Trump: the first 100 days


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What is the scorecard for President Donald Trump after the first 100 Days? “C minus overall,” says Peter Trubowitz, Professor of International Relations and Director of the US Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Associate Fellow at Chatham House, Royal Institute of International Affairs. Trump said he was going to shake up Washington, and he has, but on the legislative front he has done little of what he promised in his first 100 days.

Alex Burd (@alexburd) talked to Professor Trubowitz last year during the presidential race, now he returns to get the Professor’s view on the new President’s first 100 days……

On January 20th Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States. April 29th marks his 100th day in office. They honeymoon period has been short, however: he has already clashed with the media, the courts and his own people. Despite running on a platform of isolationism and non-intervention, President Trump has become increasingly active in the area of foreign policy.

Last August I met with Professor Peter Trubowitz, an expert on US foreign policy and the director of the United States Centre at the London School of Economics. Today I returned to find out what the professor thinks of the new president’s actions on the world stage in his first 100 days of power – but we started by grading the opening stages of the Trump administration.

Professor Trubowitz: I think I could probably get myself to a C- minus, using the American grading scale of A to F. He came into office saying he was going to shake things up in Washington and that he was going to pass a raft of legislation, he laid that out in his 100 day contract with the American people – he ran on that. I’d say he has shaken things up in Washington, but on the legislative front you’d be hard pressed to find one item on his list, it filled the full page, that document was a two page document. I have it open on my computer right here, I looked it up just to make sure and go back over it, and none of those things have passed. He put one of them forward, repealing and replacing Obamacare, which went down in flames. There is a lot of talk about bringing it back, you know, zombie-style and perhaps it comes back. But I think overall he’s made good on the promise of shaking things up, but in terms of accomplishments the record is pretty thin and I think that’s why you’re seeing all this last minute activity, where he’ll announce tax cuts or at least to lay out his principles because he realises he is likely to get hoisted on his own petard by the mainstream media over this.

Alex Burd: Do you think the 100 day marker is a useful one for US presidents or is it kind of a little more of a media invention?

PT: It is not a media invention. It dates back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first 100 days where he passed 15 major acts. That’s a tough act to follow and every president ever since has shied away from the 100 day bar. I think the media makes a big deal about it. It is a big story – you can rate people, you can ask them what kind of grade are you going to give the president. I think it’s important only in the sense that what you can expect in the first 100 days from a president is; you have reason to expect some sense of the tone and the style of an administration and what their aspirations and principles are and an agenda and really even a time table about how you’re going to get there. So I think that is fair to compare him against that: nobody stacks up well against President Roosevelt. Trump is saying no president has been as successful as he has. FDR was a Titan.

AB: When we last spoke, you spoke about how foreign governments would be concerned that America would withdraw from the world with Trump’s election. Do you think that’s come to pass, or do you think we’ve seen a more active US than we expected.

PT: I’m reminded of that old line from Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s premier. When asked what he thought about the French Revolution of 1789, he said, ‘it is too early to tell’ – in terms of its impact. I think what Trump has done is really unsettled the West in particular and while he hasn’t retrenched in any kind of fundamental way, he’s raised lots of doubts about the credibility of American commitments. Whether they are commitments to European allies or to America’s Asian allies, he’s introduced a level of uncertainty, which he telegraphed so it is not a huge surprise. But nevertheless when the rubber hits the road, when Merkel comes to Washington and can’t get a handshake and can’t go home with a sense that the President of the United States has Germany’s back, that is unsettling and it fuels fears. Not that America is going to pick up its marbles and go home 1920s style after World War I but raises more questions about whether the United States is really in the fox hole. It just raises about the credibility of long term US commitments to an open world economy, to shared security, to multilateral governance; the kind of things America’s allies have more or less taken for granted for – there have been ups and downs – but let’s say 70 years. They are not so confident right now.

AB: His one major effort, domestic reform with healthcare, didn’t go well. We’ve now seen him become more active in foreign policy. Do you think those two things are related – do you think the president can be more effective on the world stage?

