An Extraordinarily Dangerous Moment

To keep his promise to kill an achievement of Obama’s, Trump has been willing to break his promise to get us out of wars in the Middle East.

In a november night in 2013, Barack Obama delivered a statement about an interim nuclear deal that had just been reached, freezing Iran’s program in place. When he was done, I walked with him back to the entrance of his residence, watched by the stoic portraits of former presidents. “Congratulations,” I said. “You just made sure that we won’t have a war with Iran during your presidency.”

“That’s probably true,” he said, considering the question. “But I want to make sure that the next president doesn’t have to go to war either.

Obama was referring to the need to reach a comprehensive deal that rolled back Iran’s nuclear program. It would take almost two years of painstaking negotiations to get there, but the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) accomplished that objective. Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced plutonium for a bomb; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges, the machines that can enrich uranium for a bomb; shipped 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium (enough for 10 bombs) out of the country; and submitted to the most comprehensive international inspections regime ever put into place to monitor a nuclear program.

These achievements are worth revisiting, because any hope of saving the Iran deal likely died with the killing of Qassem Soleimani. Indeed, it’s no surprise that the Iranian government has indicated that it will no longer abide by the limits on its nuclear program imposed by the JCPOA.

How did we get here? The debate over the Iran deal was among the most acrimonious of the Obama years. Throughout 2015, congressional Republicans stridently opposed it. Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia worked to marshal opposition. Think tanks churned out alarmist reports about the JCPOA. Tens of millions of dollars were spent by outside groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and United Against Nuclear Iran urging Congress to kill the deal. To prevent that legislation from passing, we worked frenetically to muster 41 Democratic Senate votes to uphold a filibuster. Indeed, the fact that it was far easier for George W. Bush to take the United States into an unnecessary war in Iraq than it was for Barack Obama to secure a nuclear deal to avoid one with Iran says something deeply strange and alarming about our country and its politics.

As soon as he began his run for the presidency, Donald Trump anointed himself the most strident of the JCPOA’s opponents, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated.” It is likely, of course, that Trump couldn’t even describe the Iran deal’s terms. He failed to articulate a different set of nuclear restrictions, or to offer his views on the nature of centrifuges that Iran should be allowed to operate, or the research and development it should be permitted to perform. Trump simply wanted to destroy anything that Obama built and to satiate right-wing supporters who had their own reasons for opposing the JCPOA. What Trump could do is lie about the Iran deal, and he did so relentlessly.

Upon becoming president, Trump encountered an inconvenient truth: The Iran deal was working. Trump’s own intelligence community and military leadership confirmed that Iran was complying with the JCPOA’s terms; his own secretary of defense argued publicly that staying in the JCPOA was in America’s interest; and all the other parties to the deal—the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China—opposed Trump’s instinct to pull out. After Trump refused to certify that Iran was complying with the JCPOA (even though it was), even Republicans in Congress quietly refused to reimpose sanctions. And after Trump demanded a better deal, French President Emmanuel Macron offered him the opportunity to pursue one through negotiation, provided that the JCPOA stayed in place. Despite all this evidence and all these efforts, Trump withdrew from the Iran deal in May of 2018 and started reimposing sanctions.

Few recent presidential decisions have been proved to be so spectacularly wrong in such a short period of time.

Trump said that in withdrawing from the JCPOA, he would be in a stronger position to stop Iran’s provocations across the Middle East. The opposite has proved to be the case. Iran has already resumed aspects of its nuclear program that were restricted under the JCPOA. And over the past year alone, Iran or its proxies have shot down a U.S. drone, harassed and seized oil tankers, bombed Saudi oil infrastructure, killed unarmed protesters, and resumed rocket attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq. During the implementation of the Iran deal, by contrast, there wasn’t a single such rocket attack from a Shia militia. Trump initiated the escalatory cycle that led us to this extraordinarily dangerous moment.

It is ironic that the killing of Qassem Soleimani could put the final nail in the coffin of the Iran deal. In the Obama White House, we assessed that Soleimani opposed the JCPOA, and that he led a hard-line flank that viewed the Iranian foreign minister who conducted the negotiations with suspicion. This view was often mocked by Iran-deal opponents, who declared that there was no distinction between hard-liners and more moderate Iranian officials. Indeed, U.S. hawks regularly foreclose opportunities for diplomacy by wrongly seeing the government of any adversary as a monolith. But now, in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination, that debate is largely moot: As mourners flood the streets, all of Iran’s leaders are consolidating around a harder line, vowing to chase the United States out of the region.

