Michael Anton was a senior contributing editor of American Greatness from July 2016 until January 2017 when he became deputy assistant to the president for strategic communications on the National Security Council. Anton last week announced his plans to leave the administration and return to political writing, as well as teaching at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center in Washington, D.C., where he will be a fellow.
This weekend, Anton sat down for an interview with the editors of American Greatness, Ben Boychuk, Chris Buskirk, and Julie Ponzi.
How does it feel to be on the outside?
Certainly, I will miss the president and my many friends in the administration. I never wore my country’s uniform, so take this with a grain of salt. But working in the White House is, I speculate, the nearest that an office job can come to producing the intense camaraderie described in books like Band of Brothers. I will always miss that.
But it’s exhausting. I lasted about four years the last time, when I was a lot younger, didn’t have kids, and the media environment was much simpler.
Plus, I am happy to be, in a sense, “going home” to old friends and my first love, which is the intellectual defense of the West, of America, and of our Constitution. Hillsdale College becomes more of an intellectual powerhouse every year, and I am overjoyed to become a part of it.
Larry Arnn says our mission is to “save the republic.” What could be a nobler endeavor than that?
Several unnamed critics said you “flipped” and became former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s “guy.” In other words, you abandoned the Trump base for McMaster. What do you say to that?
It’s both sad and hilarious that people who consider themselves President Trump’s biggest supporters would make this charge, because it’s really a huge insult to the president.
Think it through. The charge only makes sense if you remove agency and responsibility from the president. The implicit assumption is that a staff member, not the president, was making national security decisions throughout the past year. That the administration’s policies and decisions—which I explained and defended—were not the president’s, but were someone else’s. That’s nuts. And, as I said, it’s a huge insult and disservice to the commander-in-chief.
It’s also just not true. I was in the room for nearly every national security decision the president made for the first 15 months of the administration. And let me tell you, there is absolutely no doubt who is in command: President Donald J. Trump.
What’s behind this charge, anyway? How exactly did McMaster or I betray the president or his base? The complainers never say. The unspoken undercurrent seems to be that Trump promised some form of neo-isolationism and hasn’t delivered, because he has been beguiled by staff. But this is hogwash. I studied Donald Trump’s campaign speeches with care. As president, in foreign policy, he has acted exactly as he promised he would. Just last Friday night, the president ordered a strike on Syria. H.R. McMaster wasn’t there. That was all Trump. That action represents who he really is and what he really believes.
In any case, whatever the specific complaints may be, they would be criticisms of the president’s policies—no one else’s. So if we’re going to have that debate, I’ll be on President Trump’s side—as I was when I worked for him. My allegedly pro-Trump critics will have to argue openly against the president. I await that with bated breath.
My job was to communicate the president’s vision, his ideas, and his decisions. I was happy to explain his actions, both because I agreed with them (and still do), and because that was my job. It’s laughable to suggest that going out, explaining and defending the actual policies and decisions of President Trump was in any way disloyal.
I suspect what’s really behind the charge is some bitterness and disappointment on the part of some people who hoped I would misuse my position to knife McMaster (or others). I actively worked against those efforts and pushed back on reporters who came to me with vague and unsupported claims fishing for salacious stories. I’m proud of my record and am certain I did the right thing. The job is to support the president and those whom he chooses to serve him. And then, when he chooses someone else, support that person.
Remember, I was on the transition and came in with Mike Flynn. I was heartbroken by what happened to General Flynn. I am saddened in part that he never got a chance to show what he could have done for the president and for the country. He told a lot of inconvenient truths to the Obama Administration that officials didn’t want to hear, and they punished him for it. I think, given the chance, he could have corrected many mistakes and helped chart us on a better path.
I did not know General McMaster before he was hired, but several people I respect in the national security world immediately told me that they held him in high regard. Also, McMaster was recommended to the president by Senator Tom Cotton, who is—in the estimation of many of my friends, including me—a legislator who best understands the grave political and constitutional challenges facing our country.
So, yes, I supported McMaster, just as I had supported Flynn—and just as I would have supported anyone the president chose to replace Flynn. That’s the job. Criticizing me for that is, in effect, arguing that I should have been actively disloyal to the president’s National Security Advisor while serving as the NSC spokesman.
I can’t take that seriously and I don’t see how anyone could. How does being an internal backstabber against any member of the president’s team possibly help the president? If you feel strongly that someone you work with or for shouldn’t be there, give the president—in private—your candid advice. If he chooses not to follow it, then either salute and get in line or resign. Those are the only honorable courses.
But I don’t want to imply that I only supported McMaster because that was my job. I also think he is an outstanding strategic thinker who loyally served his boss and effectively served his country. The president praised McMaster throughout his tenure (and, admittedly, sometimes criticized him, too). When McMaster left, President Trump praised him for having done an “outstanding job.” I agree.
