US foreign policy a tug of war between Trump, staff
© AFP/File | According to Bob Woodward's account, when Donald Trump urged him to assassinate Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad 2017, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hung up the phone and and said: "We're not going to do any of that"
A secret "resistance" is working from within to cushion the United States from Donald Trump's worst instincts, according to damning accounts of his leadership that rattled the corridors of power this week.
The alleged gap between the president's orders and what his mistrustful lieutenants actually do has been most apparent in bombshell revelations about the White House approach to foreign policy.
Anecdote after anecdote in an anonymously published New York Times article and an incendiary book by veteran investigative reporter Bob Woodward have painted the same picture of a "two track presidency."
Woodward's "Fear: Trump in the White House," due for release next week, offers perhaps the most disquieting examples of aides plotting to head off potential foreign policy disasters.
The reporter who made his name bringing down Richard Nixon describes West Wing aides and other senior officials taking more measured steps time and again to mitigate Trump's decisions.
Backed by hundreds of hours of taped conversations, Woodward recounts that Trump wanted to have Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad assassinated in 2017.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hung up the phone, according to Woodward, and said: "We're not going to do any of that. We're going to be much more measured."
Woodward describes how Gary Cohn, Trump's former top economic advisor, swiped a letter from the president's desk to avoid him canceling a trade agreement with strategic ally South Korea.
Consulted later by a colleague worried Trump was poised to sign a decree pulling the United States out of the NAFTA trade pact with Mexico and Canada, Cohen reportedly replied: "I can stop this."
"I'll just take the paper off his desk."
- Determination -
The New York Times op-ed, published anonymously by a senior administration official, alleged that the president "complained for weeks" after being "boxed into" expelling a large number of Moscow's spies as punishment for the poisoning of a Russian double-agent in Britain.
"In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un," the piece said. It accused Trump of displaying little genuine appreciation for "the ties that bind us to allied, like-minded nations."
"Trump wants to be Putin's friend, but in the meanwhile, the administration continues its work, methodically, makes the determination that the Russians are responsible for the poisoning and, according to the law, take sanctions," said a US official convinced that other governments pay more attention to such punishment than to Trump's rants. The "two track" presidency has been at its most apparent, according to Trump critics, in US relations with Russia. This was especially the case after Trump's summit with Putin in July, when he sided with the Russian leader's denials, rather than US intelligence agencies' insistence, that Moscow interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. Under pressure from lawmakers who are hostile to Putin, Trump later backtracked, albeit half-heartedly, and said he supported his intelligence people. On North Korea, too, a sort of two track diplomacy seems to have been in place since the summit during which Trump met with the hermetic Asian nation's leader Kim Jong Un. Daniel Sneider, of Stanford University, said most US officials working on North Korea policy were focused on keeping Trump from meeting again with Kim, to whom they say he made concessions without getting anything in return.
- On the sidelines -
"The (Pyongyang) regime expressed a clear preference for dealing only with President Trump," said Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. While Kim praised his American counterpart personally, North Korean officials have sought to keep Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines. This dynamic played out again Thursday as Kim said he trusted Trump in the process to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. Trump immediately fired back on Twitter: "Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!" On Syria, Trump said in June he wanted nothing more to do with the war-torn country, forcing his civilian and military advisors to explain why the US had to remain committed to resolving the conflict. On other issues, from the Paris climate change accord to the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, internal conflicts within the administration were won by Trump. While serving as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, whom some lawmakers described as a buffer against White House chaos along with Mattis, managed for a while to dissuade Trump from leaving the Iranian nuclear accord. Tillerson's right hand man, Brian Hook, even reached a deal with European allies to toughen the text, diplomats say. But it was all in vain as Tillerson was fired in March and two months later Trump abandoned the nuclear accord.