We have already seen the consequences of this latest escalation in Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign come into focus. Iraqi leaders are demanding that we leave their country, after Americans sacrificed thousands of lives and spent more than $1 trillion there; new restrictions are inhibiting the fight against ISIS; Iran is casting off the remaining limits on its nuclear program. In the months and years to come, we should expect renewed attacks against U.S. interests—and Americans—from Iran and its proxies. In contrast to the international unity that enabled the achievement of the JCPOA, Trump’s abandonment of it has alienated the United States from our closest allies. And in his other signature foreign-policy initiative—negotiations with North Korea—Kim Jong Un is pushing forward with his own nuclear and missile programs, perhaps having drawn the lesson that you cannot trust the United States to keep a nuclear deal.

In response, Trump and his chief lieutenant on Iran—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—have sought to deflect blame to the JCPOA. While blaming the Iran deal for the consequences of Trump pulling out of the Iran deal is absurd, this argument should come as no surprise. Trump’s Iran policy was formulated in opposition to Obama, not with an eye toward actual governing. His is a worldview that relies on false charges, hyperbolic rhetoric, and assertions of strength as an end in itself, and not as a means to achieving something. At a Cabinet meeting last year, Trump sat at the table with a Game of Thrones–style poster that read “Sanctions are coming,” as if it were all just a movie, and not real life.

By contrast, the Iran deal was designed to address reality, and discharge the responsibilities of governing. Like any such effort, it was imperfect, and left all parties dissatisfied. For the Iranians, it was flawed because it didn’t lift all sanctions; it did, however, offer relief from certain sanctions and the prospect of further relief if Iran continued to comply. For us, it was flawed because the JCPOA’s most effective restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program expired in 10 or 15 years—but that was 10 or 15 more years of assurance than having no deal in place, and further negotiations that built upon the JCPOA were always an available option. Finally, the JCPOA didn’t stop Iran’s ballistic-missile program or its support for terror in the Middle East; however, the JCPOA did ensure that a regime that has ballistic missiles and supports terror was verifiably prohibited from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That was the whole point. You don’t make nuclear deals like that with your friends.

Indeed, imagine how the current crisis would feel if Iran already had nuclear weapons.

Governing isn’t about making demands on other countries that will never be achieved just because they sound good back in Washington. And the presidency certainly isn’t a movie. When “sanctions are coming,” real people get hurt and terrible things can happen in the real world. One legacy of the JCPOA is that it demonstrates the utility of a different approach.

As Trump confronts the consequences of a crisis of his own creation, he can thank Obama for the fact that Iran doesn’t yet have the means to produce a nuclear weapon. He can thank Obama for the fact that Iran’s nuclear program is set back from where it was in 2015. He can thank Obama for the inspections regime that has functioned effectively. By contrast, the result of Trump’s policy—designed for Fox News sets and campaign rallies—has been a more hard-line Iranian politics, an Iranian adversary that has stepped up its provocations, and a newly unconstrained Iranian nuclear program.

Barack Obama did achieve a deal good enough to prevent his successor from having to go to war with Iran. But now, despite all that work, a de facto state of war exists between the United States and Iran. To keep his promise to kill an achievement of Obama’s, Donald Trump has been willing to break his promise to get us out of wars in the Middle East. In doing so, he has tragically proved Obama right: The choice all along was between the Iran deal or an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program and some form of war.

How to Talk So Trump Will Listen: A GOP Guide for Pelosi

A few Republicans have managed—really—to work successfully with the president. Here’s what the new speaker could learn from them.

But there’s no formula for successfully negotiating with this mercurial, ad hoc chief executive. Pelosi’s first attempt to do so, an agreement in September 2017 to protect the Dreamers from deportation in exchange for border security funding, fell apart not long after it was announced.

Still, there’s no reason to think Pelosi, or anyone in the nation’s capital, can’t find a way to a win with Trump. Here’s what we’ve learned about the art of making a deal with Trump from the few successful people in Washington who have figured out how to get what they want out of the president.

Convince Him He’ll Be Loved

Trump may want nothing more than to be well-liked and appreciated. The bipartisan criminal justice reform bill seems to have been sold to him as an opportunity to do just that. Versions of the First Step Act, a major reform that liberalizes federal prison and sentencing laws, had floundered in Congress for years. The policy already had support from across the political spectrum—but it needed a Republican president who could provide political cover to bring enough members of the GOP on board.

Trump wasn’t an obvious champion for sentencing reform. He ran a campaign promising “law and order” and selected the tough-on-crime Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions’ Justice Department had issued reports critical of the bill. The president has suggested that convicted drug dealers deserved the death penalty. To get his support, the criminal-justice reformers would need to conduct a conversion.

