WITH Donald Trump’s inauguration as president just days away, the strangest post-election transition in US history is about to end.
That transition has demonstrated how unpredictable life with President Trump will be. A president-elect typically uses the transition to make cabinet choices and to study up on the issues he will soon confront, but keeps quiet on policy.
But Trump has only paid lip service to the hallowed principle that the US has just one president at a time. Shortly after the election, he began to conduct his own foreign policy. He took to Twitter to suggest that the British government name Nigel Farage, who had led the successful Brexit campaign, as their ambassador to the US.
Trump may have been unaware that governments choose their own ambassadors, and that Sir Kim Darroch was already ensconced in the British embassy in Washington, DC. (The UK government quickly announced that Darroch would stay on.)
Soon thereafter, Trump took a congratulatory call from Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen — a sharp departure from the ‘one China’ policy that presidents, Democratic and Republican alike, have upheld for more than 40 years. China strongly condemned the move, and also Trump’s subsequent tweets questioning America’s commitment to the policy.
In late December, Trump tried to interfere with President Barack Obama’s decision to abstain from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel for continuing to build settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.
Traditionally, the US had vetoed such resolutions, though administrations have, of late, taken the position that such settlements blocked progress on a two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Trump had already indicated that he wanted a closer relationship with Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who backs the settlements.
So, he called Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and urged him to delay bringing up the resolution (it was postponed for only a day). Trump also strongly criticised the Obama administration’s decision not to veto the resolution. And he named as his ambassador to Israel his anti-trust lawyer, a man with no foreign-policy experience, who is a fervent backer of the settlements.
Yet, the weirdest element of the transition is Trump’s fondness for Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Trump says that he’s trying a new approach, after years of cold, if not hostile, US-Russia relations. Perhaps.
Journalists have been trying to track down the origin of Trump’s softness toward Putin. A small eruption occurred over news reports on January 10 that intelligence agencies had informed Trump and Obama of uncorroborated allegations that Russia had compromising information on Trump.
While the validity of these claims remains in question, Trump’s relationship with Putin will be a continuing issue. Trump’s attitude toward Putin has worrisome implications. Will Trump consent to Putin’s ambition to dominate Ukraine? How would Trump — who questioned the value of NATO during the election campaign — react if Putin committed aggression against one of the Baltic states, NATO allies toward which he’s already made threatening gestures. Is Putin playing Trump?
Trump also rejected the findings of 17 US intelligence agencies, issued last October, that Russia was meddling in the US presidential election. After the election, the intelligence agencies described the actions Russia had taken: hacking into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman; arranging for embarrassing emails to be made public through WikiLeaks; and purveying ‘fake news.’ Russia’s goal, the agencies declared, had been to damage Clinton’s campaign.
The implication that Russia may have helped him win was intolerable to Trump. Angered that anyone would consider his election invalid — which no serious person alleged — he ratcheted up his attacks on the CIA, the FBI, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (which coordinates the findings of the various intelligence agencies).
Members of Congress from both parties said it was unjust of Trump to malign the entire intelligence community.
Not only would Trump need to rely on these agencies in future crises; they’re filled with skilled infighters who know how to use strategic leaks.
Trump’s disdainful tweets about the intelligence agencies became a crisis for him. When US National Intelligence director, James Clapper, testified in an open hearing of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, on December 6, including on the finding that Putin had directed the attempt to affect the US election, his testimony met with bipartisan approval.
Finally, Trump begrudgingly agreed to be briefed by intelligence agencies on Russia’s role in the election. Trump stated after the briefing that he has “tremendous respect” for the work of the intelligence agencies and acknowledged that Russia — but also other countries, such as China — continually try to attack America’s cyber infrastructure. In other words, there is nothing special about the election tampering. Trump’s habit of tweeting at all hours, on all manner of subjects, has those in Washington, DC, including Republicans, on edge. What does it foretell about what will happen when Trump gains the full power of the presidency?