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Trump’s last-minute policy moves could have deep, long-lasting impacts

As the days dwindle in the Trump administration, they are still issuing rules and regulations, sanctions and designations that could have impacts both abroad and at home, beyond the end of the administration. William Brangham and Nick Schifrin discuss Trump's orders and how some of them might hamstring the Biden administration.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the days dwindle in the Trump administration, they are still issuing rules and regulations, sanctions and designations that could have impact both abroad and at home beyond the end of the administration.

    Here now, William Brangham.

  • William Brangham:

    Thanks, Judy.

    It is somewhat customary for a president at the end of their term to issue a slew of orders. And Mr. Trump is no different.

    But from Iran to Yemen, from China to Cuba, and on the environment, this administration is issuing orders that could have deep, long-lasting impacts.

    Our Nick Schifrin is here to help me unpack some of these.

    Nick, before we get into the specifics, when you look at the overall sweep of what the Trump administration is doing, is this just normal diplomatic business that happens at the end of every administration, or is this different?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Longtime diplomats call the slew, as you just called it, of moves, William, somewhat unusual because most administrations do hold off on major policy decisions as they're heading out the door.

    Senior Trump administration officials insist to me that they have been pushing these policies for months, if not years, and are making them publicly, with the hopes that they survive the transition.

    But, William, they do have political side effects. They can hamstring the Biden team and allow politicians from the Trump administration to criticize Biden if he changes their policies.

  • William Brangham:

    So, let's walk through some of those major ones.

    Let's start with China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, perhaps the most significant moves have been on China.

    Just this week, the Department of Homeland Security banned all cotton and tomato from Xinjiang. That is the ostensibly autonomous region where Beijing systematically persecutes the Uyghur Muslim minority, including what the U.S. calls widespread forced labor.

    Earlier today, I spoke to Customs and Border Protection Executive Assistant Commissioner Brenda Smith.

  • Brenda Smith:

    We have worked over the last really almost two years to identify specific entities that use forced labor.

    Now we believe it's at a scale that the entire region is really implicated or at high risk of using forced labor in those production processes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now, because of complicated supply chains, it is nearly impossible to actually enforce this action.

    But, by doing so, it is forcing companies to examine and change their supply chains. And that means this that decision could affect 20 percent of the world's cotton.

    Now, there are also White House moves, including executive orders that would restrict Americans from investing in certain Chinese businesses, and bans on Chinese apps.

    And then there's Taiwan. For decades, the White House has restricted bilateral meanings and the status of its diplomats that work on Taiwan as part of its relationship with Beijing. But, last weekend, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared any restrictions — quote — "null and void."

    The Trump administration, frankly, had already been pushing the boundaries on those restrictions. But the State Department basically decided to blow them up, rather than rewrite them.

    The implication, Pompeo, of course, gets to criticize the Biden team for being soft on China if they go back to the old restrictions. And the Biden officials who I have talked to have said that they will respect traditional guidelines on Taiwan, although, William, I should say that members of that team have long promised to confront Beijing and support Taiwan.

  • William Brangham:

    A lot of moves on that front alone.

    But let's also shift to the Middle East. We know Iran that has been a preoccupation of the Trump administration, and, since the election, it sounds like that has not changed a bit.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the Trump administration has sanctioned more than two dozen Iranian entities since the election. That's on top of 1,500 sanctions since 2017.

    The most significant rhetorical flourish was Pompeo tying Iran to al-Qaeda.

    Sec. of State Mike Pompeo: Al-Qaida has centralized its leadership inside of Tehran.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now, that is an analytical conclusion that former intelligence officials tell me is more of an opinion than a provable fact.

    But perhaps the most controversial decision made has been about Yemen, where a war has killed hundreds of thousands of people. A Saudi-led coalition have been trying to unseat Houthi rebels who took control of the Capitol back in 2014. They are backed by Iran.

    Now, this weekend, Pompeo declared the Houthis a terrorist organization. That decision was quickly and widely condemned by humanitarians, who say it will only make the world's worst humanitarian crisis worse.

    Take a listen just this morning to World Food Program head and former Republican Governor David Beasley briefing the Security Council.

  • David Beasley:

    It's going to be catastrophic. It literally is going to be a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of innocent people in Yemen. It needs to be reevaluated, and, quite frankly, it needs to be reversed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    All of this has been happening as Iran has taken major steps to advance its nuclear program just in the last few weeks, including enriching uranium to 20 percent.

    Now, critics of these moves, William, once again describe them as an attempt to tie Biden's hands ahead of promised diplomacy with Iran. Administration officials say they're finally making policy decisions they have been pushing for months.

  • William Brangham:

    Nick, the secretary of state also put Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. What's the rationale for that? And what does that mean for the Biden administration?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, you will recall Obama visited Havana, normalized relations, and removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

    The Trump administration spent four years undoing that effort, leading to last weekend's announcement. The State Department cited Cuba's harboring of rebel leaders from Colombia, as well as some American fugitives, and its support for Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.

    But the administration had already imposed many of the restrictions on Cuba that come with being a state sponsor of terrorism, William, so there's no large practical impact. Critics say, once again, it's designed to be a bit of a spoiler for the Biden administration.

  • William Brangham:

    And these changes, these last-minute changes, also echo what the Trump administration has been doing on the environmental front as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:


    Very quickly, William, we have seen a lot of push on environmental regulations from the Trump administration in the last four years.

    These new regulations follow that pattern, governing everything from greenhouse gas emissions, safety of chemicals, migratory birds, who gets to profit off federal lands.

    Not only are some of these last-minute moves controversial, of course, the Arctic drilling, but, also, critics say that the way some of these moves have been made will make them very difficult for the Biden administration to undo.

  • William Brangham:

    Nick Schifrin, thanks for keeping us abreast of all this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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