a private dinner. It can be a meeting in the Roosevelt Room, and you get some goodwill. It’ll fade. There’ll be partisanship. There’ll be the usual fights. But yeah, that’s one way to overcome some hurdles early on especially.

HH: Yeah, a trip to the White House is candy for public intellectuals, and especially when they’re out of power. It’s an interesting thing. Axelrod told me he regretted that they had not done more of it, and he’s a pretty smart guy. Bill Kristol, great to talk to you. Thank you for spending two segments with me. We’ll get that posted, Kristol Talks Transition.

End of interview.


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