How Far Is Trump Willing to Go to Damage Obama’s Legacy?

Since Trump was elected, there have been rumblings that he is motivated by a desire to do as much damage as possible to Obama’s legacy of achievements. No one put that more forcefully than Ta-Nehisi Coates.

For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally…Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own.

Nowhere do we see that more clearly than in Trump’s determination to undermine the Iranian nuclear agreement. It is obvious by now that the president has no idea what is actually contained in this accord. In documenting the efforts of our European allies to maintain it amidst Trump’s assault, Julian Borger writes this:

When Trump threatened to withhold certification by a congressional deadline of 15 October, the UN general assembly in mid-September was seen by the European signatories of the agreement – the UK, France and Germany – as the last best chance to convince Trump of the dangers of destroying it…

Angela Merkel, in the final stages of an election campaign, could not attend, so it was left to Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron to use their meetings with the US president in New York to make a personal plea to keep the deal alive.

The French president made no headway. To his consternation, Trump kept repeating that under the deal, the Iranians would have a nuclear bomb in five years, and nothing Macron could say would persuade him otherwise.

May’s session with the US president two days later was equally fruitless. She used half the 50-minute meeting trying to engage Trump on the merits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but he grew testy in response. He said he had decided on what to do, but flatly refused to tell her what that was. And he shrugged off her arguments, telling her “You make your decisions; I’ll make mine”.

Trump’s responses indicate that he is completely clueless about what is contained in the agreement and that, when confronted with facts, he simply throws a temper tantrum. The picture this paints is of a two year-old crossing his arms and saying “you can’t make me!”

It is not just our European allies who are trying to inform Trump about the importance of this agreement. We heard this week from members of his national security team.

Mattis was asked at a hearing of the Senate armed services committee whether he believed it was currently in the US national security interest to remain in the agreement.

After a significant pause, the defense secretary replied: “Yes, senator, I do.”

At the same hearing, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph Dunford agreed that Iran was abiding by the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which he said had delayed Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Last week, Dunford said the US should uphold the agreement, in the absence of a clear Iranian breach, or risk losing credibility when it came to signing future agreements.

It is worth remembering that the man Trump likes to call “Mad Dog Mattis” was able to convince him to forswear the use of torture (something that didn’t involve Obama’s legacy), but has been unable to change his mind about this one.

Two months ago, Congress passed a bill that imposed new sanctions on Iran, as well as Russia and North Korea. As of yet, the administration has taken no steps to implement them. If Trump’s objection to the Iran agreement had anything to do with a policy that embraced the use of sanctions against that country, why has he failed to impose those that Congress has already approved?

At this point, it is impossible to put together a rationale for Trump’s behavior on this issue other than that he simply wants to do whatever he can to destroy this legacy achievement of the Obama administration. What is he putting at risk to do so?

Emerging from a meeting in September of the Joint Commission charged with implementing JCPOA, here is what the EU foreign affairs chief said to reporters, referencing the fact that the agreement had been enshrined in a UN security council resolution:

“This is not a bilateral agreement. This is not an agreement that involves six or seven parties,” she told reporters. “This is a UN security council resolution with an annex … So it doesn’t belong to one country, to six countries, to seven countries, to the European Union – it belongs to the international community.”

In making a passionate plea to support the deal, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) documents what is at stake.

Wake up. We are sleepwalking into an armed conflict. The hidden scandal of the Iraq War — the manipulation of intelligence to support a predetermined outcome — is now an overt political strategy to undermine a multilateral nonproliferation agreement. At a time when Iran was hurtling toward a nuclear threshold not easily undone by force or persuasion, the United States struck an accord with allies and adversaries alike that averted the solution everyone feared most — the kinetic option.

Now, those most vocal prior to the deal about the imminent threat of a nuclear Iran want to scrap the deal, put the world back on the brink of conflict, and open up a second nuclear front.

He makes a powerful comparison. Remember how often Trump critiqued the Bush administration for lying us into the war in Iraq (even though he supported it at the time)? The president is now engaged in an overt strategy that, at minimum, will destabilize the Middle East, isolate us from our allies, and ensure that no country will trust our diplomatic efforts. At worst, it could lead to a military confrontation with Iran. Since he has given us no rationale for why he is doing that, it is clear that Trump is willing to risk it all in order to negate Obama’s legacy. That is the smallness of the man who currently occupies the White House.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.