Step one, says Elliott Abrams: Get rid of Steve Bannon.
“He’s not a good influence on the president,” Abrams, no man to mince words, tells me. Having the White House’s chief political strategist on the National Security Council “was a terrible mistake,” and booting him was a good start to what needs to happen. A giant smile spreads across his face at the thought of Bannon being forced out of the White House completely.
Step two: Get your Syria strategy straight.
Abrams, one of the most experienced Republican hands on Middle East affairs, says that for President Donald Trump to figure what his Syria strategy is supposed to be, he needs to finally staff the positions of the people who are supposed to be developing it, and learn a little bit of the realities of navigating Washington politics and Washington press.
Had things turned out the way he wanted, Abrams would probably have spent the past weekend locked in rooms in Foggy Bottom, developing policy options and advice for Rex Tillerson as his deputy secretary of state. Instead, he was alone at his home in the Virginia suburbs when we sat down at his kitchen table for the “Off Message” podcast to talk through what he thinks is going right and going wrong as Trump sorts out what, if anything, comes next after he dropped 59 Tomahawks on a Syrian airfield last week.
“Now, he did not become a neocon overnight,” Abrams says of Trump’s explanation that he ordered the missile strikes out of humanitarian concern for Syrian children. “I think we can rest assured of this.”
To Abrams, this is a president realizing, now that he’s in the job, that he’s a lot closer to conventional Republican foreign policy, and—much to Abrams’ delight—is picking sides against Bannon in the raging West Wing ideological war over America’s place in the world. Having served in the George W. Bush administration and under Ronald Reagan before that, Abrams probably would have been waging those internal battles himself had Trump not overruled Tillerson at Bannon’s behest.
No one really knew what Trump’s foreign policy was before the Syrian strike, and it’s even less clear now—“unpredictable” is the most anyone’s come up with. “It matters,” Abrams warns when I ask him whether people should care that they don’t know what the president stands for on any given day.
“I think there was always a conflict inherent in that line about not getting involved in all of these things on the one hand and ‘Make America Great Again’ on the other, because making America great, to me, is going to require some involvement around the world,” Abrams says. “To me, this is sort of being president, and this is realizing there is an American role here that is impossible to replace.”
The other pole in the White House is Jared Kushner, and Abrams is glad to see him winning against Bannon, knocking back those who attack the president’s powerful son-in-law and adviser using the same names he was called himself when helping lead George W. Bush’s Middle East policy through Iraq and beyond: “I don’t view him at all as an empire builder.”
Abrams offered much praise and some gentle criticism of Tillerson, a former oil-company CEO who has failed to impress many in the Washington foreign policy establishment during his first few months on the job. The secretary of state has yet to bring on any lower-level appointees, and Abrams was supposed to be the experienced hand who could guide him through the maze in Washington and overseas.
Abrams chided Tillerson for insisting that last week’s strikes didn’t represent a change in posture or policy: “It certainly changes our posture in the sense that we’ve now said, ‘We will attack you if you use chemical weapons,’” he told me.
Still, for a man who was queasy about Trump’s quasi-isolationist “America First” shtick during the campaign, Abrams is impressed by the administration’s about-face. And he agrees with Trump that the gas attack in Syria last week is the fault of former President Barack Obama’s decision not to act in 2013 or anytime after, but he’s no fan of beating the point to death, despite all the Obama aides who supported Trump’s move: “I think it needs to be said once in a long while. … I would say point taken, drop it.”
Abrams thinks Tillerson’s being underestimated by Washington. But he also thinks the secretary is doing a lot of underestimating of Washington. “It’s not true that having lots of great press coverage makes you an effective secretary of state,” Abrams says. “The mistake is thinking that the converse is not true. That is, that having zero press coverage or good press coverage makes you an effective secretary.”
Abrams blames Bannon for torpedoing his chances at getting into the administration—bitterness intensified by Bannon’s telling others he’d support the nomination, and then pushing the president to read all the things Abrams had said about Trump during the campaign.
Abrams had tried to head it off, sending a collection of every negative word he’d written or said ahead of what he’d assumed was going to be a job interview but never was. Sure, he was in the Oval Office with the president. Sure, Tillerson had told him to come, and both left figuring it had been a formality, given that the president didn’t ask him any real interview questions.
Instead, Abrams says, it was just him sitting in on a foreign policy meeting between the secretary of state and the president, watching a secretary of state who was more deeply briefed than his caricature walk through policy with a more attentive president than he expected.
“There’s this sort of view out there he never listens, but he listened to Tillerson,” Abrams says.
Despite his own bad experience, Abrams still encourages Republicans to go into the administration, including people who, like him, were completely opposed to Trump. He knows a few already who are going in. He urged others already there to hold on as they wait for the nominations and confirmations to move through.
“You just hope to get everybody through before the August recess. My God. Just grit your teeth,” Abrams says. “Hold on, help is on the way.”
As for his own future with Trump, Abrams teased that it may still be in front of him, depending on how things shape up with Bannon and Kushner, the latter of whom he kept going out of his way to praise.
Trump’s rise has made for many surreal moments over the past two years, and certainly on that list is the spectacle of Democrats cheerleading for Abrams, a man who’s got both the Iran-Contra affair and the Iraq War on his résumé.
Being seen as the voice of reason and potential savior by liberals who once hated him, Abrams says, has been “amusing and gratifying.”
But he wants them to remember that if his number comes up again. After all, there’s still no No. 2 or almost any other position in the State Department filled.
“It was nice to hear,” Abrams says. “Now, if I come up in 2018 or ‘19 for confirmation for something, I will remind them of those things they said.”
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