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This week, an anonymous opinion piece in the New York Times and a new book by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward both claimed that aides work around President Donald Trump to “thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
Among other concerns, the accounts have raised questions about how a “two-track presidency,” as the op-ed author put it, might affect America’s foreign relationships.
To many foreign commentators, the revelations weren’t much of a surprise. In the past few months, the world has seen Trump’s penchant for “autocrats and dictators,” the op-ed author wrote, while “the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly.”
In North Korea, Trump praised regime leader Kim Jong Un, though his administration continues to back sanctions against his country.
For foreign leaders, the release of the op-ed and book could deepen the question of who speaks for America, said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, particularly at a time when the U.S. is trying to work through tensions with China and a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico. “It undermines the president’s effectiveness and authority,” he said.
While critics of Trump may like to see his standing abroad diminished, Hamid said, the two-track presidency could set a dangerous precedent. The next president could be just a controversial as Trump — whether a Republican, a Democrat or a socialist who is considered outside the mainstream — and with this White House in mind, those administrations could feel more comfortable forming a coalition to undermine that leader’s agenda, too. “How do we feel about unelected officials and other bureaucrats undermining a democratically elected president? Are we as Americans comfortable with that?”
Kim Wallace, managing director, United States at the Eurasia Group, said the book and column show “we have a constitutional crisis” if aides are making decisions for the president instead of following the procedures outlined under the U.S. Constitution for removing a president who is unfit.
This subversion could directly affect how other countries’ leaders deal with the U.S., Wallace said. At best, he said, other heads of state would just wait out whatever it is they are negotiating.
Take the tensions and tariff battle between China and the U.S., Wallace said. “I cannot imagine anything other than Chinese President Xi Jinping and his team have concluded that time has become one of their more important allies as they see the U.S. capital city in crisis.”
The same could hold true for NAFTA talks with Canada and Mexico.
“I doubt very seriously that the Canadians … feel an urgency to come to a conclusion on trade talks under any kind of artificial deadline,” said Wallace. Talks could stall as leaders wait to see whether tensions among the branches of government and within the White House will blow over or get worse, he said.
As for U.S. enemies? “At some point you can imagine adversaries will feel that the destabilization of Washington presents opportunities for those countries to add to that destabilization,” Wallace added.
“If anyone ever wanted to invade America, now’s the time,” GQ correspondent Julia Ioffe, quoting an anonymous friend, wrote in a Tweet that soon went viral.
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who also served as White House chief of staff, weighs in on Thursday’s PBS NewsHour.
From the president’s perspective, the op-ed confirms what Trump has believed all along — that the establishment is working against him, said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Trump called the opinion piece “gutless” when asked about it at a gathering of the nation’s sheriffs. As for the book, Trump deemed it a “work of fiction,” pointing to statements from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly that refuted the book’s claims.
Supporters have jumped behind this thinking, too.
If an American president is being undermined in matters of foreign affairs and diplomacy, “is that something we’re comfortable saying on the level of principle? I think that’s an open question, and I’m not particularly comfortable with it,” Hamid said.
Larisa Epatko produced multimedia web features and broadcast reports with a focus on foreign affairs for the PBS NewsHour. She has reported in places such as Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Haiti, Sudan, Western Sahara, Guantanamo Bay, China, Vietnam, South Korea, Turkey, Germany and Ireland.
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