PT: I do think they are related, [but] also think they are independent. I mean, he has a set of things he wants that we just talked about – America first – that he wants to accomplish on the foreign policy side and I think he has things he wants to accomplish on the domestic side. I think what he’s learning is that it’s hard to be successful on the foreign policy front, to get what you want. You get pushback from your allies, you get pushback from competitors – heck, you get pushback from Pyongyang. And it requires domestic political support and that’s not a given, especially when you don’t win a mandate in the election. This is a guy who won the electoral college but lost the popular vote and lost it by a lot. So there are questions about legitimacy and so forth and that complicates matters. When you can’t succeed domestically or you have problems, you run into walls – like the resistance over healthcare – it does create incentives to look internationally. It’s a kind of standard view in the United States that it’s easier for the President to get stuff done internationally because there are fewer players. He doesn’t have 535 members of congress and the senate to negotiate with, he’s just got a few internationally leaders. Now that’s kind of overdone but I think one of the things that often, this is not just true of American leaders, when you stumble at home domestically there is a tendency to try and demonstrate your competence somewhere else.

AB: Do you think he’s succeeded in demonstrating that competence so far?

PT: I mean the example that people throw out there are the 59 cruise missiles that he launched against the Syrian airfield. A lot of folks in the mainstream media in the United States and centrists in the congress gave him high marks for that; that he acted decisively, he acted quickly, he reversed himself in 72 hours or something, first Assad could stay then Assad had to go. But this was closer to what liberal internationalists, centrists in the United States would expect when a leader in foreign country violates a norm like you don’t use chemical weapons on your own people. They expect the leader of the free world, the American president, to do something about it. But launching 59 nuclear missiles does not constitute a foreign policy agenda. So I think this is one of those things where the issue is what’s the follow up, and how does this square with a larger agenda? I think one of the things Trump has taken from this is, on one level it’s easy to use military power, but you’ve got to be careful about that though because, before you know it, you can be sucked into something you didn’t anticipate. While it might be easy to go against a Syrian airfield and walk away from it without things escalating out of control that might be a lot different if you launch 59 cruise missiles against the North Koreans because they’ve got plenty of nuclear short range missiles which could hit Seoul and could hit Tokyo.

AB: Just moving on to North Korea, do you think North Korea have acted any differently or become more assertive with Trump, or do you think it’s more that people are more panicked about what they are doing because it’s Trump that is sitting across from them?

PT: I think they are probing, I think they are testing. This is what I would expect of foreign leaders if a candidate runs on an America first platform which many reviewed as an America in retreat platform, then the obvious thing for America’s adversaries is to test or to probe; whether its Beijing, or its Moscow, or its Tehran, or its Pyongyang. I think there is probing on that side and I don’t think it’s just because [Kim Jong-un] wants attention, I think it’s because he’s trying to test the parameters – to find out where Beijing really stands, and the extent to which Beijing has got his back or doesn’t. But I think for Trump North Korea is more of a problem than he anticipated. You go back and you remember that first interview, first meeting, he had with Barack Obama, after the election – when he went to the White House – either the next day or the day after and he said there was one thing was really – I don’t know, I’m paraphrasing here – but ‘really an eye opener’. And a lot of people think the eye opener was, you know, North Korea is a lot closer to developing an intercontinental capability than most people think and that Obama effectively was telling him, ‘I’m leaving office: they don’t have it, but this is likely to happen while you are in office. This is your problem now, and it’s a big problem and it’s going to complicate some of the ideas you have about dealing with China, because you are going to need Chinese support’. Because to the extent that anybody has influence – and I think this is really inflated – but China has influence in North Korea because of North Korean economic dependence on China. But one shouldn’t overstate that there is power in weakness and in recklessness and they are able to pull Beijing’s chain too it seems. But for Trump this is a bigger problem for him than he’d certainly thought about during the campaign. It doesn’t lend itself to an easy military solution, it may be that the US in conjunction with allies and so forth does use military force there – but it’s not obvious that using military force there won’t lead to an escalation of tensions and a broadening of the conflict, either on the peninsular and beyond.

