The nation has now seen how Donald Trump deals with the reality gap, that yawning chasm between the world as it is and the fantasies he peddled on the campaign trail.
No way to replace the Affordable Care Act with something better and cheaper? Blame Congress. No way to reconcile his promise to end DACA with his assertion the dreamers should rest easy? Dump the matter in Congress’s lap.
Now we’re apparently about to see Trump apply his buck-stops-there approach to international relations. The president’s team is strongly hinting Trump will leave it to Congress to decide whether to continue the nuclear deal the Obama administration brokered with Iran.
Candidate Trump regularly blasted that agreement as a “disaster” and predicted Iran would cheat on it. There was no evidence of that then, nor has there been any since. Quite the contrary. Not only has the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran is in compliance, Trump’s State Department has said so as well. And not just once, but twice. Which creates a problem for a president who as a candidate told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that “my number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
It’s clear how badly Trump wants to accuse Iran of violating the deal. “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago,” he told The Wall Street Journal in late July. Asked if he would overrule his State Department’s finding when the next report is due, in October, Trump replied: “Oh, sure,” saying of Iran, “They don’t comply.”
Actually, though there has been a minor matter or two, “there is no credible allegation that they are not now in compliance with the central points of the agreement,” notes William Tobey, former deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, and now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a Harvard Kennedy School think tank.
Trump sidesteps that reality by contending that Iran isn’t abiding by “the spirit of the agreement.” Actually, there is no larger spirit of the agreement. This was a hard-nosed transactional pact, with concrete deadlines and actions, says Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
“Imagine if a police officer pulled you over and gave you a ticket because you were violating ‘the spirit’ of the traffic laws,” he says.
Trump would be roundly rebuked if he went against the judgment of the IAEA and the State Department. But if his administration continues to certify that Iran is in compliance, it becomes ever more obvious that his campaign rhetoric was uninformed, his promise to dismantle the deal an exercise in political pandering. So how to escape that dilemma? By leaving the decision about whether to abrogate the deal to Congress, as he’s reportedly planning to do.
This matter looms larger than the cynical maneuvering of everyday Washington politics because of the perils involved. Trump is already grappling with one rogue nuclear nation, and North Korea has provided a cautionary example of just how hard it is to deter a determined nuclear aspirant.
Blowing up the Iran deal, or setting up a situation where Congress does the same, could send Iran racing for a bomb. “If the deal collapses, Iran could go that route much more quickly than North Korea did,” notes Lewis.
No minimally responsible president would risk creating that situation to save face on a foolish campaign promise.