It is now a familiar maneuver. President Donald Trump mixes bold rhetoric with a lofty promise — and then sets up a Congress controlled by his own party as a scapegoat for the potential failure.
Trump did it yet again Friday by punting action on the Iran nuclear deal to lawmakers.
After calling the Obama’s administration’s agreement “the worst” and “the stupidest” pact the United States ever brokered, the president announced Friday he will not remove the country he now leads from the multi-country framework. Instead, the next step in the delicate foreign policy dance lies in the hands of a House and Senate not exactly known for quick and decisive action.
Candidate Trump often railed against the pact and then-President Barack Obama for agreeing to terms that relieved sanctions on Tehran in return for allowances such as international inspections of its nuclear facilities. He jumped from rural Southern towns and Rust Belt cities, toggling between promises to either rip up or renegotiate what he described in so many words as Obama’s no good, very bad deal.
The former allowed him to criticize Obama and fire up his conservative base, and the latter was useful in selling himself as the ultimate deal-maker and perhaps the one man who could hammer out an agreement that would, at long last, get the United States a deal worthy of its stature.
If one listened closely to Trump in recent days, it sounded almost like a sure thing that he would hold a presidential lighter to what was one of his predecessor’s major foreign policy legacy items and cast its ashes alongside those from the Paris climate pact he removed the U.S. from and a slew of Obama-era regulations he boastfully helped terminate.
Speaking to a conference of conservative activists earlier Friday, Trump called Iran “a terrorist nation like few others.” After serving them rhetorical red meat for several minutes, he suggested a muscular announcement on Iran was ahead: “This afternoon, in a little while, I’ll be giving a speech on Iran. … And I think you’re going to find it very interesting.”
The crowd in the packed hall at a Washington hotel cheered loudly.
Later during the morning remarks, he grouped Iran into a class of “rogue regimes” that also included North Korea, the “communist dictatorship of Cuba and the socialist oppression of Venezuela.” Amid applause, he promised his administration would not “not lift the sanctions on these repressive regimes until they restore political and religious freedom for their people.”
That line might have seemed like just another in a long speech that mostly was intended to excite a crowd that represented his political base. But it offered a telling piece of foreshadowing: There was no suggestion of restoring the sanctions on Iran that were waived when the 2015 nuclear pact was finalized.
The bold words that made his disgust of Obama’s deal obvious were there once Trump began speaking about his decision a few hours later from the ornate Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House.
“As I have said many times, the Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” the president said, slamming the agreement for providing Iranian leaders with billions of dollars that helped boost their economy and could be used to fund terrorists.
During the big announcement, he also said Iran had “committed multiple violations of the agreement,” including alleged ones related to heavy water, centrifuges and inspections refusals.
“This, as president of the United States, is unacceptable,” Trump said in what sounded like a rhetorical buildup toward announcing the United States was leaving the 2015 agreement. Only it was nothing of the sort.
“I am directing my administration to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons,” Trump said during his much-anticipated remarks on his decision.
That effectively means Trump will allow Congress to decide whether to keep the status quo, slap the waived sanctions back on Tehran and blow up the 2015 deal, or set up what his aides describe as “trigger points” that likely would put the nuclear pact in jeopardy.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday evening told reporters that bringing Congress into the decision-making is meant to express a “full sense” of the U.S. government that “we have to deal with this now rather than later.”
Trump prefers the third option, and tying those “trigger points” to Iranian actions on things such as its ballistic missile program, Tillerson said. But if lawmakers abide, the White House’s preferred way ahead would relieve Trump of having to take any additional action once a trigger was set off.
That amounts to a punt within the larger punt.
Trump and his national security team spent nine months studying every aspect of the Iran deal, a review that prompted them to fashion a new U.S. strategy for dealing with the Islamic republic. After that work was complete, the decision was Trump’s on whether his first action vis-a-vis Tehran would match his tough talk or fall short.
And he essentially never sent his offense onto the field. In short, using the parlance of the most American sport, football, this uniquely American president punted on first down.
Tillerson was repeatedly asked Thursday why the president was essentially giving up some of his executive powers to run America’s foreign policy and negotiate with other countries. He tried to cast the decision to bring in 535 of Trump’s not-so-closest friends in Congress — at least, not thus far — as an attempt to foster a unified message.
Trump has called this play before.
As a candidate, he promised to repeal and replace Obama’s 2010 health care law early in his administration. But when it came time to craft legislation to do just that, he left the details to a fractious GOP caucus. They have yet to send him a final bill.
On taxes, Trump’s White House earlier this year released a one-page summary of the president’s demands for legislation. But again, the chief executive has delegated the tough work of hammering out a consensus among members of his own party to a handful of chamber and key committee leaders.
On health care, the president told the Value Voters Summit earlier Friday that he has no choice but to take “a little different route than we had hoped” to addressing the health care law.
Why? Because, he said, lawmakers “forgot what their pledges were.”
Administration officials were already setting up such a blame game on the Iran deal before Trump announced his decision.
Asked about his message to Congress during the Thursday evening briefing, which was embargoed until nearly midday Friday, Tillerson noted lawmakers complained in 2015 that Obama did not give them a chance to weigh in on the nuclear accord.
“Here is your opportunity to express this view,” the secretary of state said.
The problem is some lawmakers who will be at the center of deciding just what to do in response to Trump’s latest punt have little clue how to respond.
“This talk of decertifying the agreement, then kicking it to Congress for some sort of magical fix just doesn’t make sense,” House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel of New York said Thursday. “I’m not quite sure how that would work.”
No clear path?
Some national security experts also see a murky path ahead.
Elizabeth Rosenberg and Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security see the White House’s action as an attempt to apply “leverage” over the other global powers that joined the Obama administration in striking the deal with Iran: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China.
“This is a very risky gambit that is unlikely to work. … It requires a highly coordinated approach with Congress, which the administration has thus failed to execute on other issues,” according to Rosenberg and Goldenberg, who both served in the Obama administration. “There is a danger that Congress moves ahead on its own and kills the nuclear agreement, or that it simply refuses to act at all, pushing the issue back to the executive branch and forcing the president to decide to keep waiving sanctions or reimpose them to kill the deal.”
The move is also eyebrow-raising because Trump’s own chief of staff John F. Kelly, just 24 hours before, said his boss had developed a “great frustration” with Congress just nine months into his four-year term.
Trump concluded his remarks in the opulent White House reception room by warning that the nuclear pact “will be terminated” unless lawmakers act and Iranian leaders behave.
That’s something he’s said before.