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Trump's Inner Circle: Insights into His Second Term

Trump's Inner Circle: Insights into His Second Term
 Louise Chetcuti
Former Project Officer - United States and Transatlantic Affairs

As Donald Trump is the Republican presumptive presidential nominee, advisors who were once close to him are resurfacing, seeking influence in a potential return to the White House. According to Louise Chetcuti, a second Trump term is expected to be significantly more radical than the first, and whom he surrounds himself with will be key to understanding what that may look like.

To better understand what would be different in a second Trump administration, one should focus less on his character and more on his entourage. While it remains unclear who will ultimately staff his administration, what we know about his circle helps to clear up certain unknowns.

To better understand what would be different in a second Trump administration, one should focus less on his character and more on his entourage.

Donald Trump remains the same, with the same vision for America, but he is more emboldened and has been outspoken about the policies he would enact if elected again in November. Among his more radical proposals, he's promised to carry out mass deportation operations to remove over 11 million people from the U.S. and would be willing to deploy the military to get there.

He would let red states monitor women’s pregnancies and prosecute those who violate abortion bans. He vowed to gut the federal bureaucracy and remake it in his ideological view, using Schedule F to fire career nonpartisan civil servants. He is open to prosecuting President Biden. He has called for widespread tariffs and a decoupling of the US and Chinese economy and has also floated a 10% tariff on all goods imported into the U.S. (and 60% for Chinese ones). And most importantly for Europe, he has been clear about NATO obligations, suggesting the United States would not defend allies from aggression if he felt that country wasn’t spending enough for its own defense. Previous presidents have criticized EU allies for not contributing enough to NATO, but Trump goes further by advocating for "burden-shifting" i.e. transferring responsibility from the U.S. to Europe. Some of his reputedly close advisors want to redirect U.S. defense efforts toward Asia and China.

What Trump says on the campaign trail should not be discounted, especially if repeated, as evidenced by the withdrawal during his first term from the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), two treaties he had persistently opposed during the presidential campaign.

That being said, Trump is highly unpredictable. His last presidency has made clear that the only constant is his lack of constancy. He gets less input than would often be believed and acts impulsively. He has time and again expressed his admiration for past and present authoritarian leaders, which suggests attempts to reach deals with Putin, but perhaps also Xi Jinping, as he did in his first term with Kim Jong-un. Previous advisors have been surprised at his frequent unexpected policy decisions. Examples include public humiliations of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson​. He also fired FBI director James Comey, as well as his third national security advisor John Bolton after months of disagreement over the direction of foreign policy on how to handle Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.

Finally, Trump’s fixation on loyalty only appears to be growing as he eyes a second term. He is bringing Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law, to serve as co-chair of the Republican National Committee. No one is more loyal to Trump than Trump himself, ultimately making him the most influential figure in his decision-making process. And yet, he needs to staff a future administration.

No one is more loyal to Trump than Trump himself, ultimately making him the most influential figure in his decision-making process.

His ability to achieve his goals will depend on personnel. This distinction is why another Trump term would be radically different.

The policy strategists: MAGA-leaning organizations implicated in policy planning

In 2016, Donald Trump's presidential campaign was mostly driven by his own efforts, and his victory may even have caught him off guard. This led to a gap in the program and policies to be implemented once he entered office. He was largely in charge of crafting his program and was not as carefully prepared to fill executive positions. One notable difference this time is that there has been an organized operation to shape his incoming administration.

Rightwing conservative policy efforts are underway for his possible White House return, notably by the Heritage Foundation's Project 2025. Associated with Reagan's presidency, the Foundation was not prominent in Trump's first campaign but is now becoming more active. Its comprehensive policy guide for the next conservative president-elect is based on 4 pillars: a 887-page policy agenda (Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise); a Presidential Personnel Database (job-application questionnaire); a Presidential Administration Academy; and a playbook for the first 180 days—the time span when a President has the most leeway to get things done. Project 2025’s recommendations would give the next Republican in office "immediate control of the federal bureaucracy". For each federal agency, Heritage has transition plans which include personnel changes.

A coalition of over 100 conservative organizations are behind this, including Turning Point USA, led by conservative activist and MAGA influencer Charlie Kirk; the Center for Renewing America headed by former Trump budget director Russel Vought; American Moment, focused on young believers for junior positions; and the America First Policy Institute. Additionally, Heritage’s Mandate for Leadership is the result of input from over 400 experts across the conservative spectrum (libertarians, "America Firsts", traditional Reaganian type, Christian fundamentalists, etc.). Contributors include former elected officials, world-renowned economists, and veterans from four presidential Administrations.

