Sanctions, arms sales and troop withdrawals could all be announced before January
Donald Trump is unshackled from domestic political considerations and enraged by what he and his adjutants have falsely described as a fraudulent election.
The administration of outgoing US president now appears set to inflict maximum damage on its perceived enemies and strive to do favours for its friends in the final weeks of its rule, worrying international observers who say his flailing final moves could inflict lasting harm.
Most of Mr Trump’s erratic and destructive potential moves during the final 10 weeks of his rule could target the US, with his venom directed primarily at senior officials he describes as “deep state” figures who he accuses of undermining his presidency. But even his attempts to sate domestic supporters and feed red meat to his vociferous hard-right base could have broader international implications.
Among the Trump administration’s primary international targets is Iran, with several news organisation’s reporting that Washington plans to impose waves of even more sanctions on the Middle East country during its final weeks to limit the options of the administration of the president-elect, Joe Biden, who has vowed to return to an arms control deal abandoned by his predecessor.
The White House is also rushing arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan, according to reports, moves that could be seen as provocative to adversaries in Tehran and Beijing.
The Trump administration has also hinted that it plans to declare several major global human rights advocacy organisations “anti-Semitic” in a scheme to discredit them.
It has already launched a purge of international aid, environmental and public health officials in what is being seen as an attempt to cram through Mr Trump’s so-called “America first” agenda as his administration winds down.
“There is this kind of sense that he will do everything in the next 72 days in a blitz to secure and push through whatever remains on his agenda that hasn’t been done over the last four years,” said Gorona Grgic, a lecturer in US politics at the University of Sydney in Australia.
The lengthy lame duck period between the American presidential election and the inauguration originally stretched until 4 March but was drawn back to 20 January about 90 years ago. It is a relic of the horse-and-buggy-era when the 18th century US constitution was written. It was designed for an era when it could take weeks for state electors to convene and cast their ballots, or for a new president, his family and staff to move to Washington.
It is now used by presidents to grant pardons to crooked allies, or even occasionally make bold, controversial foreign policy moves such as reaching out to adversaries. Transitions are often smooth, as when outgoing President George W Bush went out of his way to welcome President Barack Obama following the 2008 elections.
But scholars cite numerous moments of friction dating back to when John Adams appointed a raft of new judges before leaving office to his on-and-off friend Thomas Jefferson in 1797, or when Herbert Hoover refused to make steps to ameliorate economic hardship of the Great Depression before handing power to Franklin Roosevelt in 1933.
But some fear the famously vindictive Mr Trump and the coterie of opportunists, foreign-influenced operatives, and hard-right ideologues surrounding him will use the interim period before Mr Biden is sworn into office on 20 January to further pursue their agendas and harmfully impact the world based on suggestions or advice from his entourage.
“The last four years have demonstrated that there’s very rarely a clearly thought-out foreign policy,” said Lindsay Chervinsky, a historian at Iona College in New York and the author of the The Cabinet, about the US presidency. “The president does whatever he wants on a whim, often preceded by a phone call by a perceived ally or friend.”
There are indications Trump is already moving fast. The news website Axios reported that the Trump administration aims to impose new sets of sanctions on Iran every week until it leaves office, an attempt to complicate a Biden administration’s attempts to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA), the nuclear programme forged by President Barack Obama and world powers and renounced by Mr Trump in 2018.
Mr Biden has vowed to return to the deal negotiated by his former boss, which offers Iran relief from American and other sanctions in exchange for maintaining lids on its nuclear programme. But Mr Biden must hurry. Iranian presidential elections in June 2021 may elevate a hardliner who may be less inclined to return to the deal, and additional sanctions could take time for Mr Biden to unravel.
Iraqi officials told Agence-France Presse they expected the outgoing administration to also release a “bucket list of sanctions” against Iranian interests in Iraq, as Mr Trump was likely to “up the ante”.
Mr Trump late last week imposed a new set of sanctions on Lebanese Christian politician Gebran Bassil for alleged corruption in a move his father-in-law, the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, alleged was because of his party’s alliance with the Iranian-backed military and political group Hezbollah, which is a designated terrorist organisation in the US.
One Lebanese official told The Independent they were bracing for more sanctions targeting Hezbollah’s allies in the months before Mr Trump leaves the White House. For the moment they were “waiting to see what happens”.
Ms Chervinsky is warning Mr Trump could launch missile on Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, prompting another potentially deadly round of escalation between Tehran and Washington nearly a year after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and retaliatory Iranian missile strikes on American troops.
Bowing to pro-Israel hawks who have shaped his Middle East postures, Mr Trump may also have the State Department label Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Oxfam “anti-semitic” organisations over the criticism of Israeli abuses of Arabs and urge other governments not to cooperate with them.
On Friday, Mr Trump also fired the deputy head of Usaid, the American agency that provides humanitarian relief and support to struggling nations around the world, in a legalistic manoeuvre to make permanent the loyalist acting chief it has appointed.
“This means that effectively that Usaid has been defanged with no one administering the budget of $31bn,” said Grgic.
It also sparked fresh concerns that he may also cut US funding to vital United Nations agencies after controversially withdrawing from the World Health Organisation this year and slashing all funds to the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency in 2018.
One UN official told The Independent at the moment the fears and discussions were “anecdotal” but some agencies were engaged with Mr Biden’s team to secure reassurances of a partial reinstatement of funding already cut.
There are also worries that an executive order Mr Trump issued days before the election could be used to purge scores of top scientists and healthcare professionals working in the US administration on issues such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic and replace them with unqualified administration loyalists.
The president does whatever he wants on a whim, often preceded by a phone call by a perceived ally or friend.
Lindsay Chervinsky, historian at Iona College
Mr Trump could also lash out at perceived enemies in China, source of the coronavirus that he appears to believe cost him the presidency, and America’s traditional allies such as France and Germany, which openly celebrated his demise, by announcing destabilising troop deployments or withdrawals which could rattle nerves and fray confidence in the US even if they are not carried out before inauguration day.
Many of Mr Trump’s potential acts of geopolitical vandalism could be reversed on 20 January. Some wouldn’t be. Mr Trump’s allies have already hinted at possibly publicly releasing intelligence – such as the raw material used to compile evidence used to investigate the president’s alleged Russia ties – that they believe could be damaging to their perceived enemies but which could also compromise sources and methods.
“I am very concerned about the declassification of military information,” said Ms Chervinsky. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he declassified information and handed it over to Russia. So much of our system around the presidency is governed by norm and precedent but not by rules or law.”