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The Sunday Show: Factors That Can Influence Trump’s Decisions
12 February, 2017

We spoke to three American experts, discussed internal and external factors with regard to the limits of Trump's presidential powers and how they may affect legislation and judicial procedures.

Does he have the power to make these policies? What will happen if Trump’s policy with Russia and Putin develops beyond the status we have at present? Does the court system pose a challenge to the American President? 

Public policy

Alexandra Vacroux: We do have three branches of government and Trump is only the executive branch, so we are counting on the fact that there is a legislator and judicial branch and that the checks and balances in the constitution are going to come into play if he ever over steps his authority. We have already seen that happening on the immigration order, with the courts putting a stay on that.

I am not too sure that we have seen the actual limits to his power yet, on the one hand he hasn’t tried to do anything concrete, there have been a lot of pronouncement’s and phone calls, but there haven’t been major policies if we exclude the immigration ban as being primarily being domestic.

David Herszenhorn: Donald Trump is very sensitive to criticism in the media, at the end of the day. We have to remember that in the United States the public drives Public Policy, so these members of Congress will decide whether to confront him based on what they are hearing from their constituents from home.

One potentially very important factor is the business community. The American business community reacted very strongly including technology companies to the immigration ban. Trump sees himself as a businessman, but if the business community starts to rebel and speak out against his policies and if the stock market starts to suffer, we could see a shift where there will be a real check there from this society.

Foreign policy

Alexandra Vacroux: One of the things we have seen on foreign policy is that it doesn’t look like Donald Trump has been thinking very deeply about a lot of the issues, so he is in a learning process. He is learning from a lot of the people he has spoken to and all those that have given him feedback from around him. I think he will find Teresa May as the easiest person to speak to because he supports Brexit. He does not seem to be particularly responsive to Angela Merkel, but we are really going to have to wait and see, he hasn’t been particularly Euro Friendly.

David Herszenhorn: Congress can legislate if it decides on what legislative steps can be taken in the event Trump decides to lift sanctions with Russia. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the Senate, has actually been very careful, but you have seen some of the Republicans press quite a lot of support but if and when that tension arises, they will not be afraid to clash with the President if they disagree with him.    

Russia is obviously one of the most sensitive issues facing the new President because, during the election there was a portrayal of him as close to Putin as Russia supporting Trump interfering in the election hacking. It’s hard to know what to expect, will there be what we call a ‘Romance’ between Putin and Trump or will he realize this is a very dangerous relationship?

Jeffery Mankoff: The fact that there is so much public uproar over the potential Russian role in the election, that Trump has been forced to be a little bit cautious in terms of how he’s pursuing this idea of a rapprochement with Russia. I think over the longer term we’ll see how much remains in the public eye.

 

Jeffery Mankoff, Deputy director and senior fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program

Russian approach

Jeffery Mankoff: Firstly Trump thought NATO was obsolete, and he thought allies where not paying enough for the security guarantees that the US was providing, I must state that Trump did express it in a rude way, but that is a long standing complaint that American leaders.

I don’t think we have any evidence that the actual election voting itself was hacked, so the question is whether or not the Russians used propaganda to somehow influence the election by discrediting Hilary Clinton. It’s impossible to say whether or not that would have made any difference in the election, but it does appear that there were at least attempts at interference, certainly with the Democratic National Committee.

I think it’s very hard to predict what Trump is or is not going to do. He’s proven himself to be very malleable; to say different things to different people at different times, and on Russia policy in particular, it’s clear he’s listening to a lot of different voices…

During the campaign the effort to promote a good relationship with Russia came at the expense of a focus on Ukraine, and mostly it was the absence of discussion on Ukraine that was notable during the campaign. I think now that Trump is in power, and is meeting with people like Tymoshenko, and is actually learning about what is at stake in Ukraine, some of the things that he thought might be possible when he was just talking in empty rhetorical terms are proving to be much harder, and that reality is going to act as a constraint specifically on Ukraine and the sanctions, but more generally in terms of his approach to Russia.

This issue of territorial integrity and rules, I think becomes really important when you think of it in the context of the US-China relationship. So, if Trump says it’s ok for Russia to unilaterally change borders in Eastern Europe, that makes it much harder for him to make the opposite case about China, potentially changing the status-quo in the South China Sea, or going after Taiwan.

 

(From left to right) Volodymyr Yermolenko and David HerszenhornChief or Brussels bureau, Politico

David Herszenhorn: I don’t think that this issue [of Russian interference] is going away so fast, and part of it is because Trump’s comments, his unconventional statements, have made it OK for Democrats in the opposition to now raise criticism or allegations that would have otherwise been unthinkable in American politics. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives asking out loud, ‘is Russia blackmailing the President of the United States?’. I mean that would have been seen as something out of bounds, to raise that question about the President, but the fact it’s a question that she has raised, and other members of Congress, including Republicans, are demanding full investigation into what happened during the election and what was the extent of that hacking. So, while Trump and his advisers are open to a different type of relationship with Putin, and with Putin’s Russia, it’s not clear that they’ll be able to get there so quickly without running into a lot of political trouble at home, and that’s their first concern.

For him to lift sanctions and not get anything from Russia in return, I think would be unthinkable, that would make him look weak, and the question is, what is Vladimir Putin willing to give in return for the lifting of those sanctions?

 

Alexandra Vacroux, the Executive Director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University

Alexandra Vacroux: I think there is a fundamental mistrust of Russia in the American Congress that runs much deeper than it does through Trump, and if they fear that he is likely to give in to Russia, they might come up and decide that Congress has to take a stand here.

I suspect that Trump doesn’t have a policy on Ukraine yet. I think that he has been hearing a lot of voices telling him that Russian aggression is a serious problem, starting with the Crimean annexation, but also the continuation of the conflict in the east. And I think it’s been made important enough that he’s going to have to think about it, and think about it when he’s dealing with Russia.

Ukraine

David Herszenhorn: You see Trump evolving on issues, changing some of the things he’s said, he has now said the annexation of Crimea was illegal. I think he’s figuring out where Ukraine is, where Crimea is, where the border is, where the conflict is taking place.

Because of the absence of major US economic interest here, Ukraine does have that challenge of convincing Trump why is it important to focus on the Russian relationship in the context of Ukraine, or the Ukrainian relationship in that context.

 

Jeffery Mankoff: There needs to be rules. The international order needs to be respected, and if Russia is acting unilaterally, violating boundaries, this is not only bad for Ukraine, this is bad for the United States and for the rest of the world.

Alexandra Vacroux: Ukraine is really on the frontline of the conflict with Russia. If the United States is interested in matching Russian at least as a great power, and that’s certainly what Russia would like us to be thinking, that the way that Russian military technology is being used in Ukraine and Syria gives us an opportunity to understand how its developed and how it’s evolved. In addition, the way that Ukraine has been fighting the hybrid war and, to some extent, cyber-attacks gives us some information and some knowledge about what techniques are being used. And so, it might be that the Ukrainians can make an argument that they have information about how this conflict is evolving which could be of direct interest to the United States.