President Trump Prepares To Rule By Decree

There are grounds to believe that the Trump Administration is preparing to bypass Congress and attempt to rule by presidential decree on many important issues in the months before this year’s election. We see this in Trump’s comments in his June 19th Fox News interview by Chris Wallace and articles about the Administration’s recent consultations with Professor John Yoo regarding his interpretation of the Supreme Court’s  June 18th decision invalidating the Trump Administration’s 2017 rescission of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program.

Trump Comments in Fox News Interview[1]

Near the end of the lengthy Fox News interview of President Trump on July 19, Wallace said that Trump did not yet have a plan to replace Obamacare. Trump disagreed in the following lengthy response:

  • “We’re signing a health care plan within two weeks, a full and complete health care plan that the Supreme Court decision on DACA gave me the right to do. So we are going to . . . sign an immigration plan, a health care plan, and various other plans. And nobody will have done what I’m going to do in the next four weeks. The Supreme Court gave the president of the United States powers that nobody thought the president had, by approving, by doing what they did—their decision on DACA. And DACA’s going to be taken care of also. But we’re getting rid of it because we’re going to replace it with something much better. What we got rid of already, which was most of Obamacare, the individual mandate. And that I’ve already won on. And we won also on the Supreme Court. But the decision by the Supreme Court on DACA allows me to do things on immigration, on health care, on other things that we’ve never done before. And you’re going to find it to be a very exciting two weeks.”

Note that Trump cleverly did not mention John Yoo by name as the legal architect of this strategy.

Wallace apparently was not prepared for this answer, because he had no follow-up questions and instead immediately switched to asking about the Mary Trump book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

.The Supreme Court’s Decision on DACA[2]

The Court in a 5-4 Opinion by Chief Justice Roberts invalidated the 2017 decision by the Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Elaine C. Duke, to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) because that termination was “arbitrary and capricious” even though the Attorney General had determined that the DACA program was illegal. The defects in the DHS termination decision, said the Court, were failure to recognize that the defining feature of DACA was deferring removal of DACA recipients from the U.S. and the failure to assess “the existence and strength of any reliance interests” on that deferral by  DACA recipients.

Therefore, the only valid way for the DHS to terminate the DACA program, said the Court, was to proceed under the cumbersome Administrative Procedure Act.

Mr. Justice Thomas in his dissenting opinion for himself and Justices Alito and Gorsuch, said, “DHS created DACA during the Obama administration without any statutory authorization and without going through the requisite rulemaking process. As a result, the program was unlawful from its inception. The majority does not even attempt to explain why a court has the authority to scrutinize an agency’s policy reasons for rescinding an unlawful program under the arbitrary and capricious microscope. The decision to countermand an unlawful agency action is clearly reasonable. So long as the agency’s determination of illegality is sound, our review should be at an end.”

Moreover, said Mr. Justice Thomas, “Today’s decision must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision. The Court could have made clear that the solution respondents seek must come from the Legislative Branch. Instead, the majority has decided to prolong DHS’ initial overreach by providing a stopgap measure of its own. In doing so, it has given the green light for future political battles to be fought in this Court rather than where they rightfully belong—the political branches. Such timidity forsakes the Court’s duty to apply the law according to neutral principles, and the ripple effects of the majority’s error will be felt throughout our system of self-government.”

Yoo’s Interpretation of That Supreme Court Case[3]

Yoo, the Emmanuel S. Heller Professor of Law and Director of the Public Law & Policy Program at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, believes that the Supreme Court’s opinion is erroneous. In Yoo’s words, the opinion “upends the text, structure, and history of the Constitution, which generally prevents the occupants of a branch of government (who are temporary, after all) from binding their successors. . . . When a president wants to repeal an executive order, all he need do is issue a new executive order. . . . Recognizing a plenary power to reverse previous acts, contrary to the Supreme court’s DACA rule, comports best with the purposes behind the creation of the executive branch.”

Nevertheless, under this recent Supreme Court decision, in what may have intended as a reductio ad absurdum, Yoo said, “ presidents, including President Trump, may now stop enforcing laws they dislike, hand out permits or benefits that run contrary to acts of Congress and prevent their successors from repealing their policies for several years.” Thus, Trump, for example, could decline “to enforce the tax laws, and economic regulations . . . issue permits allowing federally financed or regulated construction project fully s to go forward . . . [and] defer action under environmental laws.”

In any event, we need an attorney knowledgeable about constitutional and federal administrative law to analyze and critique Yoo’s analysis of this Supreme Court opinion.

Trump Consultations with John Yoo[4]

We now have evidence that President Trump and others in the White House have been consulting with Yoo about this subject.

