Donald Trump is settling on a simple foreign policy pitch in his second bid for the White House: Want World War 3? Vote for the other guy.
Over the past week, Trump has assailed President Joe Biden’s handling of Afghanistan. He has said he could end the almost year-long conflict in Ukraine within “24 hours,” but without any indication how, and suggested sending tanks to the country could spark nuclear war. He has railed against China and called Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis a “globalist.”
The claims are a continuation of a posture Trump sought to project both as a candidate for president in 2016 and while in the White House — one occasionally contradicted by his record.
But his renewed focus on international affairs also comes as the Republican primary field is expected to get crowded with potential challengers likely to pitch their own foreign policy bona fides. That includes two former Trump lieutenants: former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and former secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Those close to Trump’s campaign operation say he plans to try and paint himself as an anti-war dove amongst the hawks. They believe doing so will resonate with GOP voters who are divided on, but growing wary of, continued support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.
“Trump is the peace president and he’s the first president in two generations to not start a war, whereas if you look at DeSantis’ congressional record, he’s voted for more engagement and more military engagement overseas,” said a person close to the Trump campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
“Trump is the only person who has said no more funding for the Ukraine war. I haven’t heard Nikki Haley say anything like that… Pompeo or Pence? Where do they stand on Ukraine?”
In fact, Haley, Pence and Pompeo have all, to varying degrees, called for the U.S. to fund Ukrainians and even, on occasion, criticized the Biden administration for not doing enough.
Still, Trump’s modernized “America First” framework has already had profound implications, both in upending establishment Republican and neo-conservative orthodoxy on foreign policy and in muddying the consensus on issues ranging from military intervention to how to handle ruthless dictators.
And as multiple Republican officials noted for this story, last week the conservative and once-hawkish Heritage Foundation stepped away from its long standing demands for a robust defense budget and said cuts to Pentagon spending should be on the table as part of the debt limit negotiations.
“I do think national security is going to be a much more important issue in 2024 than in many of the most recent presidential elections,” said Trump’s former national security adviser-turned-public critic John Bolton, who also is considering a 2024 run. “You may have noticed there’s a Chinese balloon floating over the country today.”
Aware that his instincts aren’t as hawkish as some of his potential Republican challengers, Trump and his aides have started to draw contrasts and set the parameters of the debate.
On Thursday, Trump said Pompeo “took a little bit more credit than he should” for accomplishments made while he was secretary of State, a sign that Trump may try to minimize his opponents’ foreign policy experience, despite having been appointed by him. Later that day, the super PAC supporting Trump highlighted recent attacks on Haley by right-wing conservative commentators, some of whom called her a “warmonger” and “Neocon Nikki.”
Trump’s team was also eager to tout a Wall Street Journal op-ed endorsement this week from Sen. J.D. Vance, the populist Republican from Ohio, who touted Trump’s inclination against getting into foreign entanglements.
“Every Republican running is going to be opposed to [critical race theory]. Every Republican running is going to say we need to secure the border and we need to oppose amnesty. Every Republican running is for lower taxes and less regulation,” a Vance adviser said of Trump’s early foreign policy play. “It makes sense for Trump to drag the race where his opponents don’t want to be.”
Trump’s team also sees foreign policy as an area to draw distinctions with his potential top political foe, DeSantis, who gained national attention for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and embrace of cultural wars but who, as governor, has a limited track record internationally.
“The governors will have a tough time proving their foreign policy chops because it’s not in their job description so they’re going to have to do something to step up and prove to voters that they’re capable of handling all these issues that present themselves on the global stage,” said David Urban, a Republican strategist who remains close to numerous potential 2024 contenders.
“[Potential] candidates such as Pompeo and Haley and Pence and the [former] president can say, ‘Here’s me sitting down with Kim Jong Un, and here’s what we were able to accomplish with the Abraham Accords or on USMCA.’ Everyone has something they can talk about on concrete terms, where governors can’t and that will be a point of differentiation among a wide group of them.”
There are already signs that DeSantis is making moves to address this likely line of attack. He has had phone calls and meetings with foreign leaders and ambassadors in recent months, including a face-to-face session in Tallahassee last week with Mario Abdo Benítez, the president of Paraguay. Relatives of Paraguay’s first lady – Silvana Abdo – were killed in the deadly Surfside condominium collapse of 2021.
Back in December, DeSantis met in his office with Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., along with Yousef Al Otaiba, the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates. Right after DeSantis handily won re-election he met top officials from Japan, including Koji Tomita, ambassador to the United States, as well as Japanese business leaders.
“Florida continues to be an important political and economic partner to many countries around the world, and as foreign officials request meetings with our office it is appropriate to further develop these ties,” said Bryan Griffin, a spokesman for DeSantis.
Bolton, for his part, said he thought Trump would prove vulnerable on foreign policy when it became clear that he had none.
“He doesn’t have policy on much of anything, he has Donald Trump,” he said. “So his most recent musing is that if he were president he could solve Ukraine-Russia dispute in 24 hours — I think it is so ridiculous it falls on its own weight. …I think people over time and self-identified Republicans just don’t buy it.”
But so far, Trump’s other likely opponents aren’t taking the bait. DeSantis this week hit back on Trump’s digs about the governor’s Covid response, touting his margin of victory in Florida’s November election, but has not sought to defend his record on foreign policy.
A person close to Haley’s political operation, meanwhile, said the former U.N. ambassador will tout her own foreign policy record, one that involved helping Trump secure some of his top accomplishments abroad. They include moving the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, repealing a nuclear deal with Iran and securing buy-in from China on sanctions against North Korea.
While some big gulfs do exist between Haley and her former boss — she has championed U.S. support of Ukraine and became a vocal critic of Putin and Moscow during her tenure in the Trump administration — she likely won’t take swings at Trump, choosing instead to criticize Biden’s approach to China, Iran and the U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“That is not the focus,” the Haley ally said of contrasting with Trump. “We are focused on Biden.”