Obama will try to protect his policies in his final months in office, but much of his legacy will be at the mercy of Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress.
- By Dan De LuceDan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. He joined FP in June 2015 after working as Pentagon correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Prior to that, Dan reported for the Guardian from Iran until he was expelled by the regime in 2004. After the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, Dan worked as a freelance journalist in Prague. He later covered the war in former Yugoslavia for Reuters from 1993 to 1995 before serving as Sarajevo bureau chief after the conflict. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dan lives in Washington with his wife, journalist and author Caitriona Palmer, and his four children.
With Donald Trump’s shocking upset electoral victory against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama will rush to safeguard his signature foreign-policy initiatives in his final months in office. But there are limits to how much his administration can preempt the next president, who captured the White House riding a tide of populist anger over immigration, trade, and international commitments.
A shell-shocked White House, which had counted on Clinton prevailing at the polls, will be hard-pressed to lock in much of Obama’s legacy on domestic or international issues given the sweeping powers available to the next president.
Trump has vowed to lift a ban on torture against terrorism suspects introduced by Obama, jettison trade deals in Europe and the Pacific, review trade arrangements with China, walk back a landmark diplomatic opening to Cuba, abandon U.S. commitments under the Paris climate accord, and dramatically reverse U.S. policy towards Russia.
Trump also has vowed to dismantle what Obama deems his most significant diplomatic achievement, the Iran nuclear agreement, which imposed limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting punishing economic sanctions. With Republicans appearing to retain control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, according to partial election results early Wednesday, Trump will be able to count on strong support among fellow Republicans to try to renegotiate or undo the Iran deal.
“What might be at stake here is what Obama has done, and what Hillary Clinton wants to continue doing,” said Debbie Almontaser, a Clinton supporter who was leaving the Democrat’s aborted victory party as a Trump win appeared inevitable late Tuesday night. “If we have Donald Trump as our next president … I just worry for our country.”
Immigration advocates immediately called on Obama to freeze all deportations, fearing a Trump administration will force millions of undocumented workers to leave the United States. Obama fought, but failed, to legally shield as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from being deported.
“To Donald Trump and the Republican Party, we say that we are #HereToStay and we are never backing down,” Cristina Jimenez, executive director and co-founder of United We Dream, said in a statement early Wednesday.
Policy experts and former diplomats warned that if Trump tries to implement his worldview, he could trigger international crises.
“The United States could withdraw from its role as the leader of a liberal international order. The order would then collapse and other countries would scramble to respond,” Thomas Wright, of the Brookings Institution, wrote on Monday. “We have no idea where it would end but these are the conditions, maybe the only conditions, where a major war is possible.”
Trump’s victory could potentially set up an unprecedented U.S. rapprochement with Russia not seen since the 1990s, following years of mounting tension between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Western governments. Trump has heaped praise on Putin and steadfastly refused to criticize Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine, its air war in support of Syria’s regime, and its hacking of the U.S. election and the Democratic Party.
Obama, by contrast, had sought to take a firm line with Russia and pushed European governments to impose punitive sanctions on Moscow. Trump has conditioned his support for NATO on European allies meeting their financial commitments, talk that has triggered panic in eastern European capitals facing a resurgent Russia.
If the incoming Republican president makes good on his talk of cooperating with Putin, it would mark a seismic shift in the global order, possibly altering the course of the war in Syria and triggering a rift with European allies. On the campaign trail, Trump had floated the idea of an alliance with Russia to fight the Islamic State, a realignment that would place the United States firmly behind the brutal dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In an Aug. 15 speech, Trump said: “I also believe that we could find common ground with Russia in the fight against ISIS. They too have much at stake in the outcome in Syria, and have had their own battles with Islamic terrorism.” In that fight, American-backed Iraqi and Kurdish forces are currently pushing into the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, a fight Trump has tweeted in recent weeks was a “total disaster” despite major territorial gains being made by local forces.
In his victory speech early Wednesday in New York, Trump made no mention of Russia, trade, or other foreign-policy issues, but he promised to take a cooperative approach to other countries.
“While we will always put America’s interests first, we will deal fairly with everyone. We will seek common ground, not hostility; partnership, not conflict,” Trump told his supporters after getting a phone call from Clinton conceding defeat.
While Trump claimed victory, American-backed Iraqi and Kurdish forces were pushing into the Islamic State-held city of Mosul, a fight Trump has tweeted in recent weeks was a “total disaster” despite major territorial gains made by local forces.
He also called the U.S. military commanders involved in the fight a “group of losers,” one of many insults he has hurled at the Pentagon’s top leadership.
As the next commander in chief, Trump will oversee over 13,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, an elusive terror threat from the Islamic State, and al Qaeda’s affiliates and splinter groups in Africa, across the Middle East, and Asia.
In calling for a more aggressive fight against the Islamic State, Trump has suggested bringing back torture in interrogations, which Obama banned in his first full day in office in January 2009. Last year, Congress strengthened the law prohibiting waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques against terrorist suspects captured after the 9/11 attacks.
The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, has indicated he would resign if the next president ordered the use of torture. Other senior intelligence, diplomatic, and military officers almost certainly would take a similar stance, sparking a possible legal battle and constitutional crisis.
Even before the election results, senior diplomats and other civil servants in the federal government privately said they would have to consider resigning in protest if Trump carried through on his rhetoric to tear down the tenets of U.S. foreign policy — including U.S. commitments to the NATO alliance — and to possibly harness executive branch power against his political opponents. He has also pledged to keep open the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — the closing of which was a top priority for Obama when he took office in 2009.
