The president-elect has pledged a wholesale revision of Obama’s legacy right out of the gate — including executive actions on trade, terrorism, and immigration — but will find some promises a lot harder to enact.
- By FP Staff
President-elect Donald Trump will have, if his campaign promises are to be believed, a very busy first day in office. He has pledged a slew of ambitious actions right out of the gate, including overturning a bevy of President Barack Obama’s executive orders, tearing up trade deals, overturning domestic regulations on energy and the environment, deporting undocumented immigrants, and, of course, repealing the Affordable Care Act.
That doesn’t mean all those actions will be taken on Friday, Jan. 20, after his swearing-in; Trump has talked of Monday as his first big day, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence speaks of implementing the campaign pledges over a period of weeks. And just one day before he takes office, Trump and his team have kept their planned actions very close to the chest or are still deciding just what to do: Few Republican leaders in Washington have an inkling of what is in store.
But what seems clear is that President Trump, once he sits behind the Resolute desk, will have the ability to quickly reshape huge chunks of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy. Here are some key areas to keep an eye on, exploring what policies Trump is expected to enact — and those pledges he is unlikely to be able to fulfill right away.
The war on terror
Trump and his national security team say fighting Islamic extremists is its top foreign-policy priority, and the new administration is eager to take action to give the military more authority to strike militants and send in more troops if the top brass wants them.
Trump’s advisors are considering loosening Obama’s restrictive rules on lethal strikes — by drones or by commando raids — against terrorist suspects outside of declared war zones, current and former officials familiar with the transition effort told Foreign Policy. That would make it easier for the U.S. military and the CIA to move against Islamic State or al Qaeda militants in countries such as Libya, Somalia, and Yemen where the United States has no official combat mission.
The Obama administration’s recently published rules for lethal strikes set a high bar for pulling the trigger and require approval at the highest level. Current and former officials expect that Trump will quickly move to loosen those restrictions. At the same time, he may unleash special operations forces to play a more direct role, whether partnering with allies or fighting militants themselves.
The Trump team is also looking at lifting limits on the number of troops allowed to deploy to Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The Obama administration had imposed “caps” on how many ground forces could operate in those countries, drawing criticism from senior officers and Republican lawmakers that the White House was tying the hands of commanders.
Trump has also demanded that the military draw up in 30 days a plan to defeat the Islamic State. His prospective national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, last year privately touted the idea of putting more U.S. troops in Syria to push Islamic State militants out of their bastion in Raqqa, but it’s not clear if Trump or his nominee for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, will back large numbers of boots on the ground.
Terrorist detention and interrogation
On his first day in office, Obama issued executive orders banning torture and ordering the closure of the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Though Trump hasn’t specifically said he’ll reverse those actions on his first day, he promised on the campaign trail to send more terrorist suspects to Guantánamo and at times said he’d bring back banned interrogation techniques.
A lawyer defending one of the alleged co-conspirators of the 9/11 attacks believes Trump will rescind Obama’s orders. Other observers expect Trump to unilaterally freeze any more transfers of the 41 detainees who remained at Guantánamo as of Thursday. The Obama administration has continued to empty the facility — sending 10 detainees to Oman as recently as Monday, and transferring its last four detainees on Thursday — though Trump has warned the administration against any more last-minute releases.
Despite recent legislation in Congress that codified Obama’s ban on torture, the lawyer said, Trump could reverse it “with the stroke of a pen.” Still, bringing back enhanced interrogation is less likely. Both Mattis and Trump’s pick to head the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), have said they would obey current law and resist ordering torture.
And in a symbolic move that will resonate with Trump’s supporters, the new administration’s national security officials will be eager to announce they are jettisoning the term “countering violent extremism” adopted by the Obama administration and to describe their counter-terrorism policy as fighting “radical Islam.”
South China Sea showdown
The U.S. military was often frustrated with the Obama White House’s caution over naval patrols in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, as the outgoing administration feared raising tensions with Beijing on other issues such as climate change. That is about to change.
With Trump entering office (after having already provoked China over Taiwan and trade), military officers and Asia experts said they expect U.S. Pacific Command to have a much freer hand to hold joint exercises and run “freedom of navigation” naval and air patrols near artificial islands that China has constructed to back up its controversial territorial claims. And that more assertive approach will raise the risk of a mishap or collision with Chinese forces in the area while almost certainly prompting a tough response from Beijing.
Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, issued a stern warning to Beijing at his confirmation hearing last week that ventured beyond years of established U.S. policy on the issue. Tillerson said the new administration would tell China that “access to those islands is also not going to be allowed.”
Trump’s aides and backers in Congress are considering a possible overhaul of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which was created after the 9/11 attacks to oversee the country’s spy agencies, but the scale and scope of that reorganization has yet to be hammered out. At the least, the Trump team is expected to launch a study of possible options, experts and congressional aides said.
Trump has been engaged in a public feud with the intelligence community since the election, decrying its findings that Russia hacked Democratic Party emails to boost his chances. But the Trump team denies the planned reform is any sort of retaliation. Indeed, Flynn, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency under Obama, has long mulled reorganizing the way that the U.S. intelligence agencies work.
