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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

A year on from Trump's inauguration, some questions remain

The controversial presidency will leave an impact – but will it come at the cost of diplomacy?

Questions about the impact of Donald Trump's presidency remain, a year on from his inauguration / Bloomberg
Questions about the impact of Donald Trump's presidency remain, a year on from his inauguration / Bloomberg

The only thing that can be said with total certainty about Donald Trump's presidency is that there has not been a single slow news day in the White House since his inauguration on January 20 last year. Experts are suffering whiplash from the rollercoaster of events. So with the first anniversary of the inauguration on Saturday, it is a good time to sift through the debris of the first year and look ahead. Here are seven common questions about the Trump presidency:

How has year one gone? Mr Trump has been lucky. There were no major international crises, save for the fallout of his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The economy is growing, though this is as much due to the economic cycle and the actions of his predecessor as to those of Mr Trump. Party discipline, which seemed likely to be a casualty of the Trump insurgency, has been reinforced. In the country 80 per cent of Republicans support him (but only 10 per cent of Democrats). The Republican establishment in Washington has swallowed its distaste for the freely tweeting president and found common cause on a tax reform. Hopes that Mr Trump would settle down to be a “normal president” are yet to be fulfilled; he is in permanent campaign mode.

Will he be impeached? Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s disgraced former chief strategist, said that the president had a 33 per cent chance of being impeached, a 33 per cent chance of resigning and a 33 per cent chance of limping to the finish of his first term. The odds on impeachment now look much longer. Impeachment would require a two-thirds super-majority of the US Senate; that is 67 votes out of 100. At this year’s mid-term elections it is all but impossible for the Democrats and allied independents to raise their number of seats from 49 to 67. Given that, the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign would have to come up with some momentous evidence to get the Republicans to vote to ditch their man.

Will Trump change America? America’s constitutional safeguards – including a robust legal system and a free press – are functioning to hold the president to account. But for how long? Jacob Parakilas, a US expert at Chatham House in London, says: “The US constitutional system is designed not to be bulldozed by a dictator. But in the long term, it does not allow stasis. The Trump presidency will leave an impact.” That could be in the conservative judges he appoints or the dubious precedents he has established in threatening to set the law on his political opponents and sue a publisher for defamation or bringing his family members as advisors into the White House.

Should US allies be afraid? Allies are learning to treat the president’s tweets more as a political diversion than an indicator of policy. Some are downgrading contacts with the White House in favour of Congress, the Pentagon and the tech firms of Silicon Valley. By eviscerating the state department’s budget, Mr Trump has shown that he sets a low price on diplomacy. His promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and to scrap the Iran nuclear agreement will leave a lasting question mark over the validity of America’s signature on an international treaty.

What is most concerning about the Trump White House? Even after a full year, the administration is woefully understaffed. This is due in part to chaotic organisation but also to a lack of qualified candidates who share the Trumpian vision and who are ready to take a job at a time when staffers may be questioned under oath by the Mueller investigation. According to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, a critical expose of the first seven months of Mr Trump’s tenure in the White House, the administration is so lacking in legal expertise and the president so unwilling to engage in minutiae that it is up to the Republicans in Congress and assorted lobbyists to draft new laws.

And what about North Korea? The crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal has been frozen by “snow diplomacy” ahead of the winter Olympic Games in South Korea next month. This has come about due to a temporary alignment of interests between the two countries of the Korean peninsula: the South needs to ensure a peaceful and successful games while the North is looking to drive a wedge between Washington and its allies in east Asia. But what about after the Games? North Korea is really the last place on earth where Washington would wish to have to resolve a nuclear weapons crisis. There are no diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang and no hotline, only a cumbersome and slow channel through New York. Given the lack of staffing in the White House and the unpredictable nature of the North Korean regime, a catastrophic misunderstanding cannot be ruled out.

Will the US go to war with China? Mr Bannon described the US as being at “economic war” with China, a country that he sees as a “civilisational challenge”. Now that the would-be White House ideologue has gone, US policy is likely to stay within more recognisable boundaries. Washington will soon impose some sanctions on China in the name of reducing the US trade deficit. Beijing is prepared for this and will no doubt respond. As for the broader picture, the prospect of a Trump presidency was deeply troubling to China, which has prospered mightily under the liberal world order that the president believes is costing too many American jobs. In a report for the New Yorker magazine, China expert Evan Osnos writes that Beijing now sees Mr Trump as dismantling the American imperium. “Trump is the biggest strategic opportunity for China,” Yan Xuetong of Beijing’s Tsinghua University is quoted as saying. Until recently it was thought China’s moment to challenge the US would not come for a couple of decades. If Beijing is indeed speeding up the timetable of its rise, that could be radically disturbing to global stability.