At campaign rallies, Trump routinely promised to “jail” Clinton over her use of a private email server as secretary of state. The FBI criticized Clinton for what it called careless email practices but cleared her of any criminal wrongdoing.
As president, Trump will oversee U.S. law enforcement, intelligence, and national security agencies after 15 years that saw two successive presidents vastly expand the power of the executive branch. From covert military operations abroad against terrorist groups, to expansive surveillance programs, to domestic investigatory and prosecutorial powers, the contemporary American presidency carries with it enormous discretionary authority, with politically charged consequences for civil liberties and privacy rights.
How Trump would approach these powers is not clear. As a businessman, he has been quick to sue and has aggressively used the courts to retaliate against his rivals and enemies. When scores of women went public this summer with stories of sexual assault, Trump pledged he would sue them.
“The soft spot, the least tyrant-proof part of the government, is the U.S. Department of Justice and the larger law enforcement and regulatory apparatus of the United States government,” Benjamin Wittes, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote earlier this year.
“The first reason you should fear a Donald Trump presidency is what he would do to the ordinary enforcement functions of the federal government, not the most extraordinary ones.”
Trump will have broad authority over global trade agreements, an area in which he could quickly upend Obama’s record. His opposition to trade deals was a cornerstone of his campaign. The New York businessman and reality television celebrity has promised to scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal among 12 nations covering 40 percent of the world’s economy. He’s also promised to scrap the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
As president, Trump would have clear authority to see his threats through, on those two deals as well as other free trade agreements. Under U.S. law, the president only needs to give six months’ notice before pulling the United States out of trade pacts.
In addition, Trump has pledged to slap steep tariffs on goods from China, Japan, and Mexico. That could lead to retaliation from trading partners responding with penalties on an array of American goods, and pave the way to an escalating trade war.
In another break with bipartisan convention and policies dating back decades, Trump also has promised to reform the U.S. Federal Reserve, the central bank responsible for setting the country’s monetary policy. He’s accused the Fed of keeping interests rates artificially low to stimulate economic growth.
From the outset of his unlikely and upstart candidacy, Trump has defied expectations. He tapped into, and tore open, a vein in the American public coursing with anger and anxiety over economic inequality and a spate of terrorist attacks in the West, including several on U.S. soil over the last year.
His nativist message echoed growing populist sentiment worldwide, and Trump’s victory was hailed early Wednesday morning by Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Front party. “Congratulations to the new president of the United States Donald Trump and to the free American people!” she tweeted.
Buoyed by a voter base of primarily white men without college degrees, Trump questioned the foundations of U.S. foreign policy and ran an unconventional, scorched-earth campaign against decades of bipartisan consensus about America’s role in the world. Clinton, one of the more experienced foreign-policy candidates to run for the White House, portrayed Trump as dangerously incoherent and temperamentally unfit for the presidency. And Obama, who kept up an extensive campaign schedule in recent weeks as a surrogate for his former secretary of state, had promoted Clinton’s candidacy as a chance to continue and renew his agenda.
Obama could lose another signature policy during Trump’s presidency — fighting global warming. Trump has promised to pull out of the Paris climate accord, an agreement that came into effect last week among almost 200 nations designed to help combat climate change. He has called climate change a hoax and said he would have the United States leave the pact while increasing the amount of coal the United States burns, a step he says will bring back mining jobs.
Obama had placed a high priority on the climate change deal, and the administration has been scrambling to put in place new rules that would reduce the levels of permitted emissions for heavy-duty trucks and other regulations. The new measures are meant to help the United States comply with the nonbinding Paris climate accord, and the White House had pinned its hopes on a Clinton presidency to continue to implement the deal. If the United States were to pull out of the accord, it would remove a major incentive for China to stick with the deal. Beijing plans to launch its own nationwide carbon-trading program next year, which the U.S. Senate shot down in 2010.
Trump’s threat has some teeth. His energy advisor, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), said last month that as president, Trump would submit the climate agreement to the Senate for ratification, where it would almost certainly fail as a two-thirds majority would be needed. Trump could then shift the onus for killing the deal onto lawmakers.
The fate of Obama’s historic rapprochement with Cuba also hangs in the balance under a Trump administration. But as with many of Trump’s promises about what he would do in office, there is not much consistency.
When asked about Obama’s opening with Cuba in September 2015, Trump said, “I think it’s fine.”
“The concept of opening with Cuba — 50 years is enough — the concept of opening with Cuba is fine. I think we should have made a stronger deal,” he told The Daily Caller.
But just two months ago, campaigning in Florida, home to a large anti-Castro immigrant community, Trump said he would reverse Obama’s deal to reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba absent significant concessions from Havana.
Over several months, Obama has taken executive action to loosen a range of travel and commercial restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba on everything from aviation to agriculture to counternarcotics to direct transport of mail. Some of the most popular moves included the lifting of restrictions on cigar and rum imports. While a Trump administration would have the power to reverse changes that Obama implemented by executive order, the White House has said a full reversal would be impossible given the fast pace of commercial and travel trends. Just last month, Obama issued a statement saying the policy directive he has put in place will “make our opening to Cuba irreversible.”
However, a congressional aide speaking to Foreign Policy said the changes are much more fragile than the Obama administration has acknowledged.
“He can undo everything,” said the aide. “Congress has not codified a single Obama Cuba change.”
Foreign Policy staff writers Molly O’Toole in New York, and David Francis, John Hudson, Elias Groll, and Paul McLeary in Washington contributed to this report.