For decades, Washington think tanks have been holding pens for senior government officials waiting for their next appointments and avenues of influence for sponsors of their research. Donald Trump’s incoming administration is bent on breaking that model.
Trump’s appointments have so far have been heavy on business executives and former military leaders. Transition sources tell me the next series of nominations — deputy-level officials at top agencies — will also largely come from business rather than the think tank or policy communities. For example, neither the American Enterprise Institute’s John Bolton nor the Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass is likely to be chosen for deputy secretary of state, while hedge fund manager David McCormick is on the shortlist. Philip Bilden, a private equity investment firm executive with no government experience, is expected to be named secretary of the Navy.
The president-elect favors people who have been successful in the private sector and amassed personal wealth over those who have achieved prominence in academic or policy fields. Those close to him, including chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and senior adviser Jared Kushner, see think tanks as part of a Washington culture that has failed to implement good governance, while becoming beholden to donors.
“This is the death of think tanks as we know them in D.C.,” one transition official told me. “The people around Trump view think tanks as for sale for the highest bidder. They have empowered whole other centers of gravity for staffing this administration.”
The piece goes on to note that if Mr. Trump ends up shutting out think tanks, they will likely try to maintain influence by focusing more on Congress, industry, and foreign entities.
Others have come to the same, bleak conclusion about think tanks. The Economist recently noted that the world has reached "peak think tank" and many have become redundant and useless. Think Tank Watch recently wrote a piece entitled "Trump Dumping Think Tanks."
Think tanks are trying to change rapidly in order to evolve to the new environment. The liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) has pivoted from thinking to attacking. The Brookings Institution is touting itself as a sanctuary think tank for liberals.
To be sure, a handful of conservative think tanks have close ties to the Trump Administration, but whether they have any real influence after January 20 is an open question.
Here are some reactions from the piece:
- Bruce Bartlett: Trump could cause the death of think tanks as we know know them...but they've been brain-dead for years.
- Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, a fellow at CAP: Trump can't kill off think tanks. Separate streams. He's more likely to end up outsourcing to them.
- James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation: There is room for better think tanks in Washington.