Donald Trump’s ‘Plan’ to Defeat Terrorism: A Little Obama, a Lot Illegal, and Inaccurate

Parts of what the GOP nominee did recommend the president is already doing, and much of the rest would run up against reality or the U.S. Constitution.


Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gave what his campaign billed as a major national security address on Monday that was intended to lay out his plan to defeat terrorism and move from “nation building” to realism.

But given the opportunity to show that continued controversial statements on foreign-policy issues are a distraction from a serious campaign rather than its substance, the New York businessman either seemed to borrow heavily from the president he just last week said “founded” the Islamic State or described actions that were divorced from reality.

“Extreme vetting” 

One of the few new recommendations from Trump’s speech was a beefed-up version of his on-again, off-again ban on Muslims entering the United States, which legal experts have broadly said would be unconstitutional.

In a practice he described as “extreme, extreme vetting” — a term nowhere in the media-footnoted version of the speech shared by his campaign — Trump said his administration would “only admit into this country those who share our values and respect our people” and would weed out “any who have hostile attitudes” or “do not believe in our Constitution.” Trump compared it to “ideological screening” tests he said were used during the Cold War.

Trump said his administration would temporarily suspend immigration from countries “with a history of exporting terrorism,” where the State and Homeland Security departments determined “adequate screening cannot take place,” until his officials set up the new U.S. vetting system.

But that system — which would effectively ban any immigration from Europe, where the State Department has cautioned Americans about security concerns due to terrorist threats, as well as from the Middle East and likely Africa — would probably in and of itself be deemed unconstitutional and illegal for reasons similar to its initial form. The First Amendment enshrines the freedom of religion; the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection; international law establishes the rights of refugees; and the United States has numerous agreements signed with other countries that would be prohibitive.

Trump gave no details for how the system would be enforced or how much it would cost.

The United States has one of the strictest vetting processes for refugees of any country in the world, taking an average of 18 to 24 months. President Barack Obama’s administration also has lifted the cap on the total number of refugees from around the world to 100,000 by 2017, far fewer than the onslaught Trump described. 

“I was an opponent of the Iraq War from the beginning”

Trump repeatedly claims he had always opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, drawing a contrast with Hillary Clinton, who voted in favor of it while serving as a New York senator. The Republican nominee — like Clinton’s Democratic primary rival, Bernie Sanders — argues that Clinton’s backing of the war shows that she has bad judgement when it comes to vital national security and foreign-policy issues.

But the Manhattan real estate magnate is on the record saying he was for the Iraq War before he was against it. When radio host Howard Stern asked him in September 2002 whether he supported invading Iraq, he said, “Yeah, I guess so. You know, I wish it was — I wish the first time it was done correctly.” He also supported pulling out from the country, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 2007, years before the Obama administration’s withdrawal in 2011, “You know how they get out? They get out.… Declare victory and leave, because, I’ll tell you, this country is just going to get further bogged down. They’re in a civil war over there, Wolf. There’s nothing that we’re going to be able to do with a civil war.”

That didn’t stop the mogul from slamming Obama on Monday for pulling out of Iraq and arguing that doing so set the conditions for the rise of the Islamic State.

“I have often said that General MacArthur and General Patton would be in a state of shock if they were alive today to see the way President Obama and Hillary Clinton try to recklessly announce their every move before it happens — like they did in Iraq — so that the enemy can prepare and adapt,” Trump said.

But it was Republican President George W. Bush who set the timeline for the withdrawal after failing to get a security agreement with the Iraqi government to keep troops there.

“Our current strategy of nation building and regime change is a proven failure”

Trump consistently contrasts his “America First” foreign policy with what he derides as an “Obama-Clinton” foreign policy of fomenting instability by toppling strongmen and engaging in long, costly, and ultimately futile efforts to rebuild war-shattered nations and impose new forms of government.

They never should’ve “attempted to build a democracy in Libya,” he said, a knock at Obama’s 2011 intervention there.

The president had taken office saying he wanted to move U.S. foreign policy away from the kind of adventurism that bogged the United States down in the Middle East during the Bush administration.

Obama did reluctantly support the military push, which Clinton also backed, that resulted in the removal of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. But both have subsequently said their primary regret in Libya was not planning for what came after. The country has since devolved into what is effectively a failed state, with competing governments and vast stretches of lawless country that have at times been controlled by an offshoot of the Islamic State.

Trump also was for the intervention in Libya, saying at the time, “At this point, if you don’t get rid of Qaddafi, it’s a major, major black eye for this country.”

In the same speech Monday, Trump seemed to advocate for a practice associated with nation building that is broadly prohibited by international law: nation plundering.

“In the old days, when we won a war, to the victor belonged the spoils,” Trump said, repeating as if in refrain a phrase that remarkably was on-script: “Keep the oil, keep the oil, keep the oil.”

On this point, Trump has been consistent, saying early in his campaign that the United States should’ve seized oil from Iraq — a sovereign country — and given the proceeds to veterans (though he has a mixed record there). The problem with the “old days” is that they were marked by colonization that depleted countries’ resources, destroyed their environments, and slaughtered their citizens.

“I also believe that we could find common ground with Russia in the fight against ISIS”

“Wouldn’t that be a good thing?” Trump ad-libbed, during a speech in which he mostly turned from one teleprompter to another.

Trump’s rhetorical olive branch to Russia is an offshoot of remarks earlier in his campaign when he asked, “What’s wrong with having Russia drop bombs all over ISIS?” and suggested the United States should leave Syria as a “free zone for ISIS,” using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State.

But his comments add to a pattern of friendliness toward Moscow that takes on more unsettling implications in the wake of a New York Times report with the strongest evidence to date that Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, maintains an interest in pro-Russian politics and business in embattled Ukraine.

The Obama administration, too, has sought to work with Russia to find a political resolution to Syria’s civil war, saying Washington has “common ground” with Moscow there.

But those efforts have been frustrated in part by Russia working against resolving the conflict, striking opposition fighters — including those trained by the United States — instead of the Islamic State and shoring up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“But it is time to put the mistakes of the past behind us and chart a new course”

Trump proposed working with NATO on counterterrorism; convening international conferences on countering the Islamic State and other militant groups; working with Middle East allies — in particular Israel, Jordan, and Egypt — to fight the Islamic State; expanding intelligence sharing; countering the Islamic State online; and capturing “high-value” targets in order to glean valuable intelligence for dismantling terrorist networks.

All of which the Obama administration has done or is already doing.

And in the last 72 hours alone, U.S.-backed rebels have made notable gains in Libya and Syria, taking back Islamic State strongholds after American warplanes bombarded the militants from above.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those were two things the garrulous GOP nominee chose not to mention.

This story has been updated since publication.

Photo credit: Bloomberg/Contributor

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