One likely change at the State Department will be the reinstatement of an anti-abortion rule that blocks federal funding for international charities that give patients referrals to abortion doctors. Since the 1980s, the so-called “Mexico City Policy” has flipped every time the presidency changes party, and Trump plans to restore the rule on Sunday in order to coincide with the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a congressional source told Foreign Policy.
Trump could also, as he promised, move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He could do that on day one, simply by renaming the U.S. consulate there. But a permanent solution will take longer. Embassy staff need a bigger building than the consulate, and Obama signed a six-month extension barring the relocation of the embassy that lasts until May.
On Cuba, Trump could immediately undo every Obama executive order easing trade and travel to the communist island as a part of the historic rapprochement, but his transition team has given no indication that is in store for day one.
Immigration and the border
During the campaign, Trump vowed to limit travel to the United States by Muslims and has pledged to “suspend immigration from terror-prone regions” on his first day in office. On Sunday, Trump told the Times of London that as soon as next Monday he’d begin to implement restrictions on travel to the United States, potentially including new requirements for Europeans.
But European governments have warned about blowback if he does that, and Trump would face immediate legal challenges if he sought a blanket ban based on religion.
Trump has also promised “extreme vetting” of applicants seeking asylum but has detailed none of the steps he’d take to go beyond the already grueling, 18- to 24-month process in place today.
He has also vowed on day one to begin deporting “more than 2 million criminal illegal immigrants,” though it’s not clear how that would be defined, and cancelling visas for countries that don’t take them back.
The president-elect has also said he’d immediately repeal Obama’s moves to shield from deportation immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children and their families. Immigration experts and officials — and those previously eligible for the programs — expect him to make good on that threat.
Trump transition officials and congressional staffers could not confirm any specific plans on immigration and the border, saying Trump’s first moves are being held close by only his closest advisors. But Politico reported Thursday morning that Trump will take executive action on day one to lay the groundwork for his oft-trumpeted wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sanctions, Russia, and Iran
A crucial part of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy that could immediately be in Trump’s crosshairs are the economic sanctions slapped on Russia for invading Ukraine and the sanctions relief granted to Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. Trump has vowed to tear up the Iran deal and has floated as recently as this week the idea of lifting sanctions on Russia, perhaps in exchange for reducing nuclear stockpiles. Since the Russia sanctions came via executive order, Trump could undo them with the stroke of a pen.
But despite its tough talk about the Iran deal, the Trump team has recently indicated it will take no steps at first to dismantle the agreement. Instead, say lobbyists and experts advising lawmakers on the issue, the new administration is weighing steps to undercut the Iran deal without killing it.
That would mean issuing new Treasury Department rules for foreign companies doing business with Iran, holding firms accountable for any business dealings with people or entities linked to blacklisted organizations in Iran, like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. That would chill appetite for investing in Iran and mean fewer benefits for Tehran from the deal.
Tear up trade deals
During the campaign, and in his “day one” program, Trump vowed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement or withdraw altogether; leave the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a doomed centerpiece of Obama’s pivot to Asia; and label China a currency manipulator, for allegedly keeping the yuan artificially cheap to boost Chinese exports.
He also pledged, as part of a truly packed first day, to identify “all foreign trading abuses” and find the tools to “end those abuses immediately.” Since the election, Trump advisors have also floated the idea of immediate tariffs on all imports.
Trump certainly has the authority to immediately start pulling out of those trade pacts and could even withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO), another idea he raised during the campaign. But Trump’s pick for U.S. trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, advocates for punishing those who break international trade rules within the WTO framework.
Republican Asia hands say the Trump team will likely take early action to send a signal to China on trade, and Lighthizer will be at the center of it. One option on the table: pushing an anti-dumping case against China in the first few weeks in office.
What’s less likely, people familiar with the transition say, is declaring China a currency manipulator. In recent years, China has spent a fortune propping up the yuan, not pushing it down. And Trump’s economic team, including his picks to run Treasury and the Commerce Department, publicly backed away from the idea: Both nominees have said they’d take time to study whether Beijing devalues its currency.
The U.N. and climate change
Trump and Republican lawmakers have warned that they plan to punish the United Nations, unless it reverses course on a recent denunciation of Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Trump’s pick for U.N. envoy, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, is weighing whether to push a new Security Council resolution voiding the prior censure as her first order of business, diplomats say.
Trump has also threatened to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, an agreement under U.N. auspices meant to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. But the pact was designed to survive shifting political fortunes: While Trump can begin the process of pulling the United States out of the Paris agreement, it would take four years to get all the way out.
Still, Trump has got options to push back on climate. One program that Trump is expected to target during his first days in office is Obama’s $3 billion pledge to help poor countries deal with climate change. Washington has already doled out $1 billion, including $500 million Obama rushed out the door this week, leaving $2 billion left to disburse.
“It’s low-hanging fruit,” said one diplomat. “It’s one thing that could easily be stopped the new administration.”
This piece has been updated to reflect recent developments.
Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images