Two Republican national security experts offered differing views of President Donald Trump during last week’s Aspen Security Forum, which ran through Thursday.
The summer forum usually draws ambassadors, CEOs and top academics to Aspen by the hundreds for a week to talks on the state of the U.S. and the planet. This year, the forum took place on a video conference complete with the technical gremlins and the ringing of unsilenced phones in the background.
But the speakers remained heavy hitters, with Bush-era Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton offering their views. Rice was conciliatory and says Trump did the best that can be expected on issues from North Korea to the coronavirus. Bolton was scathing, calling the president unable to lead in crisis.
Rice took a measured tone on Trump’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic.
“I try not to be too hard on those who are managing a crisis like this,” she said.
The first Black woman to be the nation’s top diplomat, she said Americans must realize the limits of the government’s reach when assessing how the president has handled the pandemic.
“It is very difficult for government to get control of the habits of 330 million people,” she said.
A professor and former provost of Stanford University in California, she is set to become director of the school's Hoover Institution next month. She had one piece of advice for the commander-in-chief: tweet less and let others be the main figures to answer questions on the virus.
“I believe, personally, that presidents can speak too much,” Rice said, noting the difficulty of balancing the contradictions that have arisen between Trump and his top lieutenants.
“At a time like this, you don’t want mixed messages.”
Bolton was far more bombastic while touting his tell-all book “The Room Where It Happened,” released this summer after a court fight with Trump, who wanted the book suppressed.
He portrayed Trump as a leader driven solely by self-interest with little regard for the standing of America on the world stage.
“I think he acts on the basis of Donald Trump and in particular how to get himself reelected,” Bolton said.
The dueling views of the White House are nothing new for the Aspen Institute, which has hosted discussions across the political spectrum since its founding in 1949. It is an annual gathering of the nation’s elites who listen to hours of discussion, and in years before the pandemic would spend the evening discussing world problems over cocktails.
The 2020 version included a number of Trump loyalists, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft.
Also featured were potential leaders of a Joe Biden Administration including Michelle Flournoy, the Pentagon’s policy chief in the Obama years and a front-runner to be Biden’s Defense secretary, and Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary at the State Department who is Biden’s top foreign policy advisor.
The Biden loyalists touted his dedication to quickly rebuilding alliances they say have been frayed during Trump’s time in office. While Trump offers nationalism, they offered globalism.
Bolton and Rice, though, showed off the changing tone among Republicans.
Rice is a consensus-builder who helped craft an international coalition to take on al-Qaida under President George W. Bush.
Bolton, briefly Bush’s controversial U.N. ambassador, is known as an American nationalist, who was plucked by Trump for his ability to help the administration’s “America first” agenda.
“I can tell you there is a lot of sentiment in the Republican Party to get past the Trump years,” said Bolton.
Rice, while saying the U.S. needs to build international partnerships, also said Trump has brought about some long-sought changes.
One of Trump’s recent moves that sparked controversy was the abrupt decision to pull 12,000 U.S. troops out of bases in Germany.
While Trump said the move is a measure of his dissatisfaction with low German defense spending, Esper and others said the change allows the Defense Department to better focus on emerging threats.
“I do believe there is some truth in the idea that our military force posture still reflects the Cold War,” Rice said.
Her only problem with the change is how it was handled.
“It is entirely possible that it is time to think about a troop reduction in Germany,” Rice said. “But you do that in quiet conversations with the Germans and with NATO.”
Bolton, who said he won’t be voting for Trump in November, said Trump enmity with Germany is real.
“This is to punish Germany, no doubt about it,” he said of troop withdrawals. “That’s why you have to treat Trump as an anomaly.”
One issue where Rice broke with Trump was the president’s desire to keep the names of Confederate generals on American military bases.
Rice said government-sponsored glorification of the system that fostered slavery must go.
But to get there, Trump must learn to speak to all Americans, rather than just his base, she said.
“I have heard him speak in unity, I would like to hear more,” she said.
To bring the country together, Rice said Trump should consider changing how he communicates with the American people.
“None of us should say the first thing that come to mind and that is a tendency that Twitter tends to make us do,” she said.
Bolton, though, said Trump would turn more of his Tweets into reality of reelected.
“If the guardrail of reelection is removed, I think he will do more of what he talks about,” Bolton said.