WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump looks to be taking his fight over immigration and the southern border to a new level. In late March, he threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border, in response to a surge in illegal immigration that has swamped American authorities along the frontier. Then he pulled his own nominee to run Immigration and Customs Enforcement in hopes of finding someone “tougher.” And last week he reportedly forced the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on the grounds that she, too, was soft on illegal immigration. Now we are told he is planning to resume the family separation policy that provoked widespread global condemnation when it was first pursued in 2018, although Trump has denied he will reinstate the policy.
Given Trump’s tendency to fulminate rhetorically and then settle for far less than he initially demanded, things may yet settle down. But this series of events nonetheless highlights four key characteristics of Trump’s presidency — characteristics that are not only causing disruption at home but diminishing America’s competence and reputation abroad.
First, there is Trump’s penchant for generating the very crises he then proposes to solve. There are many reasons illegal border crossings have skyrocketed to roughly 100,000 per month, including the fact that illegal crossings generally rise in advance of the hot summer months. Yet Trump’s repeated threats to close the border and separate families may actually be spurring the very migration he opposes, by convincing potential migrants that it is now or never.
Trump’s decision to cut some $700 million in aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, as punishment for their inability or unwillingness to prevent their citizens from leaving, is also likely to increase rather than reduce migrant flows. Five retired commanders of U.S. Southern Command recently wrote, “Improving conditions in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is a critical way to address the root causes of migration … cutting aid to the region will only increase the drivers and will be even more costly to deal with on our border.”
Second, we are seeing that Trump’s temptation to become more Trumpian — to double down on the rhetoric, promises and grievances that brought him to power — will only become stronger as the 2020 election approaches. Because Trump has failed so completely in broadening his political support, he is entirely dependent on rallying the base that produced his electoral victory in 2016.
This calculus is presumably what was behind the president’s decision to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. That position runs the risk of legitimizing conquest by force, thereby helping Russia justify its annexation of Crimea and undermining a core pillar of U.S. foreign policy since World War II. But it is very popular with evangelical Christians and other conservative supporters of Israel. Likewise, the fact that Trump has been so ineffective in reducing illegal immigration or securing funding for his “big, beautiful wall” is now driving him to show that he can still deliver on border issues. Expect more of this as the re-election campaign intensifies.
This tendency will be exacerbated by a third issue, which is the continued hollowing out of the federal government. The days when the president was hemmed in by a coterie of mainstream advisers are over. Nielsen joins a long list of high-level officials — Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and top economic adviser Gary Cohn — who have been replaced by Trump loyalists, or simply not replaced at all. The more the ranks of the “adults in the room” are depleted, the more power true-believing America Firsters like policy adviser Stephen Miller can wield, and the fewer checks there are on the president’s ability to act in his perpetually impulsive manner.
Trump likes having acting secretaries rather than Senate-confirmed advisers, he said in February, because “it gives me more flexibility.” Given that the president has now pushed through a series of controversial and potentially damaging decisions — designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization was the latest — hastily and with minimal preparation, this flexibility seems to be bringing more ill than good.
Finally, all this is troubling because it reveals that Trump is returning to the policies that have most grievously damaged America’s global standing. His presidency has been a soft-power gut punch for the U.S. America’s global approval ratings have plummeted; in some allied countries the president is viewed less favorably than Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The original family-separation policy was particularly damaging, because it showcased the cruel and capricious decision-making, and the basic indifference to human suffering, that has too often characterized this presidency. Foreign leaders, including close friends and allies, condemned the policy with words like “wrong,” “unacceptable” and “cruel and inhuman.”
Soft power — which furthers U.S. aims by reinforcing a sense that America is a generally decent and admirable, if thoroughly imperfect, nation — has long been one of Washington’s greatest foreign policy assets. If the current crisis is any indication, Trump is determined to keep spending that precious asset down over the remainder of his presidency.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist.