Much Ado About Everything No 37: Playing Hardball

Playing hardball at home and abroad to bolster his base is at the heart of Donald Trump's reelection strategy.

It is worthwhile just stepping back from individual news items this morning to look at the bigger picture emerging from Washington as follows.

Congressional Oversight: The top story in much of the press this morningis domestic, ie President Donald Trump's decision to use executive privilege to shield the balance of the Mueller report from Congress. To be fair to Mr Trump, in principle he may have a point in that a great deal of what was redacted from the version which US Attorney General William Barr sent to Congress is Grand Jury material and cannot, therefore, be released into the public domain under US law. This does NOT mean necessarily that members of Congress cannot see these sections as privileged information; but at least one top US law expert, speaking on the BBC World news yesterday (admittedly a close friend of Mr Barr), thinks that if the Democrats go to court over this they will probably lose. It is, of course, a similar story with the US Treasury refusing to authorise the release of Mr Trump's tax returns in response to a Congressional request, although the same legal expert reckons that the Democrats will win this case if it goes to court (which we my reasonably assume it will). It will be interesting to see if the Trump Administration follows through in the same mode by trying formally to block Congress's efforts to get Robert Mueller to testify.

China/US trade: Although the Chinese delegation is in Washington for a further round today Mr Trump is continuing to ramp up the pressure through tough talk. I stand by the view I expressed earlier in the week that a deal between the two is still likely in the coming days; but this tough talk is certainly putting agreement at risk, in my view, rather than helping move things forward.

Iran: The US is really ramping up the pressure on the regime in Tehran, accelerating the deployment to the Gulf of a carrier group (which, it should be acknowledged, was in fact due in the region shortly in any case) and sending in B52s — not to mention Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's surprise visit to Iraq (for which he ditched at short notice a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel) and generally hawkish rhetoric, and yesterday's imposition by the US of unilateral sanctions on Iran's metal industry.

North Korea: Well down the headlines this morning, but still relevant, is the news that dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington has degenerated to the point where the US has abandoned, for now at least, its efforts to retrieve the remains of its servicemen lost in the Korean war.

UK/US: In his joint press conference yesterday with UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Mr Pompeo did his best to be diplomatic over Huawei. But his reference in a speech to Margaret Thatcher and "going wobbly" was not only sticking the knife in but giving it a sharp twist too.

Putting all this together, it looks very much as if the Trump campaign team (and don't for one moment believe that the 2020 election is not a major factor in this) has concluded that their man needs to be portrayed as hard-hitting across the board to maximise his chances of a second term, consistent with the views expressed in an Financial Times op-ed by Gideon Rachman earlier this week (subscriber access only but also accessible on the Alavan Independent Facebook page). This extract from the article is particularly pertinent.

"When many Americans feel frightened that both US power and their own living standards are in decline, Mr Trump is making an appeal to American ruthlessness. The US president says to voters that the country cannot afford to be “politically correct” any more. The way to Make America Great Again, in the words of his slogan, is to rediscover the ruthless instincts that made America great in the first place.... The president’s approach signals to voters that he too is a tough guy. And it has the added political benefit of playing into America’s domestic culture wars. By celebrating presidents like Jackson, and recently praising the Confederate commander and slave-owner, Robert E. Lee, Mr Trump is telling rightwing Americans what they want to hear — that there is nothing to apologise for in American history."

On this basis we should brace ourselves for much more of the same, possibly starting with the announcement of the imposition of tariffs on auto imports from Europe in the next couple of days.

Alastair Newton