Hosting Trump

Image: Donald Trump in 2013. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Why—with so many advantages—have our elites produced so many failed policies? And why do they feel no shame?

Donald J. Trump has entered presidential politics like a force of nature, thrilling some, horrifying others, and contributing to a nominating contest that has been among the most polarizing in recent memory. Thus it is not surprising that some should find controversy in the decision by The National Interest, and its parent organization the Center for the National Interest, to host Mr. Trump’s foreign policy speech in Washington last week. Yet our center does not shy away from controversy in serving the public interest. After all, former President Richard Nixon decided to establish the Center in 1994 precisely to create an institution that could challenge conventional wisdom and political correctness in foreign policy. Why otherwise create yet another policy institute in a city with no shortage of such centers, even two decades ago? His statement “I’m not a big fan of think tanks, but this is a different one” is still on the Center’s web site.

Our first experience with controversy came in 1996, when we honored Singapore’s Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew at a gala dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington. Nixon had long admired Lee Kwan Yew and considered him a real friend; he praised him at some length in his book Leaders for his transformation of Singapore into a stable and prosperous country free from the pervasive corruption that undermined so many postcolonial societies. Nevertheless, Lee was unabashedly a semi-authoritarian leader who believed that he knew best how to forge his multiethnic city-state into a unified regional economic powerhouse that would provide unprecedented wealth to its citizens. Neoconservative New York Times columnist and former Nixon speechwriter William Safire did not agree, however, and against the backdrop of his own long-standing feud with Lee, went so far as to write a column calling on “all good Nixonites” to boycott our event.

We did not blink. And we had a very successful event both financially and substantively by assembling a prominent and diverse group for remarks by Lee. In retrospect, this drama was mild by comparison with the excitement following our invitation to Mr. Trump to deliver his first prepared foreign-policy speech in Washington on April 27. Taking into account that no small part of the inside-the-beltway Republican establishment has announced its intent to stop Mr. Trump from receiving the party’s nomination at almost any cost, we expected a degree of hostility. Even in the best of circumstances, presidential politics engages strong emotions and inspires a take-no-prisoners approach. Of course, this year’s Republican nominating process has been more divisive than most.

For us, this environment was not a deterrent but an additional rationale to invite Mr. Trump. As a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, we cannot and do not endorse political candidates. Nor does our invitation represent an endorsement. On the contrary, it represents a statement that it is important for both Washington’s foreign-policy elites and the American people to hear the Republican front-runner’s foreign-policy vision and to understand how Mr. Trump would handle both specific challenges as well as broader questions like America’s role in the world.

This is why we immediately expressed our interest in hosting the speech upon learning that Mr. Trump was considering delivering a substantive foreign-policy address. After his victories in New York and elsewhere, some other prestigious organizations approached the campaign as well; by then, however, we were already working with the campaign to plan the event.

For the record, the Center for the National Interest’s board of directors includes individuals supporting both political parties and with differing perspectives toward Mr. Trump’s candidacy and toward U.S. foreign policy. In fact, some Center board members have publicly opposed Mr. Trump and have contributed financially to other candidates. Despite this, they shared the belief that our organization had both an interest in and indeed a responsibility to provide a platform for Mr. Trump present his views on U.S. foreign policy. We decided that our magazine The National Interest should formally host the speech in view of its ongoing coverage of foreign policy in the presidential campaign and its many lower-profile events focused on these issues.

We organized the event in generally the same way that we arrange other Center and magazine programs: as an invitation-only event with participants drawn from both parties, with varied perspectives and impressive credentials. We developed the invitation list independently from the Trump campaign, which provided a short list of Mr. Trump’s advisors—whom we thought other participants would like to meet—but did not attempt to interfere in any way. We invited members of Congress, foreign ambassadors, top experts, leading journalists and others. The audience eventually included four ambassadors (from Italy, the Philippines, Russia and Singapore), senior officials from previous Republican and Democratic administrations, supporters of Mr. Trump, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other candidates, and journalists, including some known for highly critical prior coverage of Mr. Trump. Separately, we provided facilities for a large number of working journalists from national media organizations covering the presidential campaign.