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U.S. presidential power’s limits

Feb 18,2019
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Michael Green
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

As President Trump heads toward his second summit with Kim Jong-un on Feb. 27 in Hanoi, Vietnam, his team and the North Koreans will be keeping an eye on domestic U.S. politics. Donald Trump’s deteriorating political situation at home may tempt him to go for a dramatic grand bargain in Hanoi, but he also faces new pressures from Congress and public opinion that ultimately suggest he will be more constrained than emboldened.

Before considering the scenarios for Hanoi, let’s begin with public opinion surveys, which help to paint the political landscape Trump faces on North Korea policy. There is enormous interest in North Korea, with 52 percent of Americans “extremely” or “very” concerned about Pyongyang’s nuclear program according to Associated Press (AP) polls, and Americans rating North Korea the No. 1 threat after terrorism according to the 2018 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey on American attitudes toward the world. If Trump could convincingly end the nuclear threat, he would reap an historic political windfall. His problem is that 91 percent of Americans do not trust Kim Jong-un, according to the Chicago Council survey. More to the point, Americans do not really trust Donald Trump on foreign policy, with the AP survey showing that 63 percent of Americans disapprove of his performance in foreign affairs — a number that is higher than his overall negative ratings around 52-55 percent.

However, Trump’s support rate among Republicans remains high, with 78 percent of party members approving of his foreign policy performance in the AP survey. Republicans only account for about one-third of registered voters, but if Trump’s polarizing politics drive Democrats to nominate a candidate from the left, he may benefit from the emergence of a third independent candidate who siphons off votes from the center and allows him to win with only 40 percent of the electorate. That is a risky strategy for the 2020 presidential race, but polarization may also be the only strategy Donald Trump knows. Ultimately, it may mean his narrative about the Hanoi summit with Kim Jong-un only needs to resonate with his political base. Could he just go for a game-changing deal to excite his core supporters?

He could, except for one new factor that is boxing him in: bipartisan Congressional opposition to moves by Trump that harm U.S. alliances. In the case of Korea, that opposition began quietly before the Singapore Trump-Kim Summit when Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska heard about Trump’s frequent demands to his military and diplomatic advisors that the United States use a peace treaty as pretext to withdraw troops from the Korean Peninsula. Sullivan introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would limit the President’s ability to withdraw troops without Congressional approval. More senior Republicans, such as Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, watered-down the Sullivan amendment and urged his colleagues to give the President the benefit of the doubt. Republicans are no longer willing to do that, however. Trump’s surprise announcement in Singapore that he was halting U.S.-South “war games” and wanted to eventually withdrawal troops from the peninsula was the first blow. Then, in January, the president suddenly ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, prompting the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and a public letter from the Secretary implying that Trump was poised to do further damage to U.S. alliances. Heretofore hesitant Republicans — who had been afraid to challenge Trump because of his popularity among their own supporters — swung into action. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell led the charge with the Middle East Policy Bill that passed 77-23 on Feb. 5 requiring the administration to certify that conditions have been met for the enduring defeat of Al Qaeda and ISIS before initiating any significant withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria or Afghanistan. The same formula was adopted in the House by Congressmen Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin) in the “United States and Republic of Korea Alliance Support Act” which would restrict any use of funds to withdraw U.S. troops below 22,000 on the Korean Peninsula without the Joint Chiefs of Staff certification that the South is fully capable of defending itself following such a reduction.

Members of Congress eyeing the Hanoi Summit clearly worry that the president might use even the hollowest agreement with Kim as an excuse to withdraw from the Korean Peninsula, and they are now poised to stop him if he tries. They reflect public opinion in their districts on the U.S. military presence in Korea. In the 2018 Chicago Council survey 74 percent of Americans support a long-term U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula and 64 percent support sending more troops to defend South Korea if it is attacked — the highest numbers on record. Only 18 percent support a complete withdrawal even if North Korea denuclearizes. In other words, Republicans and Democrats alike are on safe political ground visibly opposing Donald Trump’s flirtation with a withdrawal from Korea.

What do these domestic political dynamics suggest could happen in Hanoi? Trump will need new words from Kim Jong-un that allow the president to tell at least his core supporters that there was progress since Singapore. However, if Trump agrees to a peace agreement and to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea to entice Kim, he will be immediately checkmated by the Congress. And if Trump offers to lift economic sanctions on the North without concrete steps toward denuclearization, such as a credible declaration by Pyongyang of all nuclear and missile related facilities, he will likely face Congressional legislation limiting his options to only modest humanitarian gestures. In Singapore, Kim Jong-un may have thought he hit the jackpot with Trump, but in Hanoi he will learn about the limits of Presidential powers in a democracy.