The evangelist was White House adviser Jared Kushner, who, all accounts say, worked hard to persuade his father-in-law. Kushner met with everyone from members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Koch-funded interest groups to the news media to bolster an already large coalition. It helped that Kushner was able to deliver plenty of groups and individuals on the right.

“I think the broad popularity of the policy was the gateway,” says one of the bill’s advocates, who watched the process at the White House up close. “The president was also given a booklet of dozens of conservative organizations and individuals making supportive statements on the bill to show grassroots political support. And then it took some convincing that law enforcement was on board.”

The last piece proved crucial, because there’s perhaps no interest group Trump cherishes more than law enforcement. The marquee names—the

  • Fraternal Order of Police, the
  • International Association of Chiefs of Police, the
  • National District Attorneys Association—

were enough to get the president on board. With seemingly few people opposed (Tom Cotton, otherwise a devoted Trump ally, the most prominent) and even staunch critics in the media like Van Jones making the trek to kiss Trump’s ring at the White House, Kushner and his partners succeeded in selling Trump on the most important provision of the First Step Act: Mr. President, you will be loved for signing it.

It won’t be easy for Pelosi, but the Democratic speaker may be able to use similar tactics to goad Trump into supporting some bipartisan health-care initiatives. The administration has already begun proposing some form of federal intervention to lower prescription drug prices, while Democrats have long argued that Medicare should negotiate with Big Pharma on bringing down drug costs. Some kind of compromise bill could get the support of both Capitol Hill and the White House. Your older, Medicare-using base will love you for it, Pelosi might tell the president. That would get his attention.

Remind Him of His Campaign Promises

Earlier this month, Trump and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul were having one of their frequent conversations about the American military presence in both Syria and Afghanistan. Paul, a persistent, longtime critic of the continued deployment of troops in the Middle East, has found the strongest ally of his political career on the issue with Trump.

After their discussion, Paul sent the president some news articles supporting his view that the time was right to withdraw from Syria, says top Paul aide Doug Stafford, who says Trump sent back a note alerting him that he would “see some movement on this soon.” On December 19, Trump announced the forthcoming withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops fighting ISIS in Syria. The move was resisted by just about everyone around Trump, inside and outside the administration, including John Bolton, Jim Mattis and Lindsey Graham. All, except Paul.

I think people mistake it like Rand is trying to get him to do what Rand wants. But this is what Donald Trump ran on,” says Stafford. “Rand sees his role more as keeping the president where he wants to be and where he said he would be against some people who are inside of the White House and other senators who are trying to push him off of his beliefs and his position.”

Paul’s strategy was partially to ingratiate himself with the man he once, in the primary season, called an “orange-faced windbag.” Trump and Paul have played golf together, a favorite pastime for the president and a way other former antagonists have overcome bad blood.

.. in recent months, Paul has ramped up his public praise for Trump and joined the chorus of Republican criticism for the president’s treatment in the press. Trump has returned the favor with praiseworthy tweets. Paul had raised concerns about two of Trump’s high profile nominations in 2018, for their defenses of the government’s data surveillance apparatus. But he dropped his public skepticism of Brett Kavanaugh and, earlier in the year, did an about-face on his opposition to Mike Pompeo.

Stafford gives credit for Paul’s success to the senator’s constant prodding of the president to be true to himself and his base. “It’s not just Rand’s voice. People who voted for Donald Trump don’t want to still be there either,” Stafford says. “He ran on it, he was loud and clear on it, and he believes it.”

Like opposition to military interventionism in the Middle East, an increase in infrastructure spending is one of the few major Trump campaign pledges that aligns him more with Democrats than his fellow Republicans. Trump’s failure to embrace a major infrastructure bill in favor of the divisive travel ban at the outset of his presidency may have doomed his ability to work across the aisle on the issue. Yet Pelosi could get more than enough of her caucus to embrace some form of new infrastructure spending by reminding the president of his 2016 promise to invest more federal dollars in roads and bridges. If she persists in nudging Trump to fulfill his pledge, Pelosi could deliver a longtime Democratic wish list item.

Stay Outside the Room Where It Happens

Before he was the White House national security adviser being overruled by the president on Syria, John Bolton was arguably more influential with Trump as a private citizen—albeit one with the right platforms to reach him. A fixture on Fox News for the first year of the Trump presidency, Bolton used his cable perch and the host of outlets that would publish him to make an argument directly to Trump: Get out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump, who had run hard against what was officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, had been persuaded to recertify the deal in early 2017 until the new administration could get off the ground. His national security team, particularly Mattis and Rex Tillerson, were insisting Trump recertify at the next deadline, in July. Trump was resistant but acquiesced to the pleas of his team to allow them to finish crafting a new interagency strategy on Iran. On July 13, my colleague Stephen F. Hayes and I reported in The Weekly Standard that Trump would recertify the deal a second time.