AB: What have you made of his interaction with China? Has it been tempered by North Korea, tempered by the reality of China? His rhetoric going into the election was very strong on China’s currency manipulations, on stealing jobs…

PT: It’s hard to say for sure. Part of it has to be as you suggested in the question a recognition that he has other things he wants to achieve in the region that require working with China and require working with China and require some support from Beijing. I think it reflects also that Beijing has signalled that it is prepared to revisit some of the arrangements; that proposed this [additional] 100 day assessment period, so the economic side of the relationship can be perhaps revisited and recalibrated. I think it also partly reflects the fact that Trump is still able to push on China through unilateral executive orders like he did last week on the steel question and steel imports. China is huge steel producer and exporter and the focus is on dumping, and so he’s, in a way, able to have it kind of both ways. It also, you know, reflects the fact that inside the United States there is not a clear consensus on how the US should be dealing with China. You have some who want the United States to get really tough with China economically, but others who are more internationalist in orientation who still think some sort of open trading relationship with China is important and that integrating China into the world economy is in America’s long term interest. And then just finally you have, it’s not last, importantly, is where America’s allies are in the region, whether it’s Australia or Japan or its South Korea. They want a more tempered or even handed, or maybe not even handed, but a balanced approach towards China and the last thing they want is more instability and turmoil in the region.

AB: I think it was after Trump had met with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, he said, after listening for ten minutes about North Korea I realised it’s not so easy. Do you think that will come to be the telling quote about Trump’s presidency, especially on foreign policy, that it is not quite as simple as he told everyone it was going to be?

PT: Yes, I think we see a lot of that. There is a lot of inconsistency in the administration, there is a very steep learning curve for this guy. One of the reasons people voted for him was he was not part of the Washington establishment: one of the downsides of not being inside the Washington beltway and having all that experience is that you don’t know about problems like this, or you haven’t – maybe you could argue that you come in with a fresh set of eyes – but you’re coming in with very limited information and knowledge about it, and I think this is only one of a number of examples, but it’s a serious one. I mean, he said the same thing about healthcare: ‘who knew it was so complicated’ [laughs]. Ask Barack Obama, it’s complicated, it’s hard to get all those parts moving in the same direction and so forth and it’s easy to say you’re going to repeal it: you can repeal it, [but] what are you going to replace it with? Right now I was just looking at one of the, I think it’s NBC, Wall Street Journal, poll shows that 59 or 60% of Americans want the federal government to do more. To do more. I mean this like – you know if you asked people 6 months ago whether that finding was possible the answer is ‘no, no no!’ So he can’t he can’t just throw stuff overboard. If that figure is right, what that underscores is in part the frustration that many Americans feel about what’s happening on health care. That’s a surprising number that just came out a couple of days ago. I mean, is that the telling quote? I mean, America hired somebody without a whole lot of experience in this realm, and business experience doesn’t always translate into kind of a political skill set.

AB: Jumping a little bit to the West, as you mentioned, they were concerned with Trump coming into power. Will they be heartened by Trump deciding that he no longer thinks Nato is as obsolete as he originally thought?

PT: Well, that can only be viewed as kind of like positive by many Western leaders. The question they may have is, how deep does that commitment run? You have to stack that up against 25 years of Trump railing against NATO. People say he has no real long term principled positions – well, I don’t know how principled the position is, but it’s long term. You go back to interviews in the early 1990s that he did and he was talking about how it was a one way street, and how NATO allies were taking advantage of the United States. I think it’s reassuring to many, it’s a hopeful sign to many European leaders and kind of what Trump has done, in these first 100 days, with Europe is engaged in a kind of good cop, bad cop routine where he’s the bad – I mean, what’s unusual about this is that usually the president is that good cop and he sends out bad cops – but he’s the bad cop and the good cops are, he’s sent [Michael] Pence over there, [Rex] Tillerson’s gone over there, [James] Mattis has come over to Europe on this side of the pond and tried to reassure everybody about the credibility of America’s commitments – still concerned about Russia, the adventurism in the region and so forth. I think there is still some of that going on but the needle seems to have moved a little more in the direction of ‘we’re all good cops here’. But I think one just has to wait and see on that one.

