How much power will President Donald Trump have when he takes office?

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Paul McGeough

Washington: A Republican clean sweep that delivered the White House to Donald Trump also completes a powerbroker trifecta – apart from the Oval Office, the GOP has retained majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

But just because he’ll be the most powerful president in living memory, does that mean congress will be at Trump’s beck-and-call as he takes aim at the first targets on his hit list?

By a to-do list already devised for his first day in the Oval Office – January 20 – Trump plans to put an axe through Barack Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal; and he’ll read the riot act to Mexico and Canada about a better deal for the US under Bill Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trump’s plan to designate China as a “currency manipulator,” could be the first shot fired in what analysts fear will become a global trade war – with Australia and its regional neighbours caught in the middle. Trump will halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the US and reverse Obama’s executive order that protects millions of undocumented migrants from deportation.

What the next president calls the First Day Project is intended to reverse as many of his predecessor’s executive orders as possible – what one of his aids calls “erasing” the Obama presidency.

But within 12 hours of the confirmation of his stunning election win, Trump was reminded that in Washington, even a president has to know his place – he might talk of himself as the “I-alone” rescuer of the nation, but Washington is very much a “we” town.

So Senate leader Mitch McConnell, from Trump’s own Republican Party, was happy to signal swift action in congress to repeal Obamacare, but otherwise he was quite dismissive of Trump’s plan to hit the ground running – almost to the point of rudeness.

In a rough presidential campaign, Americans saw Trump the threatening bully at work and they are obliged to trust his promise to be America’s dealmaker, because the path to a new, uncertain US and global future lies somewhere between these two sides of the incoming president’s persona.

First Day Project: Stroke of a pen

Some things Trump can do at the stroke of a pen, by executive orders, like those by Obama that Trump plans to obliterate – say, axe the Paris Agreement on greenhouse-gas emissions; cut funding for research on climate change; order a renegotiation of the terms of the Iran nuclear deal; a ban on Muslims entering the US or a “politically correct” version of this; kick-start the controversial Keystone pipeline; order the Justice Department to investigate particular kinds of crimes, say something that a business enemy might have done; or conduct such as Hillary Clinton’s handling of her email server, by which he might achieve his “you’re going to jail” objective.

First 100 days: Congressional approval required

Trump’s bedrock policies – including the repeal of Obamacare; a “beautiful” wall along 1600km of the US-Mexico border; middle class tax cuts; a plan to block the movement of American jobs overseas; term-limits for members of congress; and his “drain the swamp” corruption crackdown in DC – all have to be dealt with by congress, hence their inclusion in his first-100-days legislative agenda.

But on Wednesday, McConnell had this to say on term limits for congress: “It will not be on the agenda in the senate.” And the President-elect’s ambitious and costly national infrastructure plan was “not a top priority.”

Off-the-top-of-the-head confusion

Some of Trump’s off-the-top-of-the-head suggestions for challenging terrorism are illegal and likely to face challenge within the bureaucracy, the security services or in the courts.

They include: “taking out their families,” “closing that internet up in someway;” “frankly unthinkable” tactics that are “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding;” and confiscating Iraq’s energy resources to pay for Washington’s defence spending in the region.

The key moving parts in Trump’s policy portfolio are his interlinked promises to bring jobs and factories back from overseas, a crackdown on migrants and a drive to restore law-and-order, because of their appeal to his predominantly white “real” American supporters that black and brown Americans are stealing their jobs or are the cause of their insecurity.

In this regard there is much off-the-top-of-the-head confusion – few expect that there will be a border wall, which could cost as much as $US25 billion; and certainly not as Trump insists, that Mexico will pay for it. And his plan to round up as many as 12 million undocumented migrants reads like a years-long, logistical nightmare that comes with a $US600 billion price tag.

By Trump’s Art of the Deal ethos, his threats are a negotiation and a deal is the outcome.

Richard Nixon called it the madman theory – if he convinced foreign leaders that he was volatile and irrational; they were less likely to provoke him. Trump’s “I want to be unpredictable” claim seems to amount to the same kind of thinking.

Is it good or bad that he has no experience in government? He postures as Regan II, but Reagan I often was a more moderate version of his own rhetoric. Trump’s policies are more bullet-pointed objectives devoid of ideological roots or even of a detailed explanation of how Trump might get from point A to point B.

Contradictions are merely contradictions – he vows to protect Social Security and Medicare, but can’t wait to drive a stake through the heart of Obamacare; he praises Planned parenthood, but is opposed to abortion – which he wasn’t always opposed to; and he claims he is a true defender of LBGTQI rights, but opposes same-sex marriage.

