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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Trump in the White House: a year in the life of a third-party president

Despite the economy performing well, the US president has managed to create multiple catch-22 scenarios for his administration, writes Alan Philps

Among other policty reversals, US president Donald Trump signed an executive order that makes it easier for Americans to buy bare-bone health insurance plans and circumvent Obamacare rules. Reuters
Among other policty reversals, US president Donald Trump signed an executive order that makes it easier for Americans to buy bare-bone health insurance plans and circumvent Obamacare rules. Reuters

When Donald Trump was elected almost a year ago, many Americans could not imagine that the words "president" and "Trump" could be combined. There were predictions that with Republican control of both houses of Congress, Mr Trump would turn the country upside down. Liberals were eyeing Canada as a possible bolthole.

In fact, the term “president Trump” has now become almost normal. The country and the world has got used to the president being his own communications chief, setting the media agenda with early morning tweets that his spokeswoman has to pick up and follow.

The world also understands that there is a low-level civil war in Washington, with the major newspapers ditching their usual respect for the presidency and going into battle against the White House’s bending of the truth. Much of Washington is hostile territory for Mr Trump, who is the subject of a painstaking investigation into alleged collusion between his campaign team and Russia.

Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress are in an anguish of indecision, unwilling to take a stand against him for fear of the vengeance of his voters at next year’s mid-term elections.

The outcome is perhaps not surprising given that Mr Trump grew up in the world of New York real estate, where bombast is an accepted part of deal-making, and perfected his skills on reality TV, where no one holds you to what you said in the past.

The big question is what effect this unstable presidency will have on the world. It is worth looking at it through three different lenses – politics, policy and law.

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In terms of politics, Mr Trump has, indeed, proven to be the great disruptor – though more often than not of his own agenda. Even with the tradition of a new administration taking months to bed in, Mr Trump has failed to pass any significant legislation. His campaign promise to build a big wall along the Mexican border is still unfunded.

In effect, he is a third-party president, with all the problems that entails in passing legislation or finding candidates to fill posts in the administration. His approval rate is 39 per cent, exceptionally low given that the US economy is performing well.

When it comes to policy, particularly on foreign affairs, the picture is rather different. Whenever foreign policy wonks gather for a conference, the tone of the discussion is one of despair at the president’s lack of strategic vision and his insistence that America is being taken for a ride by its allies. At such conferences, a token Trump supporter is usually invited to tell the experts to calm down: ignore the tweets and the media storms and look at policy and you will see that little has changed.

There is some truth in this tale of continuity. Mr Trump’s great foreign policy promise to improve relations with Russia is in ruins and the Washington establishment is back in its comfort zone, where Moscow is the enemy. Similarly, the deep hostility to Iran that Barack Obama tried to overturn has returned to centre stage.

Look more closely, however, and there is a sense of drift in foreign policy, most notably in Iraq, where Iran and Russia are making gains at the expense of Washington. The disarray has invigorated China’s Xi Jinping, who is now talking of China taking its place at the centre of world affairs, with its authoritarian style of government replacing America’s model of liberal democracy.

If there is to be major international disruption, it may be in trade, which seems to be foremost on the president’s mind, focused on creating American jobs. There is speculation that the Trump administration could end up killing off the World Trade Organisation, enabling Washington to make its own rules rather than abide by the international body’s adjudications.

Experience, however, suggests that Mr Trump prefers to approach such major issues with more caution than you might expect: he has stopped short of denouncing the Iran nuclear agreement – which he has called “the worst deal ever” – leaving Congress to decide what action to take.

All of this, however, depends on Mr Trump remaining in power. He is currently pursued by Robert Mueller, former FBI director, who is looking for evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to keep Hillary Clinton, the Democratic contender, out of power.

When Mr Mueller indicted Mr Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, for money-laundering, tax evasion and failing to register as a foreign agent, the president triumphantly tweeted “there is no collusion”.

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In this, he was correct. No hard evidence of collusion with Russia has emerged, but Mr Mueller could be digging away for years.

Mr Trump can be impeached only by Congress, now solidly in the hands of the Republicans, so that is unlikely at this stage. But the threat of the dogged sleuth hangs over Mr Trump.

As Mr Trump embarks on a 12-day tour of Asia today, some will be asking a more urgent question: will he be tempted to engage in some military action because he is blocked at home in his domestic agenda? When Bill Clinton was threatened with impeachment in 1988 for perjury, he launched an attack on Iraq known as Operation Desert Fox. News channels gleefully split their screens to cover the simultaneous events.

Despite the disarray in the White House, Washington generally takes comfort in the presence of military men around Mr Trump – his chief-of-staff, John Kelly, is a retired Marine Corps general, as is his defence secretary. His national security adviser is a serving army officer, and the secretaries of the navy and army are an ex-Marine and an ex-army Ranger.

These are said to be wise heads who know the cost of war. But they are also used to taking orders. The truth is that never has civilian control of the military been weaker. This may turn out to be the most significant change that Mr Trump has instituted.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs