Foreign Policy

Republicans Pray Trump Will 'Evolve' on Foreign Policy

Party leaders can't endorse his far-fetched ideas. Maybe he'll have some new ones.

Who knows.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump may eventually find some common ground with Congress on economics, but there’s less hope for unity between the Republicans and their presumptive presidential nominee when it comes to foreign policy.

Some senior party figures hope Trump’s views will “evolve” to the point where the party can feel comfortable defending his competence to be commander in chief. There are no signs of evolution.

On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman said that he had been working with members of the Trump campaign to help them get up to speed on foreign policy and national security. Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, has had a series of phone calls with Paul Manafort, whom Corker referred to as Trump’s campaign manager, and Corker's office is supplying information to the campaign.

Corker told reporters that the Trump campaign is entering a new phase, focusing more on policy, and that he thought it only right that he help when asked. He played down Trump’s often controversial statements on national security and called on his Republican colleagues to give Trump some time to study up.

“Chill and let the campaign evolve a little bit and see where the candidate ends up,” he said. “When people enter an arena and questions are asked for the first time, you evolve and you learn. It appears to me that the campaign is evolving.”

Last month, Corker was among the first to praise Trump’s foreign policy speech, hosted by the Center for the National Interest, a realist foreign policy think tank. The speech set out a foreign policy agenda that diverges sharply from the hawkish stance the Republican leadership has maintained for many years. Corker said it hearkened back to where Republican foreign policy was 25 years ago.

“What I heard in that speech was a candidate trying to espouse views not unlike Bush 41 and Jim Baker,” he said. “I heard some realism creeping back into foreign policy.”

But Corker acknowledged that some of Trump’s proposed policies, like increased use of torture and killing the families of terrorists, violated international law and simply can’t be accepted by the party.

Trump’s former rival Marco Rubio said Tuesday on CNN that he also is hopeful Trump can get up to speed on national security issues. He said more information could only help Trump make better decisions. As the presumptive nominee, Trump could soon begin receiving daily intelligence briefings from the Obama administration, in addition to information from his allies in Congress.

But on the issues, Rubio said there’s not much overlap between him and Trump. Rubio and other Republican hawks advocate for increased intervention in Syria, tougher pressure on Russia and expanded free trade. (Hillary Clinton happens to share these views.)

Rubio said he would try to convince Trump and Trump supporters that an “America first foreign policy is counterproductive and can have negative economic and security consequences.

“My hope is that he can be persuaded away from those sorts of positions,” Rubio said. “As of now that’s not the case.”

Rubio doesn’t agree with Corker that Trump will see the world differently after he learns the details of the issues. But he acknowledged that Republican voters are increasing sympathetic to the doctrine Trump is putting out.

“My sense is he’s going to continue to be who he is,” said Rubio. “That’s who the Republican voters nominated, … and that’s the direction we’re moving.”

Another former Trump rival, Senator Lindsey Graham, told me that the problem with Trump’s foreign policy was not just his worldview but also that he seems to change his positions day by day.

“He talks like Ronald Reagan one moment and then embraces Putin the next,” Graham said. “The contradictions are just overwhelmingly to me. I hope he listens to someone like Bob Corker.”

Leading Democrats are already using some of Trump’s most controversial foreign policy ideas against him. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the Republican effort to get Trump to evolve was doomed.

“You can’t rehabilitate Donald Trump on foreign policy. What he has said so far is against the ideals of America,” Cardin said. “It’s going to be a challenge for his campaign. … I don’t think anybody can rein in Donald Trump.”

When Trump meets with House Speaker Paul Ryan in Washington on Thursday, they are expected to announce a set of broad agreements on principles they share. Some national security issues, such as the need to fight terrorism and the imperative of stopping illegal immigration, could be included in that list.

But on many issues including trade, the U.S. commitment to alliances like NATO, the U.S. adherence to the Geneva Conventions, the commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, and the rights of Muslim foreigners to enter the U.S., Trump and the Republican congressional leadership seem unlikely to ever agree. Unless Trump evolves.

(Corrects source of information for Trump campaign in third paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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