This explains some of the discrepancies between the various ideas expressed and among expert recommendations. Consider trade, where tensions arise between proponents of a "no tariffs" free trade, aligned with Trump’s Wall Street backers, and neo-mercantilist advocates of protectionism and tariffs, in line with an "America first" agenda. In the Mandate for Leadership, Kent Lassman represents the case for free trade, while Peter Navarro stands for fair trade. On tariffs, we should "expect more Navarro and less Lassman" according to people familiar with the plans. Robert Lighthizer, former U.S. Trade Representative (and frequently cited as an influential voice on the President) has advocated replacing fair trade with "balanced trade", arguing that the former is unattainable. And it remains unclear the exact level of tariffs Trump would enact, specifically with China, and whether he would seek a trade deal. Praise for Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other autocrats also surfaces in private meetings. However, other contenders for top national security positions have clear-cut views on containing China.

Consider trade, where tensions arise between proponents of a no "tariffs" free trade, aligned with Trump’s Wall Street backers, and neo-mercantilist advocates of protectionism and tariffs, in line with an "America first" agenda.

The political positions of Donald Trump have shifted in the past, he’s been both a Democrat and a Republican, often advocating for revenge populism against established elites. While he included many mainstream Republicans in his first term Cabinet and other key positions, he has expressed frustration over the limits this placed on his own ideas. Policies failed either because the former President’s entourage questioned his ethics or because they weren’t considered loyal enough. Many also quit in frustration, were fired by tweet, like Defense Secretary Mark Esper, or publicly testified in reaction to Jan. 6 like Former Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger. This created a need for Trump to build a team of "loyalists".

Project 2025’s Personnel Database has been built to serve that need for the next Republican administration. Their aim is "institutionalized Trumpism", in the words of Heritage President Kevin Roberts. It is important to note there is a tension between Donald Trump's former inner circle, typically comprised of Republicans and his desire for true loyalists. For instance, Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, was defeated in the 2022 congressional primary by her Republican House colleagues for being a vocal critic of the former President.

The Heritage policy recommendations, coupled with properly vetted and trained personnel, have a better chance of being implemented. The hope is that if re-elected, President Trump will pick from this database to staff his administration.

Apart from the personnel listed in Project 2025’s database, potential staff for a future administration may include Paul Dans (who served as chief of staff at the Office of Personnel Management during Trump’s first term and now directs Project 2025), Johnny McEntee (one of Trump's closest White House aides and a senior advisor to the project), Peter Navarro, a trade advisor who encouraged Trump to implement trade-protectionist policies (currently serving a 4-month jail sentence for refusing to cooperate with a congressional probe into Jan. 6), and Spencer Chretien (former special assistant to Trump and associate director of the Presidential Personnel Database). Russell Vought, President of The Center for Renewing America, also remains close to Trump. He is working to infuse Christian nationalist ideas into his administration. They speak at least once a month.

The Insiders

Trump aides formally affiliated with the campaign

Apart from a carefully crafted policy operation centered on loyalty, Trump also relies on advisors for his presidential campaign who have helped propel the former President to the forefront of the Republican Party.

First, we have Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, the two co-managers of Trump's 2024 bid. They have created a highly disciplined operation and are known for their professionalism. Susie Wiles is perhaps his most important advisor and has been in essence his chief of staff for the last three years. Florida Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo described her as "one of the most consequential people in American politics right now". She’s one of the reasons Trump is the GOP’s presumptive nominee, not Ron DeSantis. She is involved in fundraising, expenditures and media relations. Chris LaCivita plots the overall strategy; he is officially a senior advisor to Trump's presidential campaign but is the de facto co–campaign manager. Together, they have brought an unprecedented level of discipline to the Trump campaign.

Then there are several advisors. Dan Scavino is one of Trump's longest-serving aides, going back to the 1990s when he served as a golf caddie. He has been by Trump's side throughout three campaigns for president and four years in the White House, where he occupied an office just steps away from the Oval Office. Second is Jason Miller, a senior campaign advisor who focuses on communications strategy and is trying to shape reporting on Trump through frequent contacts with reporters. Miller previously worked as a senior advisor for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign and worked on Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential run. Third, there is Brian Jack, one of Trump’s most trusted allies who has worked by his side for the last 8 years.

Apart from a carefully crafted policy operation centered on loyalty, Trump also relies on advisors for his presidential campaign who have helped propel the former President to the forefront of the Republican Party.

He took the lead in coordinating a state-by-state effort to round up endorsements from lawmakers. And last but not least, Steven Cheung, Trump’s principal spokesman worked on all three of Trump's campaigns for president, starting in 2016.

