Trump Catches Up to the Learning Curve
Two weeks into his presidency, is President Donald Trump finally grasping the full extent and weight of the office that he occupies?
If you focus just on the negative, like his shouting match with Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, his threat to Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the poor rollout and execution of some of his executive orders, you would likely arrive at the conclusion that Trump is still settling in. We are only two weeks in after all—many national-security posts remain unfilled and the White House’s relations with the press are, to put it mildly, testy.
But there is some evidence over the last several days that Trump may be recognizing that some of his campaign pledges on foreign policy would result either in a sudden panic among U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, or in a full-blown national-security crisis.
On the trail, Trump hammered home the point repeatedly that his successor was handling Iran with kid gloves. Iran’s leaders were receiving tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for temporary limitations on its nuclear program, the country was still bankrolling terrorist groups in the region, and it was still testing ballistic missiles that have the potential to rain down on U.S. troops in the region and Israeli cities. The Obama administration was castigated by the Trump team as afraid to provoke a negative reaction from the Iranians, all in the name of a nuclear agreement that Trump blasted as the worst deal he has ever seen in his life.
And yet when it came time to respond to Tehran’s latest ballistic-missile test, his administration settled on a relatively conventional response: placing sanctions on nearly two dozen Iranian individuals and entities involved in some way with the missile program and with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Financial penalties that could have impacted transactions that are now permitted under the nuclear agreement were spared. Indeed, administration officials went out of their way during a background call with reporters that the new sanctions were still in keeping with Washington’s commitments under the JCPOA. This is the kind of response that Trump would have killed President Obama for on the campaign. Yet, now that he’s president, things look very different from the Oval Office.
The same goes for Israel. During the Republican National Convention, the two-state solution was scrapped from the party’s platform. Trump appointed David Friedman, a settlement advocate who called the two-state solution “an illusion,” to be his ambassador to Israel. And Trump’s transition team invited settlement leaders to Washington for the inauguration—the very same settlement leaders previous administrations have regarded as an impediment to the peace effort.
The statement released by the White House last week, on the other hand, sounds very different from the campaign rhetoric that he so often used on the trail. In fact, it’s difficult to see that statement—“the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful”—coming from the same person who promised tens of thousands of people at the last AIPAC conference that the U.S. embassy would be relocated to Jerusalem. If Trump weren’t viewing Israel and Palestine through the two-state paradigm, settlement construction wouldn’t be an issue. The fact that the White House wrote that statement, though, suggests that the forty-fifth president is coming around to the idea an independent Palestinian state is the only sustainable solution around.
Ditto on torture. During the campaign, Trump expressed his eagerness to resume waterboarding, lock up “bad dudes” at Guantánamo, kill the families of terrorists, and provide the CIA with the authority to use the very enhanced interrogation techniques that his predecessor—and the U.S. Congress—outlawed. The Trump administration even circulated a draft executive order during its first week in office that would revoke two previous executive orders signed by President Obama—one that closed down overseas prison facilities run by the CIA overseas. The national-security community, according to the order, would be ordered to recommend to the president whether those facilities should be reopened and whether the interrogation tactics in the Army Field Manual needed to change.
When that draft order leaked and received bipartisan pushback and resistance from lawmakers, members of the national-security establishment, and even members of Trump’s own cabinet—Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo were reportedly not part of the process—the White House chose the correct course of action by sitting down and revising. The New York Times reported last weekend that the new draft order on interrogation and detainee issues no longer lists the reestablishment of CIA black sites as an option for consideration, a policy that would be against the law anyway.
There is no question that President Trump still has a long, long way to go. But on these three issues, there is at least an encouraging sign that the extremism of the campaign may now be tempered by the realities of governing.