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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

The US president makes one policy ... and the government implements another

David Rothkopf on the current shape and state of the Trump administration

FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2017, file photo, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., back left center, and other lawmakers react as President Donald Trump speaks about the passage of the tax overhaul bill on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
FILE - In this Dec. 20, 2017, file photo, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., back left center, and other lawmakers react as President Donald Trump speaks about the passage of the tax overhaul bill on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

In a week in which the headlines out of Washington DC were dominated by the president of the United States alienating all of Africa and a good chunk of the Americas, you would think that the big message to foreign leaders was that the Donald Trump was out of control. It is a view that only seemed to be confirmed by the fact that other stories during the week included the release of a major book asserting he was not mentally fit for the job and, on Friday, revelations Mr Trump made hush money payments to a glamour model.

But no need to scurry down to your bomb shelters as the people of Hawaii did this past weekend fearing that having an unhinged commander-in-chief of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal in close proximity to the very “big button” he has bragged about could only end in disaster. Because the good news from America is that the president is not only out of control of himself, but he does not actually appear to be in control of his own government, which in this case may be the best news to come out of Washington, DC since Mr Trump assumed office a year ago.

For example, in other news of the past week, Mr Trump announced that despite his repeated threats to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, he would once again waive sanctions against that country. While he said this waiver would be the last one he would grant, evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, based on the current state of legal investigations into wrong-doing by Mr Trump and those around him, the plummeting political popularity of the president and his Republican party, and an emerging pattern of Mr Trump not being able to follow through on many of his threats and promises, it is probably a good bet that the Iran nuclear deal is likely to be around and unchanged longer than is Mr Trump himself.

The reason Mr Trump ultimately decided to extend the Iran sanctions waiver yet again is that every senior national security official in the US government opposed the president’s position as did many in his own party on Capitol Hill. While many of these individuals harbour concerns about the specifics of the nuclear accord struck during the Obama administration, they recognise that for the US to pull out of it unilaterally would likely do more to isolate the US than it would to put pressure on Iran.

But this is not an isolated incident. The president recently asserted he would cut off payments to the Palestinians but within days, the state department quietly confirmed that payments through the UNRWA programme would continue. This echoed actions following the president’s announcement that the US would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel but within days the state department indicated that moving the embassy would take a very long time, that it certainly would not happen within 2018 and that they would continue to not recognise people born in Jerusalem in official documents as having been born in Israel.

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The infamous outburst about Africa took place at a White House meeting designed to address US immigration issues. During the negotiations around these issues the White House has increasingly distanced itself from what is perhaps the signature issue on which Mr Trump ran for president: building a wall between the US and Mexico and having the Mexicans pay for it. The Mexicans repeatedly rejected this idea. And more recently, the president has begun to say that he would get it paid for via other means including indirectly (and implausibly) by simply striking a better Nafta deal with Mexico. This week, the president also began to back away from the idea that a wall itself was the key to border security—largely because no expert actually thinks it is. So the promise to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it is completely intact, except for the part about the wall and the part where Mexico pays for it.

The president famously said he would ban LGBT troops from the US military. The department of defence quietly said, “no.” The president said negotiations with North Korea were fruitless. The state department quietly said, “no.” Time after time, the president has sought action from his justice department or from Congress and even with his own officials in place, he has not got what he wanted.

There used to be a saying in China which, badly translated, claimed: “Beijing makes policy, the provinces make other policies.” In Washington DC, this week it was once again confirmed that while the president appears to make policy in his tweets and speeches, the rest of the government is inclined to make and implement completely different policies, many the opposite of those offered up by their nominal leader.

Given how out of control this particular leader seems to be, this should be seen as a very good thing indeed.

David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and most recently author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow

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