Think Tankers Don't Get Trump

Can their advice change him? Should they even try?
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke about his foreign policy positions at an event hosted by
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke about his foreign policy positions at an event hosted by the Center for the National Interest on April 27.

Back in the Cold War days, a big debate among the nation’s think tanks was how to deal with communist countries: Was it better to isolate them? Or were dialogue and engagement more likely to bring about positive change?

Decades later, policy wonks face the same question about presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

“This is not your normal ‘Oh, we have a more extreme candidate.’ This is a person who's unsuited and unqualified and frankly, undemocratic,” said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. “I haven't heard of a single person from a major think tank joining the Trump team. That's very unusual."

For many of Mann’s think tank colleagues -- and particularly for conservatives --engaging with Trump risks legitimizing him and his numerous controversial statements while simultaneously damaging their own reputations.

“There's a lot of people who believe that Donald Trump is the most serious threat to American democracy we have seen in the modern era,” Mann said. “I think it will be very hard finding serious, honest experts [to] join in.”

Of course, experts hoping to isolate Trump have found a willing accomplice in Trump himself.

“He just doesn't seem to be interested,” said the American Enterprise Institute’s Ramesh Ponnuru. “Nothing he has done is suggestive of any interest in policy.”

By this point in a presidential campaign, nominees have typically established alliances with like-minded think tanks. While the groups cannot endorse candidates without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status, their researchers provide the detailed analyses and intellectual heft that inform and support a candidate's policy proposals.

“It's fairly clear, for the most part, the kinds of Republican experts who would be all on board with a presidential campaign at this point -- with task forces, and policy proposals and meetings and so forth -- are not,” said Norm Ornstein, who is also with the AEI. “You could convene his policy team in a bathtub.”

[Trump] just doesn't seem to be interested. Nothing he has done is suggestive of any interest in policy. Ramesh Ponnuru, American Enterprise Institute

Trump’s campaign did not respond to The Huffington Post's requests for comment on this story. Over the months, the real estate mogul has downplayed his need for expert advice, citing his own “very good brain” as evidence. On dealing with the self-described Islamic State, for example, Trump said that he knew more about the terror group than the military commanders fighting it.

Ponnuru said his colleagues are divided on whether it's better to stay away from Trump or get close to him, but a consensus has emerged that Trump is not likely to take their advice anyway. “The prevailing sentiment is that he’s going to do his thing, and he’s going to continue to do his thing,” Ponnuru said.

Trump’s attitude does offer the benefit of not having to justify the position of a candidate that you might not agree with, he conceded. “It’s a little bit liberating, being able to say you’re completely independent from the nominee.”

One notable exception has been Heritage Foundation economist Stephen Moore, who has been open about his support for Trump. Moore, a longtime proponent of supply-side theory, with its emphasis on lower taxes for investment income, is particularly pleased with Trump’s tax proposal. “It’s going to be a blockbuster. It’s going to be the best tax cut plan since Ronald Reagan,” said Moore, who hastened to point out that his views are his own, and do not represent the Heritage Foundation's position.

Moore said he doesn’t share Trump’s views on trade policy or immigration, although he does understand why those messages have resonated with many Republican voters. “If Trump wins, there will be kind of a change in Republican dogma on both economic policy and foreign policy. No question about it,” he said.

But even some beneficial influence is better than none, Moore argued. On trade, for example, Trump hasn't spoken about a 45 percent tariff on Chinese products ever since Moore and others advised him against it, he said. “Most people I talk to are like, 'Oh my god, I’m so glad you’re working with Trump. Maybe you can push him in a good direction.'”

Yet that view is a lonely one. Helping Trump isn't easy, given his general lack of interest. And the groups that do lend their names to his cause should be prepared for scrutiny.

Most people I talk to are like, 'Oh my god, I’m so glad you’re working with Trump. Maybe you can push him in a good direction.' Stephen Moore, the Heritage Foundation

The Center for the National Interest learned this firsthand when it hosted Trump's foreign policy speech in April. A researcher there was fired after writing a blog post that criticized the think tank's decision to host what he called a “booster rally” for Trump.

And the very day of the speech, Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of the think tank’s magazine, wrote an article for Politico Magazine explaining his decision to invite Trump. Heilbrunn said that he wasn’t signing up to support Trump, but was glad for the chance to hear his views. “I think he is having a salutary effect in forcing open a long-overdue debate in the GOP over foreign policy,” Heilbrunn wrote.

Mann, of Brookings, said it would be tempting for experts -- particularly at lesser-known think tanks -- to offer support in exchange for access in a potential Trump presidency. “I don't doubt there will be some think tanks we've never heard of from which individuals emerge to advise Trump,” he said.

But Mann hopes they'll avoid the temptation. "This, in some ways, will be a test of whether individuals and organizations merit their labeling," he added.

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.