Don’t count Trump out just yet

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY IAN BREMMER *

The votes have now been counted in the first US na­tional elec­tion of the Don­ald Trump era and, as ex­pected, the Democrats have seized ma­jor­ity con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, sig­nif­i­cantly shift­ing the po­lit­i­cal bal­ance of power away from Mr Trump’s party. The pres­i­dent’s Repub­li­can Party ex­panded its ma­jor­ity con­trol of the US Sen­ate, but the Democrats now have real power for the first time in two years.

This re­sult was not as clear a re­pu­di­a­tion of the pres­i­dent and his party as vot­ers de­liv­ered against Barack Obama’s Democrats in 2010, but it is sig­nif­i­cant none­the­less. Much more than Obama and other pres­i­dents of the past, Trump in­vited vot­ers and the me­dia to treat this elec­tion as a ref­er­en­dum on his per­for­mance in the White House. An­gry Democrats, and a good num­ber of vot­ers un­af­fil­i­ated with ei­ther party, turned out to vote against him in large num­bers.

Where does Pres­i­dent Trump go from here? How will the new re­al­ity in Wash­ing­ton in­flu­ence his for­eign pol­icy? First, Trump will face a height­ened level of po­lit­i­cal pres­sure from the op­po­si­tion party. With their House ma­jor­ity, Democrats have new pow­ers to in­ves­ti­gate the pres­i­dent, win ac­cess to White House and per­sonal Trump doc­u­ments that may deeply em­bar­rass him, and force mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, per­haps even his fam­ily, to tes­tify un­der oath be­fore Con­gress on a wide va­ri­ety of ques­tions.

There will also be pres­sure on the Demo­cratic House ma­jor­ity to im­peach the pres­i­dent. That’s es­pe­cially true given the sheer num­ber of Demo­cratic Party of­fi­cials who are about to an­nounce their can­di­dacy for pres­i­dent in 2020 and their de­sire to dis­tin­guish them­selves with Demo­cratic vot­ers with es­pe­cially tough crit­i­cism of an un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent. Democrats will likely wait un­til Spe­cial Coun­sel Robert Mueller de­liv­ers a re­port on pos­si­ble crim­i­nal con­spir­acy between the 2016 Trump pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment and the pos­si­bil­ity that Mr Trump has ob­structed jus­tice dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But de­pend­ing on what Mueller finds, Democrats will have a hard time ig­nor­ing pres­sure to move to­ward im­peach­ing the pres­i­dent.

Pres­i­dent Trump will re­spond to this pres­sure and crit­i­cism with sig­na­ture de­fi­ance, and his drive to demon­strate con­tin­u­ing po­lit­i­cal viril­ity may lead him to search for for­eign (as well as do­mes­tic pol­icy) vil­lains. The like­li­est can­di­dates for this role are Iran, Mex­ico and China, but he’ll re­main com­bat­ive even with tra­di­tional US al­lies in Europe and else­where.

Iran has proven a pop­u­lar tar­get for Trump’s ag­gres­sive ap­proach to for­eign pol­icy. Trump’s de­sire to dis­tin­guish him­self from Obama, who counted the nu­clear deal with Iran among his sig­na­ture achieve­ments, will be a re­cur­ring theme as the 2020 elec­tion ap­proaches.

Mex­ico is an­other coun­try that Trump ap­pears ever ready to crit­i­cize. Re­place­ment of the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAFTA) with the new USMCA deal with Canada and Mex­ico re­moves one ob­vi­ous point of con­tention. But the pres­i­dent’s con­fi­dence that il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion pro­vides a re­li­able boost with his sup­port base will keep the gov­ern­ment of in­com­ing Pres­i­dent An­dres Manuel Lopez Obrador on edge.

North Korea is more likely to es­cape Trump’s pres­sure. The pres­i­dent may is­sue warn­ings to force Kim Jong-un to of­fer con­ces­sions that ad­vance ne­go­ti­a­tions over de­nu­cle­ariza­tion, but just as Trump be­lieves Obama owns the US re­la­tion­ship with Iran, he knows that he owns the ef­fort to dis­arm North Korea. Ad­mis­sion of fail­ure is un­likely as Trump works to build a list of ac­com­plish­ments he can carry into the next elec­tion.

Fi­nally, there are many rea­sons why the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s trade dis­pute with China will likely con­tinue well into next year, what­ever ten­ta­tive agree­ments Trump and China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping an­nounce in the mean­time. Trump’s de­sire to per­suade vot­ers in po­lit­i­cally cru­cial man­u­fac­tur­ing states that he can force ma­jor trade con­ces­sions from China will be an im­por­tant one. And there’s close to a Wash­ing­ton con­sen­sus that a harder line is needed against Bei­jing on a host of is­sues. China may well de­cide to wait Trump out. Kim Jong-un has al­ready pro­vided other gov­ern­ments the best model for how to de­flect Trump’s pres­sure over the next two years: By smil­ing, of­fer­ing agree­ments in prin­ci­ple, stalling ne­go­ti­a­tions with the US and try­ing to wait un­til Trump is de­feated in 2020. But Trump’s po­lit­i­cal tal­ents should not be un­der­es­ti­mated, and many pres­i­dents, in­clud­ing Obama, have re­cov­ered from midterm de­feats to win re-elec­tion, some­times eas­ily.

It’s a risky move. But for any gov­ern­ment in Trump’s tar­get sites, there may not be a more ef­fec­tive de­fen­sive strat­egy. * Ian Bremmer is the pres­i­dent of Eura­sia Group and author of “Us vs Them: The Fail­ure of Glob­al­ism.”

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump speaks fol­low­ing Tues­day’s midterm con­gres­sional elec­tions, at the White House.

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