It only took until the second week of August, three months to the day that Americans will vote for the 44th president of the United States, but the Never Trump conservative insurgency has found its candidate. This morning, ABC reported that Evan McMullin, an ex-CIA agent and until today the chief policy director of the House Republican Conference, would enter the presidential race as a third-party candidate. His campaign launched under the slogan: “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
McMullin, a Brigham Young University graduate who studied abroad in Israel on a Defense Department grant, is virtually unknown to the general public, and was even unknown to multiple GOP operatives contacted for this story. But even his limited public profile offers a glimpse into his political philosophy, and his possible motivations for effectively throwing away a promising career in Republican politics to mount a hopeless opposition to his own party’s candidate—an effort that is liable to make Hillary Clinton’s election even likelier than it already is. A closer look reveals that the 40-year-old is diametrically opposed to Trump in just about every respect, and in particular when it comes to McMullin’s specialty, foreign policy.
McMullin has been a behind-the-scenes player for most of his career, first as an agent in the clandestine services, and then as part of the largely anonymous mass of Hill staffers responsible for formulating policy in the legislative branch. But McMullin has left a tantalizing, if skeletal, record of where his passions lie, policywise.
According to the Congressional Record, McMullin traveled to Turkey and Jordan in 2013, along with Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey in 2014. A Foreign Agents Registration Act filing lists contacts between McMullin and the Glover Park Group, which apparently represented the government of Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
This record of close involvement in Middle East policy includes a specific interest in the anti-Assad cause. In a May 2014 newsletter, a pro-Assad activist named Rick Sterling recalled a “very unpleasant” conversation with McMullin, whom Sterling viewed as evidence of the CIA’s control over America’s Syria policy. As Foreign Policy reported in 2013, McMullin was one of the congressional staffers who met with high-ranking Free Syrian Army officers near the country’s border with Turkey. “McMullin does a lot of great things from Syria behind the scenes in Congress,” Shlomo Bolts, a policy and advocacy officer at the Syrian American Council wrote by email. “He is one of the strongest supporters of the Syrian cause among the congressional staffers. Most Syrians who are involved in D.C, politics know him and appreciate his work.”
There are various potential motives for wanting the U.S. to back the anti-regime side in Syria: On a strategic level, a rebel victory would take pressure off of Israel, deprive the anti-American regime in Tehran of its only Arab ally, deal a military defeat to Hezbollah, and deny ISIS of one of its main recruitment planks. But McMullin’s apparent stance on Syria is informed by something more than just political expediency. As the now-candidate revealed in a May 2016 talk at a TEDx event at the London School of Economics, McMullin spent time in Damascus as a student in the early 2000s, where he was struck by normal Syrians’ near-mortal fear of their own government. McMullin explained how he had arranged the landmark July 2014 congressional testimony of Caesar, the still-anonymous Assad regime defector who provided international investigators with evidence of rampant abuse and over 10,000 extra-judicial killings within Assad’s prison system. According to the TEDx presentation, McMullin spent time working with the U.N.’s refugee agency in Jordan, speaks at least some Arabic, and espouses sympathy for “the world’s most vulnerable people.”
Leaving aside the obvious contrast with the decidedly non-Arabic-speaking, anti-refugee, and even anti-cosmopolitan Donald Trump, in his TEDx talk McMullin posits a connection between individual empathy and political action that appears to be the exact opposite of the real estate mogul’s ethos. Describing the Caesar photos, McMullin says the Assad regime worked with “the evil diligence of the Nazis” in dehumanizing and cataloging its victims. A modern-day sequel to the Holocaust is taking place, but anger isn’t enough: “If we ever want to make ‘never again’ the reality, we have to transform the way we think about [atrocity prevention],” McMullin said. “We have to learn to fight atrocities from within the governments, from within the political systems of the countries that have the power to stop them.”
McMullin is certainly an obscure figure. He speaks haltingly at times during the TEDx talk, and at one point appears to praise Bill Clinton for his eventual willingness to intervene in Bosnia—a sign that as recently as two months ago, McMullin likely didn’t plan on running for president against Clinton’s wife. Yet his possible appeal to the anti-Trump crowd should be obvious: Unlike Trump, the 40-year-old McMullin is a relatively young man with a record of national service and strongly anti-isolationist foreign policy convictions. Mormons and foreign policy hawks—or really just Republicans who care about foreign policy—have been two of the conservative constituencies most disgusted with Trump’s candidacy. Just today, 50 prominent GOP national security officials publicly denounced Trump, saying he would be “the most reckless president in history,” and declaring “none of us will vote for Donald Trump.” Mitt Romney, perhaps the most prominent Mormon voice in American politics, made a similar declaration some time ago.
McMullin, a Mormon with a foreign policy background, straddles both camps. He gives conservatives the option of not having to vote for Hillary Clinton and raises the possibility of denying the Trumpists a win in Utah, one of the most heavily Republican states in the country. As a possible vehicle for Trumpism’s delegitimization, and for those right-wingers who still crave politics of empathy, moral values, and engagement with the world, McMullin’s candidacy could prove valuable for the perhaps 27% of Republicans who don’t support their party’s candidate.
The question is whether there’s really a sizable number of conservative voters willing to vote for a relative unknown for the sake of protesting Trump—and whether McMullin is an engaging enough figure to make the case for handing the White House to Hillary Clinton in the name of a proudly non-Trumpist set of conservative political principles.