National Column: Surprise! Trump is quite a conventional U.S. president

by Thomas Walkom

When Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, it seemed big things were in store.

His most ardent supporters saw him as a revolutionary who would, in his own words, “drain the swamp” that is Washington.

His most ardent critics saw him as a mad buffoon bent on undoing everything that is good in America.

So far, he has been neither. His rhetoric remains that of an incendiary. But most of his actions – to date – have been strikingly conventional.

From the war in Syria to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Trump has deviated little from standard U.S. practice.

Even his proposed wall along the Mexican border, a trademark Trump policy during last year’s election campaign, has been whittled down.

On Wednesday, Homeland Security chief John Kelly told a Senate committee that a wall from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific is “unlikely.” Rather, he said physical barriers, including extensions to existing border fences, will be built where necessary.

That, by the way, isn’t much different from statements made in 2006 by Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton when they supported fencing parts of the Mexican border.

Trump is certainly not an Obama clone. But neither is he a rebel against Republican orthodoxy. Domestically, the new president seems keen to push the mainstream Republican agenda of low taxes, fewer environmental rules and small government.

He has enthusiastically started to dismantle Obama’s climate change measures and, after failing once, is preparing again to take apart Obamacare, his predecessor’s health-care scheme.

But in foreign affairs, Trump’s actual policy – as opposed to his rhetorical policy – has strayed little from Obama’s.

Like Obama, Trump expresses horror at the atrocities allegedly committed by Bashar Assad’s government in the Syrian civil war – including the latest use of chemical weapons against civilians. Trump’s administration, like Obama’s, blames Russia for supporting Assad.

“How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, said this week.

Her words echoed those of Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the UN who, following the Assad regime’s relentless bombing campaign in Aleppo last year, asked Russia: “Is there no execution of a child that gets under your skin? Is there literally nothing that shames you?”

Yet, like Obama, Trump is willing to co-operate with Russia to end the war – even if that means leaving Assad in place.

When Haley said last week that the U.S. is not focused on removing Assad, she was articulating a policy that, in practical terms, began with Obama.

As a presidential candidate, Trump delighted in badmouthing China for its alleged trade sins. In power, Trump recognizes that China’s help is crucial in pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear missile ambitions and that it doesn’t pay to insult Beijing – essentially Obama’s policy.

NATO? As a candidate, Trump questioned its usefulness. As president, and like every other U.S. chief executive since 1949, he says he strongly supports the alliance.

Trump does want other NATO members to spend more on armaments.

But so did Obama, who famously tweaked Canada for its military parsimony when he addressed Parliament last year.

Russia? Trump’s desire for a thaw in U.S.-Russia relations has been the stuff of scandal in Washington. But so far, America’s approach to Russia has changed not a whit.

The U.S. still has troops in Poland facing Russia. It still opposes Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It still imposes economic sanctions on Russia.

Trade? Trump did kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership attempt to create a 12-nation trade bloc.

But Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent in the presidential race, promised to do the same.

Trump is planning to renegotiate NAFTA with Mexico and Canada. But that’s a step back from his original pledge to scrap it.

Early indications are that the U.S. will want serious concessions from the other two parties. But it appears that many of these will echo traditional American demands.

Finally, there are Trump’s border protocols. Since he became president, the media has been chock-a-block with stories detailing the difficulties some Muslim Canadians have faced entering the U.S.

The implication is that Trump’s campaign diatribes against Muslims affected the way U.S. border agents do their job.

But as the Star’s Daniel Dale has reported, the statistics don’t back this up.

In February of this year, 1,200 Canadian residents were turned back at the border.

In February 2016, under Obama, the number was 1,700.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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