The Washington Post on National Security Action's Launch

The Washington Post's Anne Gearan wrote this morning about the launch of National Security Action, calling it a "strike force" to counter Trump.

You can read the full article here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/democrats-marshal-a-strike-force-to-counter-trump-on-national-security-in-2018-2020-elections/2018/02/26/6b08540a-1b5b-11e8-b2d9-08e748f892c0_story.html?utm_term=.2c65e9d5f5cb.

Democrats marshal a strike force to counter Trump on national security in 2018, 2020 elections

By Anne Gearan February 27 at 5:00 AM

Voters were undeterred by the 2016 cries of alarm from Democrats — and some Republicans — that Donald Trump was unqualified to be commander in chief, but a group of Democrats is betting Trump’s record in office will push national security issues to the fore in the 2018 midterms and the next presidential election.

A group of mostly young veterans of the Barack Obama administration and the Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign is launching a national security political strike force aimed at countering Trump and Republicans.

“We decided, essentially, this is an emergency moment and that there was a need to pull together the national security community on the progressive side to counter Trump’s policies and put forward an alternative” in this midterm year, said Ben Rhodes, one of the founders.

Leaders of the new group described its mission exclusively to The Washington Post ahead of its debut Tuesday.

Called “National Security Action,” the group is more expressly political than many Democratic-leaning think tanks and policy shops, but it will not endorse candidates or make political donations, Rhodes and others said.

The idea is to give Democratic candidates, lawmakers and policy organizations opposing Trump a foreign policy tool kit — everything from talking points to legal and policy expertise to campaign surrogates — said Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser for Obama.

More than 200 former officials and campaign veterans have agreed to participate as speakers, writers or on-call experts for candidates, think tanks or advocacy organizations, Rhodes said.

“We’re a temporary organization. Our hope is to be out of business in three years,” Rhodes said.

Co-founder Jake Sullivan, a formeradviser to Clinton during her 2016 campaign and earlier as secretary of state, said the group will also advise Democrats in congressional oversight of Trump.

“We think that Trump is already signaling ways in which he’s going to try to shape the national security debate heading into the fall, and that it’s going to be part of his political strategy,” Sullivan said.

“You saw that in the way he tried to link personal security and national security, between terrorism” and immigration, he said.

The group expects to help Democratic candidates use Trump’s first-year record against all Republicans as Democrats attempt to take control of both the Senate and House in the November congressional elections, Rhodes and other organizers said. The group will assist Democratic challengers and Democrats contesting in open seats, and won’t pick favorites in primaries, organizers said. The group is expected to soon announce several key races where it will focus efforts this year.

“There was a need for connective tissue,” said former senior State Department official Wendy Sherman. “It’s connecting all the progressive groups and citizens that are very concerned about America’s place in the world, about our leadership in the world and that are very concerned about the institutions that ensure the rule of law in the world and our security and prosperity.”

She cited climate change and Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord as one decision with deep national security implications, and the heightened rhetoric and tension surrounding North Korea’s nuclear program as another. The group will also focus on cyberthreats in general and Russian election interference and Trump’s response in particular, Sherman and others involved in the effort said.

“It’s not easy to talk about national security issues” in local elections, Sherman said. “Most often, people don’t see it as having anything to do with their daily lives, but here we have climate change, North Korea and other issues that have everything to do with people’s lives. I think people are much more aware of it” now than in 2016, Sherman said.

Trump takes credit for boxing in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with a mixture of new sanctions and the threat of U.S. military action, but Democratic critics say Trump has taunted the unpredictable leader and raised the risk of war.

On Iran, Trump claims he is forcing a reconsideration of Obama’s landmark 2015 nuclear pact, which Trump calls weak and ineffectual. Democrats say they can show how Trump’s actions have frayed alliances and reintroduced a near-term threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb.

Sherman was among the well-known national security figures who backed Clinton and seconded the Democratic nominee’s argument that Trump was unfit. It was a theme that sounded better in theory than in practice against Trump’s powerful populist message, as many Democrats now concede.

Clinton banked that her tenure as a well-regarded secretary of state and even her reputation as a foreign policy hawk — which had hurt her with the Democratic base in 2008 — would help her against Trump.

“He is not just unprepared — he is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility,” Clinton said as she began to make the national security case against Trump in June 2016.

“This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes — because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.”

Clinton’s campaign even hoped her credentials would persuade some national-­security-minded Republicans and independents to vote for her rather than see Trump win the White House.

In the end, national security issues were far down the list of reasons that voters said moved them to pick Trump. The novice Republican politician had an ear for economic anxieties and concern over immigration that helped build a “security” narrative that was more direct and personal than the themes Clinton articulated, and that other Republicans have since adopted.

“I think we have to learn lessons from 2016 but I also think we have to be careful not to overdraw lessons from 2016,” Sullivan said. “For example, I don’t think that Donald Trump winning the election meant that he decisively won the national security debate.”

Jen Psaki, a senior Obama adviser who also served as State Department spokeswoman, said Trump’s governing record “is worse than we thought,” and provides Democrats ammunition they didn’t have in 2016.

“Now, 15 months later, there’s a record to look at,” Psaki said. “It’s now played itself out and the warnings have come true and then some.”

Typically, national security issues are less important voting motivators for Democrats than for Republicans, except in times of unpopular wars. Nonetheless, the new group plans to try to amplify a Democratic message that Trump is erratic and untrustworthy in foreign policy.

A CNN poll in October found Republicans were more likely to say national security was one of the nation’s top problems than Democrats (29 percent versus 16 percent), while Democrats were more likely to point to health care by roughly the same margin.

A Pew Research survey last fall suggested that since Trump’s election, the Democratic Party had reversed Republicans’ advantages in trust to handle foreign policy and terrorist threats, although other surveys through December found Republicans still holding an advantage on some of these issues or that the public was split.

Overall, however, national security is a weak spot for Trump, with many worrying he could take military action rashly. 

This type of concern is widespread among Democrats. In January, a Washington Post-ABC poll found 60 percent of Americans said they do not trust the president to handle his authority to launch nuclear weapons responsibly (38 percent trusted him), including 52 percent who said they are very or somewhat concerned he might launch a nuclear attack without justification. Among Democrats, 90 percent don’t trust him with nuclear authority and 74 percent are concerned he might launch an unjustified nuclear attack.

CNN’s January poll found 35 percent approved of Trump’s handling of foreign affairs, similar to where he’s stood for six months but lower than the 49 percent who approve of his job on the economy.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Ned Price