A “Distinguished Person of the Week,” especially one singled out in the Washington Post for commendation, has presumably performed a laudable public service. This past week the newspaper’s blogger Jennifer Rubin, a vociferous neocon about whom the Post’s former ombudsman Patrick Pexton once wrote, “She doesn’t travel within a hundred miles of Post standards,” bestowed this honor upon a recent employee of the Center for the National Interest. Ordinarily, we would be delighted by the bestowal of such a citation.
In this instance, however, there is nothing to celebrate, both because of the source and because it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the center’s relationship with the recipient, Alexander Kirss. Kirss, a former part-time junior fellow, was terminated on May 16 for publishing a broadside in an outside publication against the Center for the National Interest and its magazine the National Interest. Kirss attacked the Center and the magazine for hosting a foreign policy speech delivered by Donald Trump. This prompted Rubin to praise Kirss for his “honesty,” while being careful to disapprove of what she deemed his “affection” for a realist foreign policy. Kirss had said that hosting Trump was “tantamount to tacit, if not explicit, approval of Trump’s positions.”
No, it wasn’t. The Center for the National Interest is a nonpartisan organization and does not endorse candidates, either tacitly or overtly. The Center’s bipartisan board of directors quite obviously holds a variety of opinions about Trump. Some have either actively opposed his candidacy through significant financial contributions or by attacking him—in the pages of the National Interest.
The blunt fact is that when a public policy institute, university, or think tank invites someone to speak, it does not constitute an endorsement. Over the years the Center has hosted then-President Bill Clinton, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senator Rand Paul, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and more recently, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and national Security Advisor Susan Rice. It would strain credulity to believe that the Center could simultaneously “approve” of all of their positions.
Obviously, Kirss is entitled to his opinions about Trump and his suitability to become president. Unfortunately, he never raised any questions or concerns with the Center’s management—which would have tried to address them. He might have written for the National Interest to express his apprehensions about Trump. He had already published no less than nine articles on the magazine’s web site—including one that appeared just four days prior to his external publication about the Center. Given that the magazine has published critical articles about Trump and that the other junior fellows had also written critical about Trump in other publications, he had no basis for assuming that such a contribution would not be published. In this regard, perhaps it is also worth noting that the magazine’s website ran pieces critical of Trump’s speech, In addition, Jacob Heilbrunn, who edits the magazine, has criticized Trump in a variety of publications.
Kirss sought to present his article as an insider account and made sweeping claims about the Center’s and the magazine’s putative support for Trump without providing persuasive evidence to justify them. He couldn’t. He never participated in any meetings about the speech or with the Trump campaign’s advance team. Nor was he present during any discussions about them. Above all, he did not even attend the speech.
Other contentions he made were also dubious. Kirss suggested, for example, that organizations like the Center have been unable to contribute any policymakers inclined toward realism for government service. In fact, three of its current program directors have served as political appointees in the U.S. government. Former Center employees are also working in the State Department, Defense Department, the National Security Council and the intelligence community. Former staff also hold senior positions on Capitol Hill.
If Kirss was troubled by the Center’s decision to host Trump and was unwilling to express any concerns or to write for the National Interest, he had a different option: to resign before or after the event and to explain the reasons. Instead, he waited for two weeks after Trump’s address to present his views. He then wrote to the management to share his article after it had been published and to say that “I accept the consequences” of the decision to write it. Since he did not volunteer to resign even then, we cannot say what consequences he foresaw. The Center itself thought that providing a Republican frontrunner the opportunity to explain at length his foreign policy views, which were the subject of many questions, in a prominent setting was demonstrably a public service. We were pleased that the Trump campaign selected the Center as a venue for his address over indications of interest from several other major Washington institutions.
Given the atrabilious tenor of discussion these days in Washington, however, it is probably predictable that pundits like Jennifer Rubin would garland Kirss with laurels, depicting him as a kind of freedom fighter. She even encourages employees in think tanks to inform her about any institutions that may be “helping” Trump, as she puts it. But what does she mean by help? Is it taboo to provide the campaign with a briefing paper? To suggest that it might follow a softer or harder line toward North Korea?