At least that is what Professor Yoo said to Julian Borger, the author of an article in the Guardian of London on these issues. There also are reports by Axios that “President Trump and top White House officials are privately considering a controversial strategy to act without legal authority to enact new federal policies-starting with immigration,” that a copy of Yoo’s article on the subject in the National Review was “spotted atop Trump’s desk in the Oval Office” and that “White House thinking is being heavily influenced by John Yoo.’”

Reactions[5]

 Yoo’s interpretation of this case was called “indefensible” by constitutional lawyer and  professor Laurence Tribe with these additional comments. “I fear that this lawless administration will take full advantage of the fact that judicial wheels grind slowly and that it will be difficult to keep up with the many ways Trump, aided and abetted by Bill Barr as attorney general and Chad Wolf as acting head of homeland security, can usurp congressional powers and abridge fundamental rights in the immigration space in particular but also in matters of public health and safety.”

Of the same opinion is Alka Pradhan, a Lecturer in Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and defense counsel in the 9/11 terrorism cases against inmates in the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. She said, “John Yoo’s so-called reasoning has always been based on ‘What can the president get away with?’ rather than ‘What is the purpose and letter of the law?’ That is not legal reasoning, it’s inherently tyrannical and anti-democratic.”

In the New Republic, Matt Ford has a more extensive analysis. He says Yoo has “a disfigured reading” of the DACA case. In Ford’s opinion, “The Supreme Court did not explicitly rule that DACA itself was legal or illegal last month, only that Trump’s efforts to reverse it violated the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal law that sets out how executive agencies write new rules and regulations. Roberts, writing for the court, concluded that the Department of Homeland Security ran afoul of the APA by not providing enough justification for its sweeping move. ‘We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies. The wisdom of those decisions is none of our concern,’ the Chief Justice wrote. ‘We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action.’”

In addition, Matt Ford asserts, “Yoo’s Trumpian turn is far from surprising. In both government service and academic life, he has advanced an untrammeled vision of executive power that brushes aside most constraints imposed upon presidents by Congress or international law. His highest-profile work came during George W. Bush’s first term in office, when he worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to other parts of the executive branch. In that role, Yoo helped draft a series of memos that effectively authorized torture of terrorism suspects and justified warrantless surveillance of Americans, arguing that the president’s wartime powers trumped almost all other constraints.”

Those memos by Yoo and Jay Bybee, says Ford, were castigated in 2009 as “professional misconduct” by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which conclusion was rejected the next year by a senior official at the Department with this comment: “While I have declined to adopt OPR’s findings of misconduct, I fear that John Yoo’s loyalty to his own ideology and convictions clouded his view of his obligation to his client and led him to author opinions that reflected his own extreme, albeit sincerely held, view of executive power while speaking for an institutional client.”

Matt Ford also notes that Yoo’s new book, Defender in Chief, is about to be published. According to its publisher, “Far from considering Trump an inherent threat to our nation’s founding principles, Yoo convincingly argues that Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton would have seen Trump as returning to their vision of presidential power, even at his most controversial. It is instead liberal opponents who would overthrow existing constitutional understanding in order to unseat Trump, but in getting their man would inflict permanent damage on the office of the presidency, the most important office in our constitutional system and the world.”[6]

Finally Matt Ford sees President Trump’s July 21st executive order excluding undocumented immigrants from the executive branch’s report to Congress on this year’s census  as a sign “that the White House is embracing Yoo’s mutilated logic.” This executive order, says Ford, contradicts the Constitution’s providing that members of the House of Representatives “are allotted according to ‘the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.’ Since Congress automatically granted citizenship to all Native Americans by 1924, the ‘whole number of persons’ now truly means the whole number.” This conclusion was unanimously affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court four years ago, but was ignored by this executive order and by President Trump’s July 21st statement that excluding undocumented immigrants from the report to Congress “reflects a better understanding of the Constitution and is consistent with the principles of our representative democracy.”[7]

It also should be noted that these latest moves by Yoo contradict what he said in February 2017, one month after Trump’s inauguration. Then Yoo had “grave concerns about Mr. Trump’s uses of presidential power” and was troubled by “little sign that he understood the constitutional roles  of the three branches.” Unless he changed, Yoo said, “our new president will spend his days overreacting to the latest events, dissipating his political capital and haphazardly wasting the executive’s powers.”[8]

Conclusion

 As an opponent of the re-election of Donald Trump, I believe he knows he is far behind Biden in nearly all the polls and needs to change his campaign message. I, therefore, believe that he will do what he mentioned in the Fox News interview and will argue that he is doing many things to meet the problems and challenges facing the U.S.

Be on guard, citizens and the Biden campaign!