Trump confounded the country and the world by winning the election. Does he confound all sides again – either by not meaning what he said about policy issues; or by meaning what he said about negotiating deals that work for all sides?

Does he appreciate that his sense of what he is saying might not be what his target audience hears? Through the campaign he would have Americans believe he was waving a big stick at the Chinese; but in Beijing, his America First mantra is read as what one report describes as the lament of a permissive America that will stop its banging on about human rights and will be less hung up on NATO.

And in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, Trump’s posturing about renegotiating a “disaster” deal with Tehran, is seen by some in the US as a projection of power. But in Tehran it becomes an opening for hardliners in a theocratic government to simply walk away from a deal that they never liked – because now they can blame Trump for its unravelling.

Reporters probe for some middle ground, where Trump the dealmaker senses that the bully has pushed as hard as he might – but Trump’s long-term adviser Roger Stone told The New Yorker magazine: “maybe, in the end, the courts don’t allow his temporarily ban Muslims [entering the US]. That’s fine – he can ban anyone from Egypt, from Syria, from Libya, From Saudi Arabia. He’s a Reagan-type pragmatist.”

Inexperienced, insulting and offensive

Trump campaigned against his own party almost as violently as he campaigned against Clinton and the Democrats – he insulted, he offended, he mocked.

He comes to the White House with no experience in government or in the military and much at ease with what he doesn’t know – “the day I realised it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience,” he writes in Trump: Think Like a Billionaire.

And he arrives with super-sized confidence – saying he can’t trust the US intelligence service and “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”

But he also comes with inordinate power. He’s accountable to almost no one, because his campaign accepted little outside help – most big GOP donors and many in the Republican establishment turned their backs on him. More, the GOP has retained control of both the House and the Senate; it’s well placed to expand its grip on the Senate in the 2018 midterm elections. And, there’s more – Trump gets to make an immediate Supreme Court appointment and conceivably another two more in his first term – which would fix it with a conservative 2-7 majority for possibly decades to come.

Trump comes to the White House with all the levers of power in GOP hands. And there are confidant predictions by old hands in congress that as president, Trump would be kept in line by institutional checks and balances against excessive use of power – “we have a congress. We have the Supreme Court. We’re not Romania,” Senator John McCain told The New York Times earlier this year.

But academics Jack Goldstone and Thomas Homer-Dixon are not so sure, warning: “[Trump] presents himself as the destroyer of the status quo, righter of wrongs, protector and saviour. His power as president would derive more from maintaining those roles in his followers’ eyes than from the institutional authority of the office itself.”

Trump’s protectionist gambit on trade with China is intended to force Beijing to revalue its currency to improve the US terms of trade. Trump is supremely confident that the Chinese can be prodded to act by economic pressure from Washington, but many analysts suspect he’ll induce global economic downturn, destroying as many as four million existing jobs and denying the opportunity to create as many as three million more in the US alone.

He’s equally confident he can achieve a more effective working relationship with Russia, possibly even leaving it to Moscow and its Syria ally Bashir al-Assad to take the fight to the ISIS.

Causing most alarm is Trump’s view of Washington’s defence commitments in Europe and Asia. He has suggested that Japan and South Korea should maybe acquire their own nuclear arsenals, which would end decades of US diplomacy geared at preventing such a development; and his line that Asian and NATO allies pay more for their defence is seen to undermine NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

If he acts against China, branding it as a currency manipulator on day one, what happens? Experts are warning of a trade war, in which countries like Australia will be caught in the crossfire.

But Chinese analysts are more sanguine – “more friction on trade would arise during his administration, but in general, the Republicans have proved they are capable of maintaining a stable relation with China,” according to Professor Su Hao, of the China Foreign Affairs University.

Trump and his advisers would be deft diplomats.

On China and trade, his economic adviser Dan DiMicco urges the President-elect to behave as the angry patient in a dentist’s chair – “here’s how the patient deals with the dentist: sits down in the chair; grabs the dentist by the nuts, and says, ‘you don’t hurt me, I won’t hurt you.'”

On Moscow and nuclear arms, Trump apparently offered this advice in a chance 1990 meeting with a US negotiation – he should arrive at the talks late, stand over his Soviet counterpart, stick a finger in his chest and say, “F— you!”

And there is much evidence that he has little grasp of issues that would be useful to a president – as an American avatar of the Brexit mindset, he didn’t know what it was; he seemed unaware that Moscow had annexed Crimea; he thought the Quds Force was the Kurds; and he clearly didn’t know what the “nuclear triad” was.

In Trump: Think Like a Billionaire, he quotes Richard Conniff’s The Natural History of the Rich: “Successful alpha personalities display a single-minded determination to impose their vision on the world, an irrational belief in unreasonable goals, bordering at times on lunacy.”

 

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