Widely considered to have made the short list of candidates for top national security jobs in Donald Trump’s administration, Rep. Duncan Hunter of Alpine pledged Friday to make the Pentagon great again after eight years of Democratic control.
“I’m excited about a warrior culture, a warrior mentality put back into the (military), as opposed to a corporate culture ruled over by the bureaucrats and lawyers,” Hunter, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a phone interview.
“The warrior culture is going to get infused into (the department) again. It’s probably going to take a while because a lot of guys who had that mentality are no longer there, but maybe people’s true colors can show now, a little bit,” he added.
An early endorser of Trump’s presidential campaign, Hunter remained steadfastly loyal to the New York TV star and real estate tycoon, even after the presidential candidate rankled many military veterans and key GOP national security figures through a series of controversial statements.
On the campaign stump, for example, Trump mocked Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam; claimed to be smarter than many of America’s generals; and proposed a slew of divisive plans such as forcing Muslim-Americans to register for a counter-terrorism database.
“Listen, he’s not a politician. He’s never been in public office,” Hunter said Friday. “He’s never had to talk and had everything that he says dissected and taken apart, right? There’s a learning period here and it’s pretty steep, but I think he’s doing great now.”
Hunter, a Marine combat veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has been rumored for several top spots on Trump’s national security team. Those include secretary or deputy secretary of defense, Army secretary or a spot on the National Security Council — a position also of interest to retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a Trump confidante.
Recently re-elected in a landslide, Hunter insisted that holding a safe House seat in a largely Republican district pales in importance to serving his nation at the highest levels during wartime, a belief he said is shared by his constituents.
“Unanimously they’ve said, ‘Do it. Get into the administration and try to affect things from there because Trump needs you,’” he said.
If tapped as secretary of defense, the 39-year-old Hunter would become the youngest person in American history to assume the Pentagon’s top post. The short list for that job is believed to include former Sen. Jim Talent, a Republican from Missouri, and Stephen Hadley, who was a national security adviser to President George W. Bush.
At the Pentagon, Hunter said, he would work to overturn a string of initiatives launched by President Barack Obama’s administration that he believes make the country less safe, such as opening up infantry and special-operations units to women.
“I’d reverse (that policy) immediately,” Hunter said.
He also wants to preserve the Army’s armored brigades and fix a naval force that’s increasingly dependent on vessels like the nimble but small littoral combat ship, which Hunter called a “Navy screw-up and a congressional screw-up.”
Design flaws, cost overruns and questionable command oversight have dogged the warships.
Criticizing Obama for what he views as hasty and reactive foreign-policy decisions, Hunter said Trump’s incoming team will ink a grand strategy — prioritizing where the president will project power to achieve security goals vital to the nation, often in concert with overseas allies.
On the campaign trail, Trump suggested abandoning or reducing America’s commitment to North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies that skimped on defense spending. He also complained about a perceived lack of financial support from longtime allies Japan and South Korea.
Hunter said the two Asian nations dedicate substantial resources to host American troops stationed on their home soil, but that several NATO states could spend more to maintain mutual-defense obligations.
To Hunter, the thornier problem is how to address rising Russian power.
“Keep Russia in Syria, because I think Russia should be in Syria. I’m not a guy who’s upset about that. But get them out of Ukraine,” he said.
The San Diego Union-Tribune and a handful of other news organizations received leaked documents from the Trump camp that appear to sketch out the vetting process for picks to fill top agency positions.
Despite a campaign highlighted by relentless indictments of establishment GOP figures and calls to “drain the swamp” of Beltway insiders and special-interest groups, Trump’s transition team brims with lobbyists, longtime think-tank hands and retired senior military leaders, according to those documents.
The transition “action team” is run by Ron Nicol, a Dallas-based telecommunications consultant who served as a junior Navy officer on a nuclear ballistic missile submarine.
Under him is retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, a Vietnam War veteran best known for leading part of the Coalition Provisional Authority in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He is tasked with choosing defense and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials.
Former Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who retired from the FBI, is overseeing the team charged with identifying leaders for the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Council, according to the paperwork.
Kellogg and Rogers have delegated key details of the selection process to Mira Ricardel, a Washington-based business strategist and a former vice president for defense contractor Boeing; conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank scholar James Jay Carafano; tobacco industry lobbyist Cindy Hayden; and Ronald Burgess, a retired Army general who directed the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Hunter said Trump carries no post-election baggage, such as job promises for national security figures from the GOP establishment. To Hunter, Obama’s White House arrogantly relied more on Ivy League diplomas than it did subject-matter experts and combat-tested military personnel.
“Just because you’ve got a degree from a foreign policy place doesn’t make you an expert in the world,” Hunter said. “This (current) administration — which is full of young people with high and lofty ideals and a lot of degrees — frankly, I’d take one of my staff sergeants over them any day.
“They understand what war means. They understand the enemy. They understand who we’re fighting.”
Hunter’s willingness to join the Trump team clashes with many in the Republican Party’s national security intelligentsia. More than 100 elite Republican defense figures signed open letters urging Americans to reject Trump’s candidacy. Others took to the airwaves and social media to back Trump’s GOP foes during the primary or Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Christopher Swift, who formerly served in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, probed terrorist funding and rogue nations undergoing economic sanctions — such as Iran during George W. Bush’s administration.
Congressman Duncan Hunter, chairman of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, learns about the missions of Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team 91109 in San Diego March 11, 2015.U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Simpson
On Friday, he told the Union-Tribune he won’t budge on his decision to boycott a Trump administration built on “brinksmanship and bullying.” He had supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich during the Republican primary.
“If the boss is toxic, then his administration will be toxic,” said Swift, now a prominent attorney and a national security instructor at Georgetown University. “You might think that you can temper that, but you serve at his will.”
Trump’s election also sparked debate among defense figures worldwide about future cooperation with his administration.
Rex Brynen, a political scientist at McGill University in Montreal, published an open letter in the online journal Business Insider warning Americans on the eve of Tuesday’s election that a Trump administration would “increasingly be seen by (America’s) closest and most loyal allies as part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
In the wake of Trump’s victory, the Middle East expert, former intelligence analyst and frequent defense adviser to the Canadian government said he has cut all ties to the United States’ security agencies — except for initiatives such as humanitarian missions conducted jointly with America’s northern neighbor.
Citing Trump’s “racist and xenophobic” campaign statements calling for the slaying of suspected terrorists’ families and a ban on Muslims immigrating to the U.S., Brynen said he feared the incoming administration could become “not only dangerous to Canada, but also to the United States.”
Trump and his transition team have not specified when they will announce their top agency picks.
© 2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.