WASHINGTON ― During his nearly two years serving as U.S. ambassador to Norway, President Donald Trump’s replacement for abruptly ousted Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, Kenneth “K.J.” Braithwaite, pressed NATO allies to boost their defense spending while assuring the U.S. would never desert the 70-year-old pact.
It was a job complicated by Trump’s sometimes bruising rhetoric and capricious foreign policy decisions, but Braithwaite, 59, has worked to reframe Trump for the overseas audience, mostly with a polish and poise commensurate with Braithwaite’s experience as a former Navy spokesman and rear admiral.
“Donald Trump is not a politician, he speaks his mind, and sometimes without a filter,” Braithwaite told the audience at an Oslo security conference on Oct. 16. “He’s definitely not a diplomat. I think we all know that. He’s a businessman ... One of the worst things you can do when you enter a room to negotiate is be predictable.”
Though Oslo recommitted last year to spend the NATO target of 2 percent of annual gross domestic product on defense amid direct pressure from Trump, Braithwaite has not let up on Russia’s wealthy Nordic neighbor. He’s said America values NATO deeply, but that its $22 trillion debt means it can no longer subsidize Europe’s defense.
And when a conference-goer predicted the U.S. would exit NATO if Trump won reelection in 2020, a fired up Braithwaite insisted Trump would not and could not do so unilaterally. Braithwaite never uttered his boss’s catchphrase “fake news,” but he blamed America’s politicized and market-driven media for perceptions to the contrary.
“For all those to the left or to the right that ... sensationalize the United States pulling out of NATO, I mean that’s just ― excuse the vernacular as a sailor ― but that’s just bullshit,” Braithwaite said.
Some credit Trump with the boost in NATO spending, but his multiple jabs and false claims about NATO have been one of the most vexing aspects of his presidency to date for allies, career diplomats and Pentagon officials. It’s enough of an open question that even U.S. lawmakers have looked to seal the exit on multiple occasions.
For the Pentagon, Braithwaite’s Norway messaging experience might translate to the Pacific, a key theater for the Navy and one where a U.S. push on burden sharing last week overshadowed Esper’s emphasis on old and new partnerships to counter China.
For Trump, Braithwaite would be closer to him and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and also more aligned with him philosophically than Spencer, a financier who had served on the board of the centrist Center for a New American Security.
“Kenneth Braithwaite is somebody I’ve known for quite some time. I think he’d be very capable. It’s my recommendation to the president,” Esper told reporters on Monday.
Braithwaite’s job qualifications include 31 years in the Navy and Naval Reserve, but he also shares a connection to Esper in David Urban, a lobbyist and CNN commentator who helped advise the president’s successful 2016 campaign in Pennsylvania. Urban is also credited with propelling his fellow West Point classmates, Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to their Cabinet posts.
As chief of staff for then-Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in the late 1990s, Urban hired Braithwaite, his University of Pennsylvania classmate, to run Specter’s local office. The two remained close, and Braithwaite both worked on Trump’s Pennsylvania campaign and his transition team at the Pentagon.
At Braithwaite’s confirmation hearing in 2017, he thanked, “my best friend, Mr. David Urban, a West Point graduate and proof the Army and the Navy can get along well.”
Urban told Defense News he believed that if Braithwaite, a husband and father, is confirmed, he would prioritize Navy families and take his cues from Esper.
“It’s a tough time right now for the Navy, but Ken has the right personality, he’s a consensus builder, he has respect for the fleet, the Pentagon and the White House. He’s the perfect guy, and I think he’ll do a great job,” Urban said.
The president and some lawmakers soured on Spencer in part after he broke a promise to fix all eleven of the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier’s weapons elevators by the time it launched sea trials in August. Braithwaite will have his work cut out for him with the Ford and other problem-plagued programs.
A Michigan native and 1984 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Braithwaite has said he was inspired to serve by his father, who was wounded while landing at Normandy during World War II. Braithwaite was high speed, the first of his class selected for flag rank after only 21 years of military service.
Earlier in his career, he was an anti-submarine warfare pilot who tracked Soviet submarines in western Pacific and Indian Oceans for a Hawaii-based patrol squadron. From there, he served in various communications and legislative affairs roles before leaving active service in 1993 and the Naval Reserve in 2011.
After the massive 2005 Kashmir earthquake, Braithwaite, then a senior strategic communications specialist, supported the massive U.S. relief effort, former career ambassador Ryan Crocker recalled. When the U.S. struggled to tell its story and anti-American sentiment was high, Braithwaite turned it around by having the U.S. fly Pakistani journalists to the remote disaster zone to see Americans helping.
Braithwaite was an astute questioner, a good listener and innately credible―all valuable skills for the Navy’s rough transition and beyond. “He was fantastic,” Crocker said. “It’s obviously a huge advantage he was in the Navy, a service he deeply loves. He will communicate the values and traditions of the Navy, and all it does in our society.”
At Braithwaite’s confirmation hearing, he acknowledged Russia’s election meddling and its reinstitution of strategic bomber flights along the Norwegian coast, as well as Norway’s planned purchase of the Lockheed F-35 fighter aircraft and Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft.
As ambassador, he focused on the security of the Arctic, a region that’s seeing an uptick in Russian and NATO activity. He accompanied Norway’s prime minister about the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) during a port visit in Oslo, after the conclusion of Trident Juncture ― the largest NATO exercise in years.
Last month, he published an op-ed in the Norwegian outlet VG, pointing to Russia’s aggressive behavior in Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea to urge Norway to follow through on its defense spending pledge.
“While I do not think Norway is at risk of an invasion, I would like to quote George Marshall, General, Statesman and Nobel Laureate who once said, ‘the only way to win the next world war is to prevent it,’” he wrote. “I firmly believe a strong and adequate defense as part of the NATO Alliance is the only guarantee that Norway has the capability to deter any aggressive act directed at them by any who would threaten your sovereignty.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.