U.S. President Donald Trump is rushing to leave his final mark on energy, financial and foreign policy while stalling the transition to President-elect Joe Biden — who warned that further delays in the handoff risk increasing the coronavirus death toll.
The Pentagon told military commanders on Monday it would draw down U.S. deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan to about 2,500 troops in each country by the end of the year. The announcement followed administration moves to escalate tensions with Iran and China, offering the incoming president unenviable choices as he seeks to revive international accords struck under former President Barack Obama.
Domestically, Trump is rushing to lease oil drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before Biden takes office. And Senate Republicans are trying to push through a controversial nominee for the Federal Reserve board of governors, Judy Shelton, so that the new president won’t be able to fill the vacancy.
The outgoing administration’s aggressive rear-guard tactics go well beyond past last-minute actions undertaken by parties about to lose control of the White House. Major decisions, involving both domestic and foreign policy, are in the works that Trump and his aides know Biden opposes.
The Trump appointee in charge of the General Services Administration hasn’t yet announced that Biden is the incoming president, delaying the start of a formal transition.
And with the virus surging across the country, Biden on Monday presented the standstill as a matter of life and death. “More people may die if we don’t coordinate,” he said.
One of the easiest areas for Trump to advance his vision and limit the options for his successor is in foreign policy, where the executive branch has wide latitude and the president-elect has pledged not to interfere before his inauguration.
The administration has built what it calls a “sanctions wall” against Iran in recent months to punish Tehran on human rights and terrorism grounds. To scale it back, the Biden administration would have to show that Iran has made progress in combating terrorist groups and improving its human rights record.
The new sanctions are intended to foil Biden’s plans to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, that Obama signed and Trump departed.
“These sanctions will be well predicated on Iranian bad behavior,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Depending on the sanctions, it will be much more difficult for Biden to provide a clean return to the JCPOA.”
China, too, is facing additional U.S. hostility before Trump leaves office. His national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said last week that the administration is preparing new sanctions over the Communist Party’s clampdown on opposition politicians in the former British colony of Hong Kong.
The U.S. has held off targeting Beijing’s senior leadership, in part out of concern for ruining Trump’s “phase one” trade deal with China. But administration officials have signaled more severe punishment now that Trump is leaving office.
Sanctions singling out China’s leaders would infuriate the government of President Xi Jinping and bring ties between the two nations to their lowest point in decades. Biden would struggle to clear such a toxic atmosphere as he seeks to cooperate with China in areas, such as climate change, that the Trump administration neglected.
The president is expected to soon issue a formal order to the Pentagon to draw down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 in each country before the end of his term. The instruction came after Trump earlier this month fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top officials at the Pentagon.
Those troop levels are in line with what Biden has said he regards as necessary. But the quick, calendar-based withdrawal might risk emboldening insurgent forces in those regions — creating an immediate foreign policy headache for the new president.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that the consequences of a “premature American exit” would “be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”
While foreign policy offers the lame-duck president the most leeway, Trump has also sought to fortify domestic policy accomplishments.
The administration is currently rushing a series of energy initiatives including the issuance of new permits and the sale of oil drilling rights in the Alaskan wilderness — all an apparent effort to head off conservation efforts expected by the Biden administration.
That includes a notice on Monday that the Interior Department is accepting nominations for specific tracts in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that oil companies would like to purchase, setting up the possible auction of drilling rights before Biden takes office.
The Trump administration has also proposed nearly two dozen new rules, including measures that would make it harder to impose new environmental safeguards. Those regulations would — at the very least — require the Biden administration to devote significant time and resources to unwind.
And without control of the Senate, congressional Democrats would likely be unable to erase any last-minute Trump regulations under the Congressional Review Act, used to great effect by Republicans after Trump took office in 2017.
As if to underscore the Republican recalcitrance on Capitol Hill, a top Senate Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama, on Monday shrugged off Biden’s call for immediate passage of a new coronavirus stimulus package.
The president-elect said the outgoing administration’s lack of cooperation on the transition belied the urgency of the pandemic.
“If we have to wait to Jan. 20 to start that planning, it puts us behind over a month and a half,” he added. “So it’s important that it be done, that there be coordination now or as rapidly as we can get it done.”
Separately, the White House and McConnell are pushing to confirm Shelton to the Fed board, ensuring a seat at the central bank for the former Trump adviser through 2024.
It isn’t clear she has the votes, after retiring Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander said Monday he would not support her. But if she’s approved by the Senate, Trump appointees would hold at least four of the seven seats on the Fed board, giving them outsize influence on discussions about how the central bank can help the economy recover from the pandemic.
Shelton opposed lower interest rates during the Obama administration, only to reverse course during Trump’s presidency, and her opponents worry her stance could shift with the political winds once again.
McConnell has also vowed to continue confirming Trump-appointed judges through the end of the year, with the Senate set to vote on six judicial nominations this week alone.
“We go through the end of the year, and so does the president,” McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt late last month. “We’re going to clean the plate, clean all the district judges off as well.”
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