That same faction seems to be accusing you as a suspected leaker, in particular of the “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” warning over Putin. How do you respond to that?
This is slander pure and simple. It’s outrageous to be put in a position where you’re forced to deny a completely scurrilous charge. The people making this charge must have abysmally bad character. Seriously, what kind of person casually, falsely—and anonymously—accuses another person, by name, of a federal crime, without evidence? And in my case, there can be no evidence because I absolutely didn’t do it.
What interest could I possibly have had in doing this thing? My name and reputation will forever be linked to President Trump. So how could I possibly benefit from leaks intended to embarrass him? To believe this, you’d have to believe that I was secret mole all along. It’s preposterous.
Once again, I know where this is coming from. Throughout my tenure, a few not-very-credible media outlets—all of them believing themselves to be strongly pro-Trump—came to me with allegations that this person or that person was a leaker. It was always anonymously sourced and there was never any evidence. Now, we’re talking about people’s lives, careers, and reputations here. I take that very seriously even if certain of these “reporters” don’t.
So I pushed back. I challenged them for evidence. I asked them how they could possibly run such a story without proof? How can you in good conscience allege potentially defamatory things against someone that you don’t know are true?
The people trying to plant those stories appeared to have no problem with it, and no doubt some of the reporters resented me for pushing back and in some cases killing their stories. I suppose they’re peddling the same charge against me as a form of payback.
Apparently, NeverTrumpers are also levying this charge against me. I am, as ever, fortunate in my enemies.
Let me be clear here: that leak, and others, were outrageous, and betrayals not just of the president but also of the nation. The people responsible should be found and punished. For reasons I can’t go into, that’s much harder to do than many assume.
Is the Trump Administration being undermined by “holdovers”?
Democrats are the party of government, no question. Given that, any Republican Administration begins from a huge disadvantage. You’re taking over an apparatus of enormous size that has institutional interests of its own that diverge from the Republican agenda, and that is staffed largely, if not totally, by people who don’t agree with that agenda. This is why some of us have been sounding the alarm for years about the “administrative state.” It’s a problem so large as to be almost intractable.
The NSC has a very small budget for hiring personnel directly. This is by design. The NSC relies on agencies to send over people “on detail” for assignments that last typically one year, sometimes a bit longer. These “detailees” come from the military, the foreign service, the civil service, intelligence agencies, etc. This is around 85 percent of the entire NSC staff.
The idea behind this is twofold. First, they bring expertise and relationships from the interagency into the NSC, thereby strengthening the organization. The NSC is a coordinating body which has to make all the agencies work toward a common goal. So having people with experience and relationships at those other agencies is thought to be a plus. Second, detailing helps build the careers of national security professionals by giving them White House stints.
Not that I am the closest longtime observer of the NSC, but I do follow it somewhat and I have never seen an administration challenge this model. They just haven’t done it. They take for granted the constraints and live with them. If you wanted to change this model, you’d have to ask Congress to multiply the NSC’s budget at least tenfold, and to my knowledge no administration has ever asked for that.
On the question of “holdovers” specifically, you have to distinguish between two types. First, there is a cadre of direct-hire civil servants at the NSC. These are typically not people in policy roles, but folks who do the administrative work: executive assistants, human resources, facilities, and so forth. These people sometimes work at the organization for decades. They are always there.
The second are detailees who happen to be in place when an administration turns over. This is inevitable given the nature of detailing and the constitutional presidential term. The presumption, or polite fiction you might say, is that everyone who works for the federal government in a nonpolitical position is a neutral, nonpartisan civil servant, or at least someone who keeps his politics out of his job. Certainly that is true of many people. But is it credible to believe that it’s true of all or even most? Given the direction we’ve seen the administrative state go over the last several decades?
Now, if you were a detailee “holdover” on January 20, 2017, chances are you began your detail in Spring 2016 or later. That means you made an affirmative choice to work in the Obama White House. Chances are, like the rest of Washington, you assumed Hillary Clinton would be the next president. Chances are you thought that was a good thing (D.C. went 90.9 percent for Hillary, remember). So you accepted your detail assuming, and maybe even hoping, that Hillary Clinton would be the next president.
Several people who were at the NSC on Inauguration Day ended their details early and went back to their home agencies. They simply didn’t want to work for Trump. I think that was the right thing for them to do. The wrong thing to do would have been to stick around in order to undermine the new administration. Unfortunately, some people thought the wrong thing was the right thing.
As 2017 ended, details ended on schedule and staff cycled out of the organization. They were replaced by people who knew what they were signing up for, who knew they would be going to work for the Trump White House. The self-selection process, in other words, was working in a different direction.