But four days later, on the day of the deadline, an article by Bolton in the Hill made its way to Trump via Iran-deal opponent and White House aide Steve Bannon. The headline read: “Trump Must Withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal—Now.” In his op-ed, Bolton argued that Trump “should stop reviewing and start deciding” how to exit the deal. For several hours that day, according to reporting by Hayes and me, Trump reversed his decision to recertify the deal. The White House team scrambled to roll out a brand-new policy. In one meeting that day with his national security team, Trump called up Senator Tom Cotton and placed him on speakerphone as Cotton made the case against recertification.

In a final meeting in the late afternoon, Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster prevailed on Trump to follow through on the plan to recertify, at least once more. Trump eventually assented, but not before vowing it would be the last time he would do so. It was: Trump did not recertify in October 2017 and, in May 2018, pulled the United States out of the agreement. Bolton and Cotton, working from the outside, won.

This may be the most difficult tactic for Pelosi, who so far has been unable to demonstrate she has Trump’s trust or respect—something the outside voices have always been able to draw on. She’s not

  • one of Trump’s old business friends in New York,
  • a consistent defender in the conservative media,
  • or a former campaign or White House aide.

The best way for Pelosi to persuade Trump from the outside is to do perhaps the unthinkable for a liberal Democrat from San Francisco: Go on Fox News. A lot. Pelosi or her deputies won’t be the obvious choices for the booking producers at Fox & Friends and Hannity, but House Democrats would be wise to take every opportunity to speak directly to Trump on his favorite cable network. A few solid appearances on Fox News Sunday, for instance, would help Pelosi immensely.

Pelosi herself already seems to recognize the necessity of making a public case, most obviously on television, for compromise with Trump. “You know how I talk to him?” she told Draper. “I just say it in public. That’s what he hears: what people say in public.” A Democrat in Trump’s Washington could do worse.

Donald Trump Is Bad for Israel

As usual, the president makes his predecessors look better.

Suppose you’re the type of smart conservative reluctantly inclined to give Donald Trump a pass for his boorish behavior and ideological heresies because you like the way the economy is going and appreciate the tough tone of his foreign policy, especially when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism.

These last few weeks haven’t exactly validated your faith in the man, have they?

.. The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey. So much for the idea, common on the right, that this is the most pro-Israel administration ever.

.. Contrary to the invidious myth that neoconservatives always put Israel first, the reasons for staying in Syria have everything to do with core U.S. interests. Among them: Keeping ISIS beaten, keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on the Levant.

.. Powers that maintain a reputation as reliable allies and formidable foes tend to enhance their power. Powers that behave as Trump’s America has squander it.

.. But leave that aside and consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint. Are Israelis better off now that the U.S. Embassy is in Jerusalem? Not materially. The move was mostly a matter of symbolism, albeit of an overdue and useful sort. Are Israelis safer from Iran now that the U.S. is no longer in the Iran deal and sanctions are back in force? Only marginally. Sanctions are a tool of strategy, not a strategy unto themselves.

.. What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president.

.. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not

  • sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. It means we should
  • resist interloping foreign aggressors, whether it was the
    • Soviets in Egypt in the 1960s, or the
    • Russians and Iranians in Syria in this decade. It means we should
  • oppose militant religious fundamentalism, whether it is
    • Wahhabis in Riyadh or Khomeinists in Tehran or Muslim Brothers in Cairo and Ankara. It means we should
  • advocate
    • human rights,
    • civil liberties, and
    • democratic institutions, in that order.

Trump has stood all of this on its head.

He shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.

He speaks with no authority on subjects like press freedom or religious liberty because he assails both at home. His still-secret peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians will have the rare effect of uniting Israelis and Palestinians in their rejection of it

.. If you think the gravest immediate threat to Israel is jihadist Hezbollah backed by fundamentalist Iran backed by cynical Russia, the answer is no.

.. If you think the gravest middle-term threat is the continued Islamization of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — gradually transforming the country into a technologically competent Sunni version of Iran — the answer is no.

.. If you think that another grave threat to Israel is the inability to preserve at least a vision of a future Palestinian state — one that pursues good governance and peace with its neighbors while rejecting kleptocracy and terrorism — the answer is no.

And if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.

