Memoirs of the Addams Administration 15.

Critics of President Donald Trump elaborated on the well-established trope that Trump is too inexperienced and shallow to manage national security—or anything else.[1]  In some minds, his foreign policy decisions rely too much on the former military officers in key positions (Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster).  In other minds, the reported battle for influence over President Trump between chief strategist Steve Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner obscures a real slide toward the center under the influence of McMaster and Gary Cohn.[2]  In this view, the failure of the “Muslim ban” and the failed effort to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act undermined ideologically-driven advisers and awakened the President to the complexities of many issues.  Better late than never, and it isn’t even late yet.

One potentially powerful influence on the future course of the Trump administration may be the evident gap between the campaign positions of Donald Trump and the current opinions of the majority of Americans.[3]  In the case of immigration, only 13 percent of Americans want the deportation of illegal aliens to be the first order of business and only 26 percent think that stopping future illegal immigration is very important.  In contrast, 90 percent favor legalizing the situation of illegal immigrants who have jobs, speak English, and pay their back taxes; and 60 percent think that the legalization of such illegal immigrants should be at the top of the immigration policy list.[4]  It’s worth noting that the supporters of legalization of status don’t seem to have been asked about a path to citizenship.  Maybe green cards without any path to citizenship would do it.  In any event, the weight of public opinion provides a lot of ammunition for the “moderates” around President Trump.

A comparatively small incident in foreign policy provided the basis for a change of course.  The Syrian air force allegedly used sarin gas in an attack on a town in Idlib province.  President Trump then enforced President Obama’s “red line” warning from 2013 by ordering a rain of cruise missiles on the air base from which the attack was said to have originated.  It would be difficult to make Syrian-American relations worse, but the incident pushed russo-American relations down-hill.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a tense visit to Moscow, while the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned the Americans not to make another such “illegal” attack.[5]  The Americans havered a bit, with Tillerson renewing the Obama administration’s insistence that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had to go, while Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that the U.S. would not be drawn deeper into the civil war.

A majority (57 percent) of Americans approved the strikes.  As was the case with President Obama’s failure to follow through on his red line warning in 2013, the great majority of Americans (70 percent) believe that President Trump should seek Congressional approval for any further attacks on Syria.[6]  So, apparently, Americans will back the president, but then wish Congress would follow its constitutional duty.  Critics in the New York Times and the Washington Post complained that Trump has yet to articulate a comprehensive strategy for asserting American predominance in Syria.  (In short, he’s all action and no talk.)

[1] “Syria: Is there a new ‘Trump Doctrine’?” The Week, 21 April 2017, p. 6.

[2] “Bannon vs. Kushner: The battle for Trump’s soul,” The Week, 21 April 2017, p. 17.

[3] See:

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 31 March 2017, p. 17.

[5] “Syria attack widens U.S.-Russia rift,” The Week, 21 April 2017, p. 4.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 21 April 2017, p. 17.

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