Trump presidency: stasis at home and abroad

New questions raised about Russian meddling in the US election

 

US presidents have often sought respite overseas from their domestic troubles, looking for achievements in foreign policy as their agendas have been thwarted at home. That hasn’t been a luxury open to Donald Trump whose chaotic presidency has been marked, in its first six months, by an ineptitude that spans the policy spectrum.

At the G20 in Hamburg, Trump put in a performance that encapsulated his own flaws. His self-defeating, bombastic positions on climate change and trade underlined how, under his watch, America is retreating from global leadership. Instead of taking the initiative by building coalitions on issues where Washington and other G20 capitals could find common ground, such as North Korea, Trump seemed only to accentuate his isolation. His exceptionally poor judgment, demonstrated through his laughable entertaining of a proposal to set up a joint “cybersecurity unit” with the Russians and his decision to ask his daughter to sit in for him at the table of world leaders, overshadowed the agreement on a limited ceasefire in Syria and other glimmers of hope.

On the home front, where Trump still has no major legislative achievement to his name, the White House badly needs focus. Trump’s aides must have hoped that Hamburg could give way to a period of relative quiet conducive to the sort of deal-making required to get the Obamacare repeal Bill through the Senate.

In that vein, Trump tweeted after his first face-to-face meeting as president with Vladimir Putin, it was “time to move forward” on Russia. Any such hopes were dashed, however, by a New York Times report that raised new questions about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. The paper revealed that Trump’s son, Donald jnr, met a Russian lawyer after being promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton last summer. This was the first public indication that at least some in the Trump campaign were willing to accept Russian help.

As it happens, one of the Trump administration’s best hopes of a significant achievement in the coming months – the collapse of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq – is only marginally connected to decisions taken since Trump took office. He has largely stuck to the Obama policy on Islamic State, also known as Isis, which included supporting proxies on the ground, denying the militants territory and staying out of the civil war.

Declarations of “victory” in Mosul may be somewhat premature – hundreds of Islamic State fighters are believed to be holed up there, and a more conventional insurgency may well follow – but the imminent defeat of the jihadists in Iraq’s second city is of immense importance. Combined with the advance of US-backed Kurds on Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria, the anti-Islamic State coalition is on the verge of a strategic and symbolic breakthrough.

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