 

 

Trump’s Diminishing Power and Rising Rage

None of Trump’s extremist policy ideas has received public support. The public opposed last year’s

  1. Republican-backed corporate tax cut, Trump’s
  2. effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), his
  3. proposed border wall with Mexico, the decision to
  4. withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, and the
  5. imposition of tariff increases on China, Europe, and others.
  6. At the same time, contrary to Trump’s relentless promotion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), the public favors investments in renewable energy and remaining in the Paris climate agreement.

.. Trump has tried to implement his radical agenda using three approaches.

1) The first has been to rely on the Republican majorities in the two houses of Congress to pass legislation in the face of strong popular opposition. That approach succeeded once, with the 2017 corporate tax cut, because big Republican donors insisted on the measure, but it failed with Trump’s attempt to repeal Obamacare, as three Republican senators balked.

.. 2)  The second approach has been to use executive orders to circumvent Congress. Here the courts have repeatedly intervened, most recently within days of the election, when a federal district court halted work on the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project strongly opposed by environmentalists, on the grounds that the Trump administration had failed to present a “reasoned explanation” for its actions. Trump repeatedly and dangerously oversteps his authority, and the courts keep pushing back.

.. 3) Trump’s third tactic has been to rally public opinion to his side. Yet, despite his frequent rallies, or perhaps because of them and their incendiary vulgarity, Trump’s disapproval rating has exceeded his approval rating since the earliest days of his administration. His current overall disapproval rating is 54%, versus 40% approval, with strong approval from around 25% of the public. There has been no sustained move in Trump’s direction.

.. In the midterm elections, which Trump himself described as a referendum on his presidency, the Democratic candidates for both the House and Senate vastly outpolled their Republican opponents. In the House races, Democrats received 53,314,159 votes nationally, compared with 48,439,810 for Republicans. In the Senate races, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 47,537,699 votes to 34,280,990.

.. Summing up votes by party for the three recent election cycles (2014, 2016, and 2018), Democratic Senate candidates outpolled Republican candidates by roughly 120 million to 100 million. Nonetheless, the Republicans hold a slight majority in the Senate, where each state is represented by two senators, regardless of the size of its population, because they tend to win their seats in less populous states, whereas Democrats prevail in the major coastal and Midwestern states.

Wyoming, for example, elects two Republican senators to represent its nearly 580,000 residents, while California’s more than 39 million residents elect two Democratic senators. 

Without control of the House, however, Trump will no longer be able to enact any unpopular legislation. Only policies with bipartisan support will have a chance of passing both chambers.

.. On the economic front, Trump’s trade policies will become even less popular in the months ahead as the American economy cools from the “sugar high” of the corporate tax cut, as growing uncertainty about global trade policy hamstrings business investment, and as both the budget deficit and interest rates rise. Trump’s phony national-security justifications for raising tariffs will also be challenged politically and perhaps in the courts.

.. True, Trump will be able to continue appointing conservative federal judges and most likely win their confirmation in the Republican-majority Senate. And on issues of war and peace, Trump will operate with terrifyingly little oversight by Congress or the public, an affliction of the US political system since World War II. Trump, like his recent predecessors, will most likely keep America mired in wars in the Middle East and Africa, despite the lack of significant public understanding or support.

.. Nonetheless, there are three further reasons to believe that Trump’s hold on power will weaken significantly in the coming months. First, Special Counsel Robert Mueller may very well document serious malfeasance by Trump, his family members, and/or his close advisers. 

.. Second, the House Democrats will begin to investigate Trump’s taxes and personal business dealings, including through congressional subpoenas. There are strong reasons to believe that Trump has committed serious tax evasion (as the New York Times recently outlined) and has illegally enriched his family as president (a lawsuit that the courts have allowed to proceed alleges violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution). Trump is likely to ignore or fight the subpoenas, setting the stage for a major political crisis.

.. Third, and most important, Trump is not merely an extremist politician. He suffers from what author Ian Hughes has recently called “a disordered mind,” filled with

  • hate,
  • paranoia, and
  • narcissism.

According to two close observers of Trump, the president’s grip on reality “will likely continue to diminish” in the face of growing political obstacles, investigations into his taxes and business dealings, Mueller’s findings, and an energized political opposition. We may already be seeing that in Trump’s erratic and aggressive behavior since the election.

.. The coming months may be especially dangerous for America and the world. As Trump’s political position weakens and the obstacles facing him grow, his mental instability will pose an ever-greater danger. He could explode in rage, fire Mueller, and perhaps try to launch a war or claim emergency powers in order to restore his authority. We have not yet seen Trump in full fury, but may do so soon, as his room for maneuver continues to narrow. In that case, much will depend on the performance of America’s constitutional order.