They are all deeply loyal; Cheung for example, is a public combatant of "fake news" while Scavino has been a promoter of the "stolen election" narrative and refused to comply with subpoenas rendered by the House committee's investigation Jan. 6.

And unusually for a Trump campaign, they all seem to get along.

Close policy advisors likely to play a role in a future administration

On the domestic policy front, Stephen Miller is working remotely with the policy and speechwriting teams. He is the mastermind behind some of Trump’s most hard-line immigration policies, which include the zero-tolerance policy, also known as family separation, the Muslim ban and ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He plans to "dramatically change the government’s interpretation of civil rights-era laws to focus on ‘anti-white racism’ rather than discrimination against people of color". Such an effort would involve upending programs meant to counter racism against non-white groups.

On the economy, Kevin Hassett, Trump’s former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Russel Vought, the former budget director (mentioned above), may well be in the running for a top job. However, Trump is still in close contact with Larry Kudlow, another previous economic aide (former Director of the National Economic Council). Kudlow has criticized Trump in the past but fully supports him in the 2024 election. There is also Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation, whom he previously tried to appoint to the Federal Reserve Board but failed after a lack of support for confirmation in the Senate.

On trade, Bob Lighthizer, former U.S. Trade Representative and architect of Trump’s protectionist trade policy, could well have an important role again. Together they shifted U.S. economic policy away from engagement with China toward confrontation. Lighthizer renegotiated NAFTA, slapped tariffs on China and put the WTO’s appeals court on ice by blocking the appointment of judges. He wants total decoupling from China and as mentioned earlier, is an advocate for "balanced trade". Trump has described him as "close-mouthed and competent". He remains very close to the former President.

On the economy, Kevin Hassett, Trump’s former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Russel Vought, the former budget director (mentioned above), may well be in the running for a top job.

On the foreign policy front, two co-chairs of the America First Policy Institute’s Center for American Security could be short-listed for top positions. These include General Keith Kellogg who served as National Security Advisor to Vice President Mike Pence. In March 2024, Kellogg led a delegation from the AFPI to Israel where he met with senior Israeli officials, including Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant. The other important voice on international affairs that Trump listens to is John Ratcliffe, who was his Former Director of National Intelligence.

Other figures currently being talked about as candidates for leading positions include Ukraine skeptic Robert O’Brien, Trump’s Former National Security Advisor, Mike Pompeo, his Former Secretary of State (who has defied Trump’s skepticism about aid to Ukraine but said he’s open to joining a second Trump administration). Both are said to be internationalists who want America to lead in the international order. Others are closer to isolationist or "America first" views, seeking to limit American engagement to what they see as its core interests. These include J.D. Vance, the Republican senator from Ohio (who voted against US aid to Ukraine), and Richard Grenell, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany and a Euro-skeptic. Elbridge Colby is one of the most prominent voices for a ‘pivot’ to Asia while urging Europe to take primary responsibility for its defense. He co-founded the think tank Marathon Initiative and worked for Trump as a Defense Department official. If Trump begins the party’s realignment away from neoconservatives, Colby is hoping to make that shift permanent. Finally, in her first public appearance, since she dropped her Republican presidential bid in March, Nikki Haley said she would vote for the former President, stopping short of an official endorsement. Trump appreciated his ex-rival’s endorsement and hinted that she might be on his team in some form.

Some have observed that Trump’s first presidency was much less radical or eccentric than might have been predicted from his campaign style. In the space of four years, his words have become even harsher. The difference between 2024 and 2016 is that he has a team at his disposal and, for now, an important stronghold on the Republican governmental world.

So what does it mean for Europe?

A Trump victory is a concern for European governments, who are fixated on this scenario. They fear his transactional, isolationist and unpredictable governance style could be a stress test for transatlantic relations in key policy areas including support for Ukraine, European security commitments, how to deal with China, and tensions around trade and wider economic relations. On the latter point, Member States are expecting tariff disputes and the possible extraterritorial application of various U.S. laws (such as financial sanctions, export controls, and investment restrictions). But from the EU’s perspective, and because of such high unpredictability, it is unclear what to do to hedge against this. The current lack of strategy is short-sighted and uncertainty is no excuse for inaction.

Europeans must prepare for the potential implications of Donald Trump returning to the White House in 2025. And rather than fearing this prospect, they should embrace it as an opportunity to build a more solid, sovereign, and self-reliant Europe. This is crucial not only for navigating a second Trump term effectively but also for the future of the transatlantic relationship.


January 23, 2024, Nashua, New Hampshire. Candidate Donald Trump addresses his constituents.

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