Trump’s Poison Pills Are Still Toxic

Whether it’s Iran, China, Cuba, or immigration, U.S. President Joe Biden often finds himself stymied by his predecessor’s foreign policy.

hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
Michael Hirsh
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the American Freedom Tour at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, on May 14.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the American Freedom Tour at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, on May 14.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the American Freedom Tour at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas, on May 14. Brandon Bell via Getty Images

Former U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be gearing up to try to retake the presidency in 2024, and if he does get back into the Oval Office, he may find that a good deal of his foreign policy remains intact after a four-year absence.

That’s in large part because serious change has been made difficult by the “poison pills” Trump left behind: massive sanctions on Iran, high tariffs on China, draconian immigration rules, and more—combined with a nearly intractable political stalemate that his successor, current U.S. President Joe Biden, faces on Capitol Hill. This has made Biden—who from the start has been sympathetic to Trump’s populist “America First” appeal—reluctant to push too hard on too many issues at once, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

In the corporate world Trump hails from, a poison pill is a defense mechanism used to prevent a hostile takeover by another company. And the tally of poisoned policies that Trump bequeathed to Biden is long, though Trump officials have never said outright that it was their intention to paralyze the next administration. Those policies include more than a thousand additional sanctions on Iran that have stymied Biden’s pledged attempts to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump rejected in 2018. In his final days, Trump imposed hundreds of additional tariffs on China on top of the already big tariffs he’d levied for years. Then, just three days after Biden won the presidential election, the Trump team placed an unexpected cherry on their toxic sundae: They removed from the U.S. terrorist list the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant group that seeks to establish an Islamic state for the Uyghur minority. Trump’s message to Beijing: Washington is with the Uyghurs, who have been brutally suppressed by Beijing, and not the Chinese government.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be gearing up to try to retake the presidency in 2024, and if he does get back into the Oval Office, he may find that a good deal of his foreign policy remains intact after a four-year absence.

That’s in large part because serious change has been made difficult by the “poison pills” Trump left behind: massive sanctions on Iran, high tariffs on China, draconian immigration rules, and more—combined with a nearly intractable political stalemate that his successor, current U.S. President Joe Biden, faces on Capitol Hill. This has made Biden—who from the start has been sympathetic to Trump’s populist “America First” appeal—reluctant to push too hard on too many issues at once, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

In the corporate world Trump hails from, a poison pill is a defense mechanism used to prevent a hostile takeover by another company. And the tally of poisoned policies that Trump bequeathed to Biden is long, though Trump officials have never said outright that it was their intention to paralyze the next administration. Those policies include more than a thousand additional sanctions on Iran that have stymied Biden’s pledged attempts to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Trump rejected in 2018. In his final days, Trump imposed hundreds of additional tariffs on China on top of the already big tariffs he’d levied for years. Then, just three days after Biden won the presidential election, the Trump team placed an unexpected cherry on their toxic sundae: They removed from the U.S. terrorist list the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a militant group that seeks to establish an Islamic state for the Uyghur minority. Trump’s message to Beijing: Washington is with the Uyghurs, who have been brutally suppressed by Beijing, and not the Chinese government.

“This made the Chinese completely apoplectic,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a China expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It was clearly a move by the outgoing Trump administration to sabotage Biden’s policy.” A year and a half into his administration, Biden has resisted altering the designation.

He is also hesitating to remove trade sanctions despite their effect on rising domestic prices, even though the president last week called inflation, caused in part by the higher prices U.S. consumers pay thanks to lingering Trump tariffs, his “top domestic priority.” In other areas, the Trump legacy has an equally sticky tail. Biden, as candidate, pledged to restore the Obama-era opening to Cuba that Trump had squelched. But he hasn’t done so in the face of hard-line resistance by Republicans and leading Democrats, such as Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Negotiations to restore remittances to Cuba as well as diplomatic contacts have remained stalled.

On immigration, the Biden administration has been slow to end Title 42—the tactic Trump used to further erect his anti-immigration “wall” at the United States’ southern border by refusing asylum-seekers because of COVID-19. When the Biden administration did propose a change, it faced a bipartisan wall of its own on Capitol Hill. As Foreign Policy recently reported, Biden has found it difficult to fulfill his campaign pledge to reverse Trump’s policy of minimizing the number of refugees allowed in the country.

A major problem is that Biden can barely move any votes in a Senate that remains split 50-50—with Democrats often as hawkish as Republicans on China and Iran—and a House that is barely under Democratic control. And he needs every vote he can get to pass his domestic programs, mainly what remains of his signature “Build Back Better” bill, in the six months before crucial midterm elections are expected to return Republicans to power in at least one chamber of Congress. Key Biden team members, beginning with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, rightly fear that Republicans will block all of his programs in the final two years of Biden’s term.

“The decision-making process in the administration is such that people who have the last word with the president are prioritizing domestic policy over foreign policy,” said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, who is a former top aide to Robert Malley, the Biden administration’s chief Iran negotiator.

