Donald Trump’s newly released list of foreign policy advisers didn’t suggest much about his worldview on Monday, but Trump had plenty to say himself.
The GOP front-runner spent the day in Washington trying to sharpen his diplomatic credentials, which his opponents have often criticized as light. He named a short list of foreign policy hands advising him after previously identifying himself as his own top aide, sat down with the Washington Post for a deep dive into his foreign policy, and held a press conference ahead of a major speech on Israel.
If the goal was to clear up any lingering questions about his policy outlook, though, it didn't work.
Trump managed to take seemingly contradictory positions on federal aid to Israel within a short period. The confusion came just hours before a scheduled speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee meant to showcase his policy towards the nation’s top Middle Eastern ally.
At a press conference Monday afternoon, MSNBC’s Anthony Terrell asked Trump to clarify whether his frequent demands that America cut back military aid to longtime allies would apply to Israel as well.
“I think Israel will do that also,” Trump said. “I think Israel – there are many countries that can pay and they can pay big league.”
Speaking with reporters later, however, Trump walked his answer back when asked again whether the US should supply military aid to Israel.
"Yes, because Israel is helping us in the Middle East,” Trump said. “Without Israel you would have an even bigger problem in the Middle East. It's our one truly reliable ally in the Middle East."
The candidate offered a more focused take at the Washington Post, where in a major break from decades of Republican and Democratic administrations, he proposed America massively scale back its diplomatic, economic and military commitments abroad. Most notably, Trump suggested that America scale back its role in NATO, the Cold War-era alliance that’s defined the country's national security policy since the end of World War II.
"We certainly can’t afford to do this anymore," Trump said. "NATO is costing us a fortune, and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO, but we’re spending a lot of money."
Trump indicated that Europe should take primary responsibility for dealing with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and said he saw little benefit to America’s relationship with South Korea, where US troops have helped safeguard the country from North Korean attack since the end of the Korean War.
Trump’s skepticism of “nation building,” international institutions and foreign aid sounded closest philosophically to the libertarian and paleoconservative wings of the American right, two branches that have long been marginalized within the GOP’s foreign policy elite.
In his Post interview, Trump identified a team of advisers led by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the famed immigration hardliner who endorsed Trump earlier this year.
"Walid Phares, who you probably know, Ph.D., adviser to the House of Representatives, he's a counter-terrorism expert," Trump told the Post. "Carter Page, Ph.D. George Papadopoulos. He's an oil and energy consultant. Excellent guy. The honorable Joe Schmitz, [was] inspector general at the Department of Defense. General Keith Kellogg. And I have quite a few more. But that's a group of some of the people that we are dealing with. We have many other people in different aspects of what we do. But that's pretty representative group."
The most well-known name on that list was Phares, a Lebanese academic who previously advised Mitt Romney and has worked as a media analyst at NBC and Fox News commenting on radical Islamic terrorism. Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer investigated Phares' background in 2011 and raised questions about his role advising Christian sectarian leaders in Lebanon’s brutal civil war. Phares did not immediately respond to an emailed interview request from MSNBC.
Schmitz has served in the private sector since resigning as inspector general in 2005 amid criticism from Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who accused his office of wasteful spending. An email to Schmitz's law firm was not immediately returned.
As for the rest of the group, the main characteristic may be their lack of any standout characteristic.
“They aren't distinguished, period,” Heather Hurlburt, director of the New Models of Policy Change project at New America, told MSNBC.
Experts who spoke to MSNBC said Trump's list appeared to be drawn from outside the GOP’s traditional pool of foreign policy experts, perhaps reflecting Trump’s continued distance from the party’s establishment.
“A lot of people are going to be asking, 'Who's that again?' ” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said in an email. “This is an embarrassingly thin list for a Republican front-runner. This suggests that literally no one from the Republican foreign policy mainstream is willing, at this point, to sign up with Donald Trump.”