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[1] Fox News, Transcript: ‘Fox News Sunday’ interview with President Trump (pp. 17-18), foxnews.com (July 19, 2020); Borger, Trump consults Bush torture lawyer on how to skirt law and rule by decree, Guardian (July 20, 2020); Marcus, Trump wants to be king. Did John Yoo just hand him the crown?, Wash. Post (July 21, 2020).

[2] Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, No. 18-587 (U.S. Sup. Ct. June 18, 2020.

[3] Yoo, How the Supreme Court’s DACA Decision Harms the Constitution, the Presidency, Congress, and the Country, National Review (June 22, 2020); Yoo, How Trump Can Weaponize the DACA Decision and Cut Taxes, Newsweek (June 24, 2020): Treene & Kight, Scoop: Trump’s license to skirt the law, Axios (July 19, 2020); Borger, supra; Marcus, supra. Ford, John Yoo’s Twisted Path to Trumpism, New Republic (the Soapbox) (July 22, 2020). https://newrepublic.com/article/158589/john-yoo-twisted-path-trumpism

[4] Treene & Kight, supra; Borger, supra; Marcus, supra.

[5] Borger, supra; Marcus, supra; Ford, supra.

[6] Macmillan, Defender in Chief: Donald Trump’s Fight for Presidential Power (2020).

[7]  White House, Memorandum on Excluding Illegal Aliens From the Apportionment Base Following the 2020 Census (July 21, 2020); White House, Statement from the President Regarding Apportionment (July 21, 2020); White House, President Donald J. Trump Is Taking Action to Ensure American Citizens Receive Proper Representation in Congress (July 21, 2020); Rogers & Baker, Trump Seeks to Stop Counting Unauthorized Immigrants in Drawing House Districts, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2020).

[8] Yoo, Executive Power Run Amok, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 2017).

 

Continued Official Uncertainty Over Cause of Medical Problems of U.S. Diplomats in Cuba     

There has been lots of news over the U.S. diplomats with medical problems from serving in Cuba. But there is still official uncertainty over the cause of those problems and resulting cooler Cuba relations with the U.S. and warmer relations with Russia.

U.S. Trying To Hide the Attacks?[1]

CBS News on October 10 reported that one of the 22 U.S. diplomats who has suffered from purported “sonic attacks” in Cuba had asserted that the U.S. was trying to hide the attacks.

In addition, this individual reportedly told CBS that the attacks had happened at the Embassy itself, their Havana quarters and hotels, that the State Department “pressured” some U.S. embassy officials who had been injured to remain on the island and “waited too long” to withdraw personnel and that the initial treatment by doctors in Havana and at the University of Miami Hospital in the U.S. was “superficial and incomplete.”

The State Department denied these allegations later the same day.[2] Its Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, at a press briefing, said, “We have an ongoing investigation that’s being spearheaded out of the [U.S.] with our best investigators on that, so they continue to move ahead with that investigation. We still don’t know who is responsible and we still don’t know what is responsible for the injuries of our American staff.” (Emphasis added.)

Pressed by other reporters about the above comments by one of the victims and by the Department’s recent identification of only two Havana hotels where some of the attacks occurred, Nauert said the following:

  • “I was just speaking with one of our colleagues who served down there in Cuba and is recently back here in the [U.S.]. And I asked this person that very question: ‘How do you feel that we responded?’ And I’ve asked numerous of my colleagues that very question. . . . [W]e all care deeply about how our folks are doing down there. And I asked the question, ‘Do you feel supported by us? Do you feel that we were quick enough to respond?’ And the answer I got back was ‘yes.’ . . . it took a while to put this together, because the symptoms were so different.”
  • “But this person said to me once we figured out a pattern, . . . the State Department was extremely responsive. This person said to me that they . . . never felt the pressure to stay in Cuba, although they wanted to make it clear that they wanted to serve down there. These folks love what they’re doing, they feel a real dedication to . . .our mission down there in Cuba, the activities that they were involved with on behalf of the U.S. Government with local Cubans, and they were encouraged by the State Department to come forward, please get tested if you feel like you’ve had some sort of symptoms or something.”
  • “I don’t have the actual timeline in front of me that lays out when attacks took place at different locations, and I’m not even sure that that is something that we’re making public. But once we started to figure out what this was all about and started to investigate and realized that we were not able to protect our people, that’s when the Secretary made [the decision to reduce U.S. personnel at the Embassy in Havana].”

U.S. Government Statements About the Attacks and Relations with Cuba

On October 12 White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, provided a very unusual press briefing. Unusual because the chief of staff rarely, if ever, provides such a briefing. The apparent major reason for the briefing was to provide a platform for him to deny that he was quitting or being fired as chief of staff. In addition, in response to a reporter’s question, Kelly stated, “We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats.”  But he provided no bases for that belief and was not challenged with additional questions by the journalists.[3] