Disrupting the White House: Peter Thiel’s Influence is Shaping the National Security Council

Over the past week, the White House appointed five new senior National Security Council staff officials. Two in particular signify the emerging and disruptive influence Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel could have on U.S. national security and how he might bring his venture capital perspective — visionary but unconventional leaders, big bets on disrupting established industries — to national security.

Kevin Harrington, a Thiel acolyte, has been named Deputy Assistant to the President for strategic planning. Since early December, Harrington served on the Trump “landing team” at the Commerce Department, where his job was to help hire people for open positions and identify policy priorities. Before that, he worked at hedge funds started by Thiel. Michael Anton, a former executive at an investment management firm and speechwriter, was named Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications, virtually the same job that Obama advisor Ben Rhodes held.  POLITICO reports that he received the position “thanks to an entree from Thiel.”

The Harrington appointment is unusual for a couple of reasons.  First, the elevation of this position to “Deputy Assistant to the President,” the second highest rank within the White House, suggests that Harrington will have a larger role than his predecessors.  Although the strategic planning office is one of the most important at the NSC, it is typically staffed by a lean team of forward thinkers and the head of the office is ranked accordingly.

Speaking Monday at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, Harrington explained that the higher rank signified an increased priority on strategy at the NSC.

“There’s a thought that the NSC typically gets bogged down putting out fires and the day-to-day minutiae — and certainly a lot of it’s not minutiae — but it’s difficult to strike a balance between doing the urgent and doing the important,” he said. “There is an elevation of strategic planning in the new NSC structure to focus on what are some of the important things rather than what are the things that we need to do tomorrow or today.”

Second, Harrington has a conspicuous lack of foreign policy experience in a role that typically values extensive tenure in the field.  The NSC’s top strategic planner needs a deep understanding of the range of national security challenges confronting the United States and how they interact, as well as a working knowledge of the tools of U.S. national power and how they can be combined to achieve desired outcomes.

Harrington’s immediate predecessor, Salman Ahmed, had extensive experience at the United Nations and taught at Princeton before joining Susan Rice’s team.  Well-respected Democratic foreign policy strategist Derek Chollet held the job during Obama’s first term.  In some ways, Harrington is a classic Thiel executive.  Thiel is known for hiring and investing in visionary leaders (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg) who may not be as thoroughly steeped in the industry as their competitors.  The question is whether the “disruptor” model carries over to foreign policy, where the most successful strategists have been people like Brent Scowcroft, Richard Holbrooke, and Michele Flournoy, people with years of highly relevant government experience under their belt.

As for Harrington’s background, according to his White House bio: 

Harrington was managing director and head of research for Thiel Macro LLC, a San Francisco-based global macro hedge fund.  He also worked for its predecessor fund, Clarium Capital Management, and was a coauthor of the PayPal business plan. He consulted for the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), a Stanford foreign policy think tank, on the security of fissile materials and the protection of critical national infrastructure, and was a doctoral candidate in physics at Stanford University, where he was an NSF Fellow.  A Goldwater Scholar, Harrington conducted mathematics research for the Department of Defense, and graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in mathematics and physics from the University of Idaho.

Both Thiel Macro and Clarium Capital Management are hedge funds started by Thiel with the money he made when Paypal, the online payment company he co-founded, was sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Other members of the so-called PayPal Mafia have gone on to lead some of Silicon Valley’s most successful companies. Thiel was also an early investor in Facebook. At its height, Clarium had more than $7 billion in assets, but after a series of bad investments during the 2008 financial crisis, the fund suffered big losses.

In a profile for The New Yorker, George Packer reported that “one of Clarium’s largest investors concluded that the fund was a kind of Thiel cult, staffed by young intellectuals who were in awe of their boss and imitated his politics, his chess playing, his aversion to TV and sports.”

During the presidential campaign, Thiel, who immigrated to the US from Germany when he was one, was among the few Silicon Valley executives to align himself with Trump, donating money and speaking at the Republican National Convention in July. After Trump won, Thiel associates were named to the transition teams for Commerce, Treasury, and Defense, and one of his top executives is reportedly on the short list for Food and Drug Administration Commissioner. Thiel himself was named to the transition’s Executive Committee, and was seated next to Trump at a November meeting with the top executives from America’s leading technology companies.

So what will Thiel’s influence and connections mean for national security? Like Trump and his chief advisor Steve Bannon, Thiel is known for being a provocateur who sees the country in a state of decline and in need of bold leadership. As Packer wrote, two of Thiel’s favorite words are “disruption and risk.” The Atlantic wrote in November, before Trump won the presidency, that Thiel “favors revolutionary ideas and people with big plans for blowing things up and remaking the world.”  All three men have expressed their distrust for the technocratic policy elites who, in their view, have come to dominate government with suboptimal outcomes.

Thiel has written extensively on government and public policy issues, but the greatest insights into his worldview may come from his 2014 New York Times #1 bestseller, Zero to One, which is part manifesto, part playbook for building and investing in successful companies.  Among the many insights in the book is Thiel’s belief in investing in visionary executives leading companies that have the fundamentals to totally disrupt industries and create near monopoly-like services in their area of specialty.  Thiel criticizes venture capital funds that seek to disperse risk too broadly, preferring instead a strategy focused on investing in companies facing steep odds but that have the ability to be extraordinarily successful and offer incredible returns.  It’s a strategy that has made Thiel a lot of money and birthed many great companies. It is not yet clear whether such an approach, where by definition many portfolio companies fail or dramatically underperform can or should apply to foreign policy, where failure in war, statecraft, or economic policy can have tremendous human consequences.  

As to specific policy matters, he has criticized both the Bush and Obama administrations for squandering money on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with little to show for it. During the campaign, he spoke out harshly against Hillary Clinton’s support for a no-fly zone in Syria, saying it risked a “direct nuclear conflict” with Russia. (Since becoming president, Trump has made it clear he supports creating safe zones for Syrian civilians inside the country, but has not provided any details yet on how such zones would be protected or if they will be premised on Russian cooperation.)

As for America’s woes, Thiel told reporters in October

“Just as much as it’s about making America great, Trump’s agenda is about making America a normal country”. He continued, “A normal country doesn’t have a half trillion dollar trade deficit. A normal country doesn’t fight five simultaneous undeclared wars. In a normal country, the government actually does its job.”

Harrington made a much quieter Washington debut this week, while dropping subtle hints that he may share some of Thiel’s contrarianism.

“Trump is willing to call a spade a spade. Washington has a singular ability to deceive itself about what it’s accomplishing,” Harrington said Monday at FDD.

Because Trump feels no ownership of the nuclear agreement with Iran or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he has more flexibility to criticize and point out where those deals fail U.S. interests, Harrington said.

According to POLITICO, Harrington’s new colleague at the NSC is Michael Anton, a conservative intellectual and leading critic of “Never Trump” Republicans, who writes under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus. He is serving as Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications. He previously worked as managing director at Blackrock, the global investment company, and was in charge of foreign policy speechwriting on the NSC staff under President George W. Bush. Before that, he worked as a speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York City.

Anton rose to prominence this political season with writings reflecting a worldview also held by Thiel and Bannon: The West is in a state of perilous and rapid decline, and radical steps need to be taken to set it on the right course. In his specific analogy, the United States is like the passengers on United Flight 93, speeding toward our collective death unless we take action to “charge the cockpit.” In September he wrote, “You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.”

The election of Trump was the first step toward saving the country, in Anton’s view.

Anton is anti-immigration, a proponent of economic nationalism, a sharp critic of the “winless” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he disdains the Democratic and Republican establishment. He supported Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to lead the Department of Homeland Security, writing, he’s the “most vigilant immigration patriot in the country today.” Kobach has proposed reinstating a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.

“Simply building a wall and enforcing immigration law will help enormously, by cutting off the flood of newcomers that perpetuates ethnic separatism and by incentivizing the English language and American norms in the workplace,” Anton wrote in September.

One of Thiel’s motivations for shaping the Trump Administration may be his desire to unleash the American spirit of innovation that he believes has been quashed, in part, by government regulation and ineptitude.  In Zero to One, Thiel writes nostalgically about an America when when scientific ambitions were much bigger: putting a man on the moon or the Manhattan project. Thiel has invested in several companies in heavily regulated industries — nuclear energy, space, biotechnology, healthcare, the sharing economy — that stand to benefit from an improved regulatory climate.  

But it may be through Palantir, the data analytics firm that he co-founded, that Thiel will ultimately have the greatest impact on national security.  In December, Palantir’s CEO, Alex Karp, who supported Hillary Clinton during the campaign, was invited to the tech summit at Trump Tower, despite Palantir being the only private company there and, at $20 billion, of a much smaller size than the other companies included.

Palantir, which has contracts with the CIA (from which it received early investments) and other defense and intelligence agencies, has made waves in the U.S. national security community over the past decade, where its software has won the loyalty of government analysts even while the company has clashed with traditional procurement bureaucracies and well-established national security contractors.  Palantir recently won a longstanding legal case against the Defense Department, paving the way for it to finally compete for a major Army contract, and recent reporting from The Verge suggests the company could take on a significant role in immigration vetting in this administration.  

In January, the Trump transition team announced that Trae Stephens, a partner at Thiel’s primary venture capital firm, Founders Fund, joined the transition team at the Pentagon. Stephens previously worked at Palantir.  Although Stephens himself does not have experience working for the U.S. government, Palantir has become one of the most desirable destinations for military veterans, intelligence analysts, and other national security professionals looking to transition to the private sector.  We could well see Palantirians in key national security roles early in the Trump Administration.

Thiel has stated that he won’t take a job in the Administration if offered one, telling The New York Times, “I want to stay involved in Silicon Valley and help Mr. Trump as much as I can without a full-time position.”  With Kevin Harrington in the White House and other close associates primed to take on top positions, Thiel may not need a post in Washington to ensure that disruptive ideas carry the day in the Trump administration.

Image: Drew Angerer/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Brannen

Editorial Director of Just Security; nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council; previously senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy Follow her on Twitter (@K8brannen).

Luke Hartig

Executive Director of National Journal's Network Science Initiative and Fellow, International Security Program at New America. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Director for Counterterrorism Operations in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. You can follow him on Twitter (@LukeHartig).