Trump’s extreme views likely to be checked by system
Despite his penchant during the campaign for making outrageous and offensive pronouncements, US President-elect Donald Trump is likely to moderate these stated views when faced with opposition from establishment figures and institutions that remain prominent players in the US political system.
As a candidate for president, Trump seemed to relish controversy, which gained him the media spotlight and aroused his political base. He defied the pundits who predicted Trump’s offensive statements would lead to his demise. He instinctively knew such comments would resonate with a significant segment of the American electorate. Even though he was consistently backed by less than 45% of the electorate, he benefitted from a high voter turnout among his supporters, which allowed him to win the presidency.
It is unclear whether Trump actually believed what he was saying or was simply pandering to this political base. His appointments and statements since the election suggest he is catering to both his base as well as the establishment. For example, while he has appointed controversial figures, such as retired army lieutenant-general Michael Flynn to be his national security adviser, who, like Trump, has made offensive comments about Muslims and Islam, he also has appointed the chairman of the Republican Party, Reince Priebus, a more mainstream figure, as his White House chief of staff.
However, if Trump tries to implement some of the more extreme things he said on national security and foreign policy issues, he is likely to encounter stiff resistance. During the campaign, Trump expressed favouring torture — specifically waterboarding — of terrorism suspects but US Senator John McCain, R-Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a strong opponent of torture, said recently: “I don’t give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do. We will not torture. My God, what does it say about America if we’re going to inflict torture on people?”
After meeting with retired US Marine Corps commander James Mattis, in line to be secretary of Defense, Trump said he was surprised by Mattis’s opposition to waterboarding. Other retired US generals have expressed similar views against waterboarding, which was used during the administration of George W. Bush but was prohibited by President Barack Obama.
Given such strong statements by McCain and the generals, it is difficult to imagine that Trump would approve waterboarding again.
Similarly, many retired and current generals remain opposed to Trump’s rhetoric on Islam and Muslims, saying that such inflammatory words undermine US relations with friendly Muslim nations and put US soldiers at greater risk overseas. Retired army general David Barno was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “I don’t think a single one of the generals, with the exception of Flynn, will buy into Trump’s view of the Islamic world. All of them will reject the notion that Islam is the problem or that Muslims are the problem.”
Trump’s many comments about currying favour with Russia in Europe and the Middle East are likely to encounter strong bipartisan resistance from Congress. Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina and the influential chairman of the Senate’s State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs appropriations subcommittee, said: “My view [on the Russians] has not changed even though Trump won” the election. They are a “bad actor in the world. They need to be reined in.” Trump will be the commander-in-chief “but Congress does have a say and role in all this”, Graham said.
Graham’s colleague Senator Ben Cardin, D-Maryland and the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he plans to introduce legislation to confront “Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine”.
Under the constitution, Trump not only will be commander-in-chief but also in charge of foreign policy. Nonetheless, Congress has the power to obstruct a president’s agenda by withholding funds for certain policies and by passing legislation prohibiting certain actions. Although there is, by custom, a degree of deference shown to a president to pursue his agenda, Congress has blocked policies that go against the prevailing consensus.
The bureaucracy, which is technically subservient to the president, can also put a brake on the White House. If Trump were to resume waterboarding of terrorism suspects, members of the intelligence community could, conceivably, refuse to carry it out by claiming it was an illegal order.
And if Republicans in Congress do get behind a controversial Trump initiative, Democrats in the Senate, although in the minority, could exercise the filibuster, a tactic that delays consideration of legislation. Because Senate Republicans are short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, Senate Democrats would have leverage over a Trump-Republican initiative.
So, even if he intends to convert his campaign rhetoric into policy, Trump will find out soon enough that, in the words of the Rolling Stones’ song, “You can’t always get what you want.”