For all the comparisons between the British referendum vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump in the United States five months later, one clear difference between Brexit and the Trump presidency has emerged. Whereas it has become clearer that the UK is heading for what has been called a hard Brexit – a sharp break with adverse consequences for trade between the UK and the EU – it seems that the US has got itself a soft Trump.
The consistent theme of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, which ended today, is that when he meets an object, movable or not, he turns out to be a surprisingly resistible force. One of his first actions was to impose what he called a “Muslim ban”, additional travel restrictions on people arriving in the US from a somewhat arbitrary list of Muslim-majority countries. This met the obstacle of the American courts, was struck down, redrafted, struck down again and is now in abeyance.
Then the President lent his support to the healthcare bill drawn up by Paul Ryan, leader of the Republicans in Congress, to cut the coverage of Obamacare, but it failed even before its first contact with the electoral reality of a vote in the House of Representatives. It was withdrawn and there is no prospect of the repeal of Obamacare getting through Congress now.
As for the wall that Mr Trump was going to build along the southern border (and for which Mexico was going to pay), it was described as “symbolic of better border security” the other day by Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator.
As Xenia Wickett of Chatham House writes for The Independent today, President Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with Mexico, Canada, Australia and others, as he said he would. And he has appointed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, although Congress had to change its rules to do so. But, “when judged by his own expectations, Donald Trump is woefully failing”.
Just this week he has reversed his position on Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade deal that is already in force with Canada and Mexico, saying merely that he would like to “renegotiate” it. And he has said that, having not known much about Nato when he rubbished it during his election campaign, he now thought that it is sufficiently focused on his priority of fighting terrorism to mean that it is a worthwhile organisation after all.
These are all welcome retreats from the wilder shores of campaign rhetoric. They are also welcome signs that President Trump can be pushed around by arguments against doing unwise things and can be constrained by the checks and balances of the US Constitution. Those who argued during the election campaign that the candidate’s rhetoric should not be taken too seriously have been, by and large, vindicated, and in a remarkably short space of time.
Those who took a more alarmist view cannot rest easy yet, however. President Trump’s foreign policy has been unpredictable. Contrary to campaign warnings against Barack Obama’s possible intervention in Syria, Mr Trump has enforced his predecessor’s red line against the use of chemical weapons there. He has been warm to China and cold to Russia: the opposite of his campaign language. And his bellicosity towards the pauper tyranny of North Korea does not feel like a strategy with a reassuring endgame.
Still, we should be grateful, on the evidence of his first 100 days, that President Trump, constrained by the system against which he railed so volubly on the hustings, has turned out to be softer in practice than the choleric bully he appeared to be.
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