Of all of Donald Trump’s cabinet decisions, Secretary of State has been the most contentious. All of the four or five remaining candidates have been attacked to some degree, including a barrage of attacks on Mitt Romney from within the Trump camp itself. All of the four or five candidates have long histories of political experience, though only John Bolton has extensive experience talking to foreign leaders (General David Petraeus interacted with foreign military leaders, but that’s not the same thing and partially irrelevant for Secretary of State).
Is it possible to hit the reset button? One of the best things about Donald Trump being President is that the old rules no longer apply. He can select someone outside of the DC inner circle and justify it. Secretary of State more than any other major cabinet decision can benefit from selecting an outsider. The co-author of The Art of the Deal should know this better than anyone. It’s easier to train a great negotiator on the nuances of foreign affairs than to train a politician in the skills of negotiating. After all, we’re the United States. We should be working towards making the best possible deals that benefit everyone, especially us.
All of the current considerations for Secretary of State come with major baggage while having minimal upsides. Romney has the most negotiating experience and has seen this put to great use during his careers in both public and private circles, but he’s scorned by a large chunk of the people who helped get Trump elected in the first place. Bolton is very old school, and while he’s known as a free-thinker, he’s also known to go off the rails from time to time. That’s a trait that Trump doesn’t need in his top diplomat. Petraeus made some horrendous decisions in his days in public life. He should not be rewarded with more responsibility just because he’s done with probation for releasing secret government information carelessly. Rudy Giuliani showed signs throughout the campaign of being well beyond his prime. He wasn’t sharp in many of his speeches and does not appear to be physically capable of the grueling travel schedule a Secretary of State requires. Bob Corker is a Democrat.
While any of these choices would be upgrades from John Kerry, they don’t quite enter the same arena as Alexander Haig, for example. In today’s geo-political maelstrom, we need an Alexander Haig.
Certainly there’s someone else within Trump’s vision who can meet all the criteria. The Secretary of State must be able to communicate the message and act in lieu of the President of the United States in foreign affairs. They need to be easily respected by foreign leaders. They need the negotiating skills that can prevent Iran Nuclear deals from even reaching a point of agreement until it’s clear that the benefits are not lopsided against us. Most importantly, they need to see the world from a perspective that aligns with the President’s vision. None of the current candidates cover all of these criteria well.
I’m not going to throw out names, though I have several in mind. If I had Trump’s ear, I would, but there’s no point in speculating for the sake of speculating. At this point, the best we can hope for is that the President-elect continues his search and is presented with better options than the four or five finalists being discussed today. They are all B-listers at best.