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Trump talks with Gabbard about U.S. defense, reflecting isolationist approach

Former president Donald Trump and top advisers have talked with former Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard about foreign policy and how the Defense Department should be run in a second Trump term, according to people familiar with the matter.

The talks with Gabbard — who has staked out a role as an outspoken critic of aid to Ukraine and U.S. military interventions overseas — are part of a broader conversation about how Trump would manage the Pentagon differently if voters award him a second term. Trump has repeatedly told advisers and donors in recent months that one of his biggest mistakes in his first term was his personnel choices at the Pentagon, where he says he was stymied by officials with diverging opinions.

He sought to immediately pull out of many countries where the United States had troops, wanted to withdraw from NATO at times because he said other countries were not paying enough, questioned traditional alliances, praised and negotiated with dictators considered foes of the United States and clashed repeatedly with the Republican establishment, particularly Senate Republicans, on foreign policy.

On Saturday, Trump claimed that he suggested to an unidentified foreign leader that he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries he views as not spending enough on their own defense — comments that prompted widespread criticism.

During his presidency, Trump cycled through multiple defense secretaries and national security advisers. Most of the relationships ended in ignominious firings and questions from them about his approach and temperament.

Gabbard was elected to Congress in 2012 as a Democrat and left Congress in 2021 after four terms and a failed presidential campaign. After dropping out, she endorsed Joe Biden for the 2020 presidency. But in recent years, she has spoken at the Conservative Political Action Conference, filled in for Tucker Carlson on his former Fox News show and made other appearances in front of Republicans. She exited the Democratic Party officially in 2022. Gabbard has drawn criticism from Democrats and some Republicans for meeting and defending Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and for her isolationist views, but she has become something of a darling among hard-right Republicans in recent years.

Trump has met with Gabbard at least once in person last year. Gabbard has often shared Trump’s approach toward the world with the former president and his team in the post-presidency, according to advisers who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private details. Gabbard and Trump and his team have discussed military entanglements overseas and Trump’s frustrations with Republicans on foreign policy. Trump advisers also hope Gabbard — who serves in the Army Reserve — could appeal to independent voters in a general election, one person familiar with the strategy said, and advocate for his military policies.

“She appeals to Republicans who are skeptical of intervention overseas, which is now a majority of Republican voters,” said Andrew Surabian, a Republican strategist who advises Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio).

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

In an email, Gabbard declined to answer questions about her interactions with Trump or his team. “Out of respect for people I talk to or meet with, I have a long-standing policy about disclosing who I meet with and what was/wasn’t discussed,” she wrote.

The Gabbard conversations are only one element of Trump plotting out a second term in the Defense Department. One adviser said that he is determined to have personnel in the department this time who will listen to him and who share “his views philosophically 100 percent” after years of clashing with the Pentagon during his presidency, and that he has begun talking about the Pentagon.

A former senior administration official said Trump was repeatedly frustrated that he could not get involved in acquisition fights at the Pentagon and negotiations over planes, ships and other weapons of warfare.

“He did not like they had gotten rid of the F-22 program and he was really obsessed with the fact that the big companies are ripping off the Department of Defense,” the official said. “He wanted to be personally involved in negotiating these kinds of things.”

He also clashed with Pentagon officials about the role of the National Guard, as they raised alarm about deploying the guard in some domestic situations, and frustrated Pentagon officials by floating the idea of invoking the Insurrection Act. The law would have allowed him to deploy active-duty troops to combat unrest. Such deployments are rare and typically only sought when other measures are not sufficient.

Another former senior administration official said he is “greatly concerned” that Trump will upend longtime alliances if he is elected to a second term. The issue, the official said, came up “constantly” when Trump was in office, with him raising the prospect of pulling troops from Germany and South Korea and both withdrawing troops from Africa and closing all U.S. embassies there.

“He sees these treaties and partnerships as transactional relationships, and he is constantly looking at the ledger and saying, ‘Is this a good deal or this a bad deal?’” the official said. “He views America’s forces abroad, and America’s protection, as a service to be paid for.”

Among former administration officials, there is greatest concern that he would try to install Douglas MacGregor as a top official at the Pentagon. MacGregor was appointed by Trump to the board of the U.S. Military Academy after the Senate did not confirm him to be the U.S. ambassador to Germany. MacGregor is a frequent Fox News guest who has counseled Trump and has a history of espousing baseless accusations and complaining about migrants.

David Urban, a longtime adviser to Trump, said he believed the former president would put more pressure on NATO in a second term — and “there will be a retrenchment in terms of foreign engagements.” He said Trump would also have more people in the Pentagon secretary’s office who were known to him than during his presidency, when he largely deferred to others to pick political appointees.

“There are thousands of people who affect policy. So the assistant secretaries, the deputy assistant secretaries, those are all people who drive and shape policy — there you’ll get more Trump-like than served before,” he said.

John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, said Trump “did feel like he was being blocked on a lot of things at the Pentagon.”

“It was not the deep state and the Defense Department organized against him. It was his own incoherence against him,” Bolton said.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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