Former Chiefs of Staff discuss foreign policy

Former Chiefs of Staff Andrew Card, of the Bush administration, and Denis McDonough, of the Obama administration, visited campus on October 4 for a discussion titled, “Views from the West Wing: How Global Trends Shape U.S. Foreign Policy.” The two shared their experiences navigating some of the most significant foreign policy crises of the recent past, and their thoughts about the Trump administration.

Card and McDonough began by discussing the responsibilities and realities of holding one of the most powerful positions in government, the job of Chief of Staff to the President. “The responsibility of a Chief of Staff is to make sure the President is available to make a brutally tough decision at any time during any day,” Card explained. He joked that his most important responsibility was “the care and feeding of the President.”

McDonough echoed the importance of freeing up the President to focus on big decisions and talked about the importance of creating a respectful, civil West Wing environment, so that the President has all the staff support necessary to make critical decisions. “The world being what is is, often times…[the President] makes decisions over the course of hours, sometimes in the dead of night, and if you’re not running a clean process to ensure that people are prepared to get those decisions to the President in a well-shaped-up manner, then they’re going to end up being bad decisions,” McDonough said.

During a discussion about Congress’s role in national security, McDonough talked about President Obama’s decision to establish a “red line” in Syria over Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons. McDonough explained how Congress was reluctant to become involved in Syria, but that President Obama’s establishment of a credible threat of force pushed Syria to acknowledge its chemical warfare capabilities and to halt production of the chemicals. Additionally, McDonough argued that Obama’s choice of action was wise, asserting that “if the President had used force before all of that stuff [chemical weaponry] was moved out of Syria, I feel…that chemical weapons on the ground in Syria would have been dispersed and proliferated among very hateful, violent organizations, including ISIS.”

Card’s tenure as Chief of Staff witnessed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The attacks changed the course of U.S. foreign policy for every succeeding presidency. Card addressed the controversial enhancement of interrogation tactics in the wake of 9/11, “We do feel that the techniques did produce results…but it also helped for us to discover some of the attacks that had been planned on the United States and get some means of interrupting those so that they didn’t happen.” He said that the tactics should be controversial, and that the administration knew they would be controversial, but they felt that they were necessary to “preserve and protect” the United States.

Both Chiefs of Staff briefly commented on the current White House, from a communications standpoint. Card warned, “Taste your words before you spit them out.” He expressed a hope that President Trump be intentional with his word choice and resist impulsivity, especially impulsive Tweeting. He urged Americans to be “skeptical, but not cynical” about President Trump’s performance going forward, wishing the President success.  McDonough agreed with Card’s sentiments, adding that he would like the President to be evaluated by the results that his administration produces rather than the methods he uses to achieve them. Both praised current Chief of Staff John Kelly and were confident in his abilities to perform competently in his position.  

A student asked about the role of the Catholic Church in global engagement. McDonough responded, “I don’t see an ability to get our hands around globalization…without the Catholic Church and other institutions of faith maintaining a very powerful engagement in questions of public policy and questions of the common good.” Card, who is married to a Methodist minister, emphasized the importance of faith in guiding public service. “I think the Catholic Church, because they are [sic] everywhere, has a particular responsibility to create a climate of justice,” Card said, also expressing admiration for the role the Church has already played in global affairs.

This keynote event was part of an annual series, Notre Dame Forum, the topic for which this year was “Going Global”.

Mimi Teixeira is a senior studying political science and constitutional studies. One imagines that, in another universe, she was named “Timi Neixeira.” Contact her at