All that said, I’m someone who’s long been on the record arguing that administrative state control of government is a threat to liberty and inconsistent with American constitutionalism. I think there ought to be more, not less, political control over the American government. I’d like to see the power of the bureaucracy reduced and power of the political branches of government increased. That includes increasing executive branch control and influence over personnel in the executive departments. But doing so is a major reform project requiring many things, not least bigger budgets—something conservatives generally oppose.
But all that said—and this is sure to inflame my critics, but my conscience requires me to say it—I take people as I find them. I came across many civil servants who—at least from what I could see—really did act like the nonpartisan professionals they are supposed to be.
Bottom line: the problems with the American government are deep and have been growing for years. The potential for and evidence of mischief within our government is real. Even so, blaming “holdovers” in one small coordinating body with a couple hundred people doesn’t even come close to getting to the core of our most serious problems.
Is it true that you sometimes used salty language with reporters?
I won’t offer a defense, but I will make some excuses.
Some of the people I had to deal with really were, and are, outright enemies of the president, his administration, and his agenda. Their bad faith was palpable, yet they would get moralistic with me when I challenged them. That was exasperating. I lost my cool on occasion.
And dealing with people trying to destroy others without evidence—yeah, that spiked my blood pressure.
But if the worst thing anyone can justly say about me is that I could sometimes be a pit bull in defense of those I worked for and with, I can live with that.
Also, another charge against me is that I was too cozy with reporters. That’s a funny criticism of a flak. The job is in part to build good relations with credible, trustworthy reporters to help their reporting accurately reflect the president’s thinking and intentions. Leaving aside the tension between these two charges, the claim that I had good relations with the credible press is a compliment, not a criticism.
Have your positions evolved since you joined the administration? Have you betrayed the “America-First” nationalist populist base?
I don’t think my positions have evolved on anything, though it’s been a while since I have had time to think through any new positions!
The last time my positions “evolved” was in 2015-2016—and that was because of Donald Trump!
I had long been an immigration restrictionist and a believer in immigration reform, so that’s what first attracted me to Trump’s candidacy. I had been drifting away from what a friend calls “naïvecon” foreign policy for years. Trump was offering a clear alternative there.
Trade was the one issue where I was conflicted. I had always been a traditional conservative free trader. Trump prompted me to rethink that. I went back to the old books, the old arguments, and took a fresh look. I’ve always considered myself a Lincolnian—and Lincoln was a tariff guy. Over a period of months, I came Trump’s way on trade.
Not that I think tariffs are always good. Circumstances matter. The United States benefited from tariffs in the post-Civil War industrial revolution, and from more liberal trade policies after World War II. But lately free trade had become an orthodoxy and its advocates are more like priests. Trump was, and is, right that the United States is being taken advantage of. Our country has to do something about that—and he’s doing it.
The slogan I used throughout 2016 was to define “Trumpism” as “secure borders, economic nationalism, and America first foreign policy.” I still support that agenda 100 percent.
I’m not sure what a nationalist-populist is, exactly. I’m a patriot for sure and I don’t think nationalism is a dirty word, as some do. I’m just not entirely clear on what the difference is. I have no problem being called an American nationalist, though.
I also don’t know what a populist is supposed to be now, except that it’s supposed to be bad. I think there are two fundamental reasons why that is, in the current context. First, obviously, is that the word is just a cudgel to use against President Trump. “Populist” has long had a negative connotation—though nobody can quite articulate why—and so the president’s enemies use that negativity against him. Trump is bad, populism is bad, Trump is a populist. QED.
The other reason is unspoken—and unspeakable. Populism is implicitly held to be bad because any popular reaction against the elite-Left-sellout-Right agenda is a threat to the ruling class. So all kinds of perfectly just claims and complaints get slandered and dismissed as “populist.” The purpose is to perpetuate the status quo.
Anyway, if “populism” means actually listening to what the people want and pursuing policies that benefit the majority, even if that is in some ways at the expense of the elite, then I am a populist. The country has to work for all of us. The United States of America was not designed or intended to be an oligarchy.
Fundamentally, I believe in the eternal truths of political philosophy, and that the Founding principles of the United States, as fulfilled via the post-Civil War amendments, are the true ground for just and legitimate government in the modern world.
Some of your friends have suggested that these charges are not worth answering, that your accusers lack credibility. What do you say to that?
I appreciate the sentiment and I agree that my accusers lack credibility. Hell, they even lack identity! Most, if not all, are anonymous.
But I don’t really understand the argument. If people are making easily answerable accusations, why not answer them? Why let mendacious, anonymous cranks have the last word? In the immortally wise words of Sam Spade, “Why should I sit around here and let people come in and stick me up?”
What do you think of John Bolton?
I have written in praise of Ambassador Bolton in the past. I wish him well as he works to enact President Trump’s agenda.
Is this Flight 93 still aloft?
What’s next for you?
Spiritual warfare. That, and teaching. What I was, if not born to do, then at least trained to do.