AB: Do you they’ll still be concerned that he’s largely supported leaders in Europe – well, no, not leaders, but insurgent political forces that are against the established political parties in the West? For instance, he has kind of implied support for [French Presidential Candidate Marine] Le Pen, [President Recep] Erdogan in Turkey, and obviously his complicated relationship with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.

PT: Well yes, I think that was one source of real concern during the campaign as Trump got traction, especially immediately after, with the inaugural and the first salvos coming out the administration and I think that is… remains a cause for concern. And I think an objective observer looking at this might wonder about the extent to which this is driven by his own problems domestically with respect to Putin and right now it serves his interests to look tough on Putin and on Moscow and one way to signal that is you take NATO more seriously and so I think part of the problem with Trumps approach to governing, which is governing by tweet and changing his… flipping things around and playing on, or trying to exploit, uncertainty about where he’s going to move is that in fact people are uncertain about any commitment that he makes. Is it real, and can they count on it? Or could they wake up a couple of weeks later and suddenly he’s decided actually I’m not sure we have Europe’s back? There is an upside and a downside to introducing that kind of uncertainty and in some ways it does kind of enhance your negotiating position but it also raises questions about what your true intentions are.

AB: To what extent do you think his decision to put on a stronger position against the Russians informed his actions in Syria, or is it more likely, as it has also been reported, that his decision was more emotive and driven by the pictures that he saw and was more of an instinctive reaction?

PT: I would identify a third factor; it was the ‘un-Obama’ move. So one of the things about Trump’s first 100 days if you look at what he’s done is how much of it is the opposite of Obama. Where Obama, on the question of Syrian transgression of the norm of not using chemical weapons, deliberated and deliberated and deliberated, Trump moved decisively and in the process reversed his position on Syria and on Assad and so forth. I think it turned out the fact that moving decisively there was consistent with his own political circumstances, I don’t think that was lost on him. But I’m not sure; it was a leap to say that he did that for narrow political domestic reasons, but it certainly took the Putin story – Russian intervention in the election campaign off the front burner for the time being, that’s a story that’s not going away.

AB: The problem being though, do you think he knows what his next step is in Syria? Having put his foot in the situation.

PT: I’m not sure and I think he certainly got a message from a lot of people, that in his core Trump base, that don’t want to see this… they’d be very unhappy if this was the beginning of a long term commitment in the region. I would be surprised if it were the beginning of a long term larger American intervention, but you can not want that and still end up doing it because of a set of conditions that just constrain your options but he was happy to kind of show decisiveness, use military force there and move on.

AB: Do you think it’s the case that he’s come to power at the worst possible time for a man who has no experience, either legislative or executive given what is going on in Syria, what is going on in North Korea, all the kind of changes in power in Europe?

PT: I think that just lowers the bar too much for Donald Trump. I mean Barack Obama came in when the wheels were coming off the bus. Donald Trump didn’t inherit a mess. Donald Trump kind of got what we’d call the average hand that a president gets and we can debate what he’s done with the cards that he’s been given but Barack Obama got handed a very tough set of cards. I mean a little sceptical of setting the bar too low for Donald Trump. I’m not saying he doesn’t face challenges but every president faces challenges. What FDR really understood I think is what Americans value the most is competency, that’s the test, that’s where the bar is for Donald Trump, that’s what he has to demonstrate.

Listen to Alex Burd’s earlier podcasts with Professor Trubowitz: The Rise and Rise of Donald Trump (July 2016) and Clinton and Trump (August 2016)

Transcript by Ben Frith-Salem (@benfrithsalem)

Photo by Gage Skidmore

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