When Evan McMullin was growing up just outside of Seattle, he wanted to be a filmmaker. He and his friends would film their own movies around the neighborhood and edit them on his VCR. “Some of them were pretty good," he says.
Moviemaking, it turns out, wasn't his calling, but the 40-year-old McMullin has already lived a cinematic life. He spent two years as a Mormon missionary in Brazil. He volunteered for the United Nations as a refugee resettlement officer in Jordan. He's worked as a deckhand on an Alaskan fishing boat and an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. And for more than a decade, McMullin was an undercover CIA agent in the Middle East and South Asia, running covert operations in war zones against terrorist groups like al Qaeda.
Now, the former Capitol Hill staffer (yes, McMullin did that, too) is adding this to his résumé: an underdog independent presidential bid. The odds are stacked against him. His major opponents are universally known—one a buffoon with mastery of the media, the other a ruthless power-seeker. The hurdles seem impossible to overcome, and nobody's giving him a break. A Hollywood screenwriter couldn't have come up with the script.
McMullin almost can't believe it himself. "This is not something I intended for myself," he tells me in an interview days after launching his bid in early August. "This is not what I expected or intended."
What McMullin intended, at first, was to help find a credible center-right candidate to run against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In his capacity as an active Republican policy adviser, he initiated discussions this summer with a group of anti-Trump operatives led by a Republican strategist named Joel Searby and concentrated in a super-PAC called Better for America. At some point during those talks, someone suggested McMullin himself run for president. Others in the group agreed, and McMullin said he would think about it. He took about 10 days to "wrestle" with the idea, talking it over with close friends, potential advisers, even members of Congress. (McMullin won't name names, but his campaign says it is "in talks" with members of the House and Senate who could publicly support him.)
Before he made up his mind, McMullin says, he wanted to understand how a long-shot bid like his could succeed. His team has developed a multipronged plan for getting McMullin on the ballot, including petitions in states with upcoming deadlines, legal challenges to ballot-access deadlines that have already passed, cooperating with third parties already on the ballot, and even a write-in campaign. And through Better for America, a campaign staff, infrastructure, and donor base are ready to go.
"Once I thought that those boxes were checked, then it was all about what the right thing to do was," McMullin tells me. "And the more I thought and, candidly, prayed about doing this, I just had conviction and peace that it was the right thing to do."
On Sunday, August 7, the team—including Searby, GOP strategist Rick Wilson, and a few of McMullin's friends—held a final meeting in the conference room of a mid-priced hotel in Washington, D.C. McMullin confirmed he was ready to take the plunge, despite the obstacles of money, time, and recognition.
"It is never too late to do the right thing," he told the group.
And the right thing, McMullin says, is offering Americans an alternative to Clinton and Trump. "There is another choice," McMullin said in his campaign kick-off event on August 10 in Salt Lake City (where the Utah native's campaign is headquartered). "And I firmly believe that the time has come in our country for a new generation in leadership."
What kind of leadership does he have in mind? Politically, McMullin is a down-the-line conservative: He's pro-life, considers himself an originalist on judicial questions, and argues that regulatory uncertainty and government interference hurts job creation. He cites Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Milton Friedman as formative influences on his political views, in addition to his Mormon faith. One of the reasons he believes Libertarian party nominee Gary Johnson is a nonstarter as an alternative is the former New Mexico governor's position on religious liberty, which McMullin calls "awful" and dismissive of our founding.
"The other thing is, if Gary Johnson were president we'd have to drug test him once every four months," adds McMullin.
On entitlements and health care, he says he aligns with the reform proposals of House speaker Paul Ryan and the Republican conference. He says Trump's opposition to any entitlement reform is "ridiculous." "We've got to do it in a way so that our seniors today are protected, that their benefits are protected. And so we need reforms that put entitlements on a more sustainable track," McMullin says.
But it's in foreign policy and national security that McMullin is the most fluent. When I ask which books have influenced his thinking, he mentions Robert Kagan's The World America Made. But he says his experience in the clandestine service, more than anything, has informed his view that the fight against terrorism requires a change from the current strategy. "One major motivator for my entering the race is simply that I feel like we're doing a terrible job fighting terrorism now, and I feel like both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are woefully unprepared to confront that challenge," he says.
McMullin says the gains the United States and the West made during his time in the CIA—he left the agency in 2010—have been lost under Barack Obama's leadership. He argues that ISIS could have been destroyed early on, when it was a chaotic movement in the deserts of Iraq.
"Since then what has happened? ISIS has become a massive terrorist army, we have the largest humanitarian disaster in the world since World War II as a result, there's all kind of political strife in Europe and now in the United States. . . . I mean, these things matter. These decisions really, really, really matter. And I don't think President Obama was ready for the challenge that he stepped into with the world the way it is," McMullin says. "And I don't think Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump are either."
For McMullin's last-ditch effort to succeed, he'll need American voters to agree with that assessment. In three months, they'll have to learn his name, hear his message, and see him on their ballots. They'll have to decide that an unknown former CIA agent and Hill staffer is fit for the nation's highest office, while the candidates nominated by the country's three largest political parties aren't. And if, somehow, McMullin pulls it off? Well, that'd make a pretty good movie.
Michael Warren is online editor of The Weekly Standard.