On Jan. 20, Donald Trump will be sworn in. Until then, the dividing line between the departing and entering U.S. presidents is blurred. They muddle in one another’s handiwork wherever they can.
The magic date is Jan. 20, 2017. On this day, around noon, Donald Trump will lay his hand on a Bible and recite the oath of office, a single sentence specified in Article II of the American Constitution. Then Donald Trump is — up to then, he’s merely the president-elect, with absolutely no formal powers to decide — president of the United States, and Barack Obama, the departing officeholder, is again a private citizen.
That is how it is supposed to be, but not how it is. The closer Jan. 20 draws, the more the dividing line between the departing and incoming president is being blurred. While Obama still governs and apparently wants to take care of a few last things, Trump has already begun to govern. They do not always head in the same direction. The result: At the moment, America de facto has two presidents, who lie at cross purposes about quite important topics as well.
This state of affairs is most noticeable in Middle East policy. While Obama let the U.N. resolution against Israel’s building of settlements pass in the Security Council, Trump positioned himself entirely behind Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. First, from Trump Tower in Manhattan, he started his own diplomatic mission to stop the resolution; after that failed, he clamored for days on Twitter that Obama allegedly betrayed Israel. “Stay strong Israel,” Trump wrote. It is not long until Jan. 20, and then everything will change. An open clash of this type between a departing and a future president, and over one of the most important foreign policy topics, is unprecedented in recent U.S. history.
An Open Clash of This Type Is Unprecedented in US History
Whether for Trump it was actually about the issue or whether he was simply insulted because the old president was still making such spectacular decisions so close to the end of his term of office is not completely clear. In any case, the situation was convenient for Netanyahu, who had been kicked in the shin by practically the entire world community with the resolution: Because two completely different messages resounded from Washington, the Israeli head of state could arbitrarily select his answers. He showered Obama with reproaches; Trump, on the other hand, he gave praise.
Netanyahu reacted quite similarly to the sharp condemnation of the building of settlements by Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry. Because Trump, by his personnel choices, had long since made clear the building of further Jewish settlements in West Jordan hardly bothered him, Netanyahu could simply shrug off Kerry’s warnings as hoopla.
In the process, Trump seems to be overlooking one thing: Even if he has a different political opinion from Obama, by throwing a monkey wrench into the works, he is not only damaging the authority of his predecessor, but also that of the office he will take over himself in a few weeks. That can take its toll.
A similar divide also stands out in dealings with Russia. Obama has decided to punish the Kremlin with diplomatic sanctions on account of their interference in the American presidential election. U.S. intelligence agencies have come to the conclusion that Russia stood behind the hacker attacks on the Democrats and the publication of hundreds of embarrassing emails. The purpose of the attacks, according to the agencies, was to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton in the election and to help Donald Trump to victory. Obama presumably does not believe the Russian support decided the election, but he does not want to leave Moscow’s muddling in American democracy unpunished.
Trump has a different opinion on this matter, too — and he not only let Obama know in private, but immediately let the entire world as well. “I think we ought to get on with our lives,” Trump said on Wednesday when he was asked about the Russian hacker attacks. The matter of cyberattacks would be very non-transparent, too. "I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly — the whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on."
That was a remarkable statement. On the one hand, the U.S. government spends countless billions of dollars so their intelligence agencies know precisely, in the age of computers, what is going on. To then just brush their findings aside is at least unusual. On the other hand, the newly elected president of the United States should be able to wring out a sentence in which he defends the principle of free elections and condemns the meddling of foreign powers, even if he won. The lesson for Moscow from this: One doesn’t have to take what Obama does seriously, and one doesn’t need to be afraid of Trump. That too, more than likely, does not strengthen America’s authority.
To force Trump to take part in punishing Russia, Obama relies on publicity. Thus, a report that is as comprehensive as possible from the intelligence agencies about the hacker attacks and Moscow’s involvement in them is to be published before Jan. 20. In addition, part of the punitive measures will be announced publicly. That should prevent Trump being able to tacitly bury the matter when he is president.
Occasionally One Has the Impression That Obama Wants To Pull Trump’s Leg a Little
A third important topic, on which the old and the new send different signals, is America’s nuclear weapons. Obama always supported disarmament during his administration. Trump, on the other hand, recently tweeted out of the blue that the U.S. must “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” If that should unleash an arms race, America will win it, according to Trump. He did not explain how or why he came up with this strange security policy appraisal, which he shares with practically no one else. Foreign politicians who want to know which armament policy is valid in the U.S. can only guess. With nuclear weapons, that can lead to dangerous mistakes.
Less harmless, but no less controversial: environmental policy. Obama currently is trying to establish his reputation as a green president; per decree, he forbade oil and gas drilling in a large part of the American coastal waters in the Arctic and established new nature conservation areas in the U.S. Trump, on the other hand, filled his government team with oil managers and climate skeptics who surely will give preference to the furthering of fossil fuels above new nature conservation areas. By all accounts, it rankles Trump that Obama is also trying to determine his energy policy. Piqued, he complained a few days ago that Obama was putting “roadblocks” in his way.
Occasionally one even has the impression that Obama wants to pull his leg a little. Thus the departing president recently said he would have probably beaten Trump if he had been permitted to run for office a third time. Trump reacted predictably. “NO WAY,” he tweeted. Nevertheless, such needling changes nothing about one fact: From Jan. 20 on, Donald Trump will be the only president.