The result, Vaez said, was “tragic” for Biden and would come back to haunt him, especially with Iran edging toward potential nuclear breakout—the point at which the country has enough fissile material for a bomb. “For someone like him with so much foreign-policy experience to allow politics to play such a role is unbelievable.”

Asked to comment on the problem of poison pills, a senior administration official said in spite of Trump’s attempts to lock his policies in place, Biden has made major progress in reversing some of them. This is especially true when it comes to rebuilding U.S. alliances such as NATO—which Trump once dismissed as “obsolete”—to “unprecedented levels” in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Biden has also succeeded in removing or putting on hold Trump’s tariffs against the European Union, Japan, and Britain; rebuilding U.S. cyberwarfare capabilities; promoting democracy and human rights abroad; and launching new initiatives against COVID-19, the official said.

In other areas, Trump’s poison pill approach to paralyzing his successor has been only partially successful. After Trump dithered over whether to keep the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as New START) alive, Biden successfully won a pledge from Russia to extend it for five years, though talks have been on hold since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden did manage to reverse another last-minute Trump decision in Yemen, when his predecessor designated the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization. But critics say Biden has failed since then to take decisive action to end the seven-year war between the Saudi-backed government and the Houthis by completely halting U.S. support of the Saudi’s blockade of the country. Biden has also reauthorized the deployment of hundreds of special operations forces inside Somalia, mostly reversing another move by Trump.

In Afghanistan as well, Trump left Biden with a somewhat poisoned chalice, since he all but gave away the country when he orchestrated peace talks with the Taliban that cut out the elected Afghan government. Although Biden delayed Trump’s planned departure by a few months, he followed his predecessor’s approach so closely that Trump’s former national security advisor, John Bolton, called the disastrous rush to withdraw “very Trumpian.”

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biden has also faced stiff congressional opposition to his earlier decision to defund a new nuclear-tipped, sea-launched cruise missile authorized by Trump.

The Iran nuclear issue is, perhaps, the poster child for Biden’s problem in vanquishing the ghost of Trump. By pulling out of the 2015 accord, the Trump administration freed Iran from any real constraints on its nuclear development. And Trump slapped Iran with additional sanctions and punitive measures. Among the stickiest: designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the instrument of Iran’s paramilitary operations across the region, as a foreign terrorist organization.

Even as negotiations with the hard-line government in Tehran remain at an impasse, on May 3, the Senate passed (by a wide margin, with 16 of Biden’s fellow Democrats voting in favor) a nonbinding motion demanding that any nuclear agreement also address Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for militants in the Middle East. Both were previously demands of the Trump administration. Tehran has insisted that such a move is a nonstarter and that the 2015 agreement be restored as it existed.

The Biden administration itself has made a return to the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), even more difficult by imposing new sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile program following a missile attack in Iraq in March. Biden’s Treasury Department also announced new sanctions against the IRGC unit responsible for development of ballistic missiles as well as other Iranian entities involved in procuring missile parts.

Trump officials have not said their additional Iran sanctions were intended as a poison pill but instead were part of his “maximum pressure” campaign to force Tehran to come back to the bargaining table to negotiate what Trump said should be a tougher nuclear pact.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration hewed largely to the suggestions of some hawkish think tanks, such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). When Biden was still seeking the Democratic nomination and calling for a restoration of the Iran deal, the FDD argued that the Trump team should “build a wall of additional sanctions that a pro-Tehran successor could not easily dismantle.” Other late Trump moves urged by the FDD include naming the IRGC a terrorist group and sanctioning Iran’s central bank.

Still, in late February, the JCPOA negotiations did come close to an agreement, officials said—until Russia insisted on new conditions. Biden even proposed removing the IRGC terror designation in exchange for Tehran’s commitment not to retaliate against the United States for Trump’s 2020 assassination of a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, according to NBC News. But Iran reportedly rejected that proposal.

“Though it can be tempting to see the Iran impasse as the result of a Trump-era poison pill, more than a year and half into his administration and a year into indirect nuclear talks, Biden now owns the impasse,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Already, there have been too many own goals, pulled punches, and missed opportunities on the Iran file.”

Some critics say Biden’s problems in making good on some of his foreign-policy pledges—and his failure to find a new way to engage China, in particular—suggest that he and his team (specifically U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan) are letting the politics of Capitol Hill shape them rather than the other way around.

A former senior Biden aide said the president may have been overconfident in thinking that his long experience on Capitol Hill would allow him to break through the partisan divide. In this respect, Blinken and Sullivan are mainly doing Biden’s bidding, since he is in complete charge of foreign policy. “One of his favorite sayings was, ‘Just give me the facts. I’ll do the politics,’” said the former aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He thought he was the smartest political guy ever and he didn’t need any help.”

The Biden administration, of course, is only a year and a half old. And the president says he is still committed to restoring the JCPOA as well as lifting at least some tariffs on China, though he added last week that “no decision has been made on it.” But Trump has recently signaled that he’s planning to run again, saying in a speech last weekend, “We will take back the House, we will take back the Senate, and we will take back our country.”

If he does return to the White House, Trump may also be able to take back a good part of his foreign policy.

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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