How to Prepare for a Potential Second Trump Presidency

Even as President Trump has had his phone taken away in a New York courtroom, his relative silence has not affected his polling numbers. The former President continues to poll ahead of President Biden in most swing states, the only political battlegrounds that matter on election day. As a second Trump presidency looks increasingly more likely, some of the shrewder officials, politicians, strategists, advisors, and ambassadors that I speak to have started to think strategically about how to best prepare for a second Trump presidency. This is the advice I tend to give them.

I began working for the US State Department in May 2017, the early months of President Trump’s first term, and the strongest memories I have of that time can hopefully serve as a useful guide.

Firstly, for the first year of his tenure, President Trump focused on undoing as much of President Obama’s legacy as possible: withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the JCPOA, and the Paris climate accords, to name just a few early decisions.

Much of the infrastructure that election campaigns traditionally build ahead of taking power was not in place, likely because many of his eventual team did not expect him to win. So, in the absence of a fleshed-out policy platform, the easiest option was to attack his predecessor’s work.

Although this time President Trump and his team have a much clearer view of what they want from the world and how to get it, that does not mean his instincts to undo his predecessor’s work will have waned. Ukraine in particular could be portrayed as “expensive” by the former President, especially given how strongly associated support for Ukraine is with President Biden. There could be a point where President Trump not only tries to “make a deal” to end the war, but also feels slighted by European allies “undermining” him by upping their support for Ukraine, and, by proxy, his predecessor, for example. Any tension between the two powers could also incentivise some European leaders to “stand up to Trump” to appeal to their base, while President Trump could respond by exerting pressure in one of his preferred manners, such as through higher trade tariffs or questioning American military presence in the region.

Congress was also “hard” back in 2017 because both the House of Representatives and the Senate were Republican – but not Trumpist-controlled. So, facing opposition when he expected acquiescence, Trump’s easiest option was to change America’s foreign policy orientation, focusing on easier things like bringing in tariffs on steel and aluminium imports on adversaries and allies alike to confront China. It was much easier to pick a fight with a competitor than having to work with hundreds of Congresspeople where the gains would go to them and the costs to him.

This time, again, will probably be different. The Republican Party is forecast to win the House of Representatives and the five most contestable Senate seats up for grabs this year are all Democrat-held but lean Trump at a state level, in some cases by double digits. President Trump would only need to flip one seat to win back control of the Senate, and if President Trump wins both the White House and achieves a more Trumpist majority in the Senate, political appointees, i.e. the decisionmakers within the machinery of government, will be nominated and approved much quicker this time, meaning any foreign policy choices will begin to be implemented almost immediately.

Second, was the build-up of the presentation of “America First” in the machinery of the US government. I admired American diplomats and government employees before joining State, but that respect and admiration only grew once working alongside them. Contrary to what some have portrayed as a “Deep State” hell-bent on thwarting the aims of a democratically elected leader, I only ever saw American diplomats working in the most diligent and professional manner to both soften the ground for and implement President Trump’s foreign policy agenda.

The problem often was, however, that the vision was fairly sparse: “security and prosperity,” “Mr. Brexit,” and a “US/UK FTA”, regardless of the UK’s borders with the EU, Northern Ireland’s borders with the Republic of Ireland, the EU, and the UK, and the US’ WTO commitments. Even when solutions and ideas were developed, there was usually a “decisionmaking gap” because political appointees who essentially hold delegated Presidential authority on low- and mid-level decisionmaking had been neither approved nor nominated.

Again, this time would be different. For starters, President Trump’s presumptive team has experience, expertise, and most importantly, loyalty. It is remarkable, for example, that for the sheer number of indictments issued to those around President Trump, few have testified against the former President. The reasoning is simple. If you had to choose between a potential pardon from someone who themselves had to choose between becoming President and probably dying in prison, how would you behave? The calculation is obviously that their best chance of escaping punishment is having him win and pardon them out of loyalty. That sense of loyalty will pervade his team and will be a strong driving force. Trump loyalists have already started to vet many potential political appointees to ensure aligned values and speedy appointment, so team Trump will have a deep, loyal bench to pull from.

In practice, this means that political appointees will share Trump’s vision and be in place earlier, so this time any diplomat that pushes back or is less adept at pointing out a different route may have to calculate whether that resistance is worth more than their career or values. Most diplomats are excessively professional and have professional tenure, but that does not stop them from being PNG’d and sent to sort files in the basement of Foggy Bottom if they push back too often for too long. Recent comments from Elbridge Colby, tipped to be a leading contender for National Security Advisor in a potential Trump presidency, alluding to a preference for shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy MP over Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron, show how many in the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party prefer private engagement to public “haranguing,” to quote Colby.

For those looking to engage with their embassy counterparts around the world, make their lives easier and find ways of dressing up your offers as something that directly benefits things the President cares about. Anything negative or overtly critical will not get through, if it even ends up in cable.

So the bottom line (albeit not upfront – apologies to every American diplomat reading this) is that this would not be team Trump’s first rodeo. A deep, loyal roster of political appointments would likely be green lighted through a Trumpist Senate, and the machinery of the US government would almost immediately snap into action.

Faced with that potential reality, the best advice I can give will be to paraphrase some senior officials recently quoted in the Economist: listen to him (and his team), treat him (and his team) with respect, and look for compromises. When I was at State, there was a clear divide between those who approached a meeting with President Trump as a stand-off or were repulsed by his views, versus those who approached it as a negotiation between self-interested parties, brought offers as well as asks, and were able to sell whatever the result of the meeting was to their audiences.

Those in the latter camp, who were essentially better able to flatter in private and spin in public, achieved much greater outcomes than those that attempted to virtue signal to their bases for likes on Twitter. Good luck.

Michael Martins

Michael Martins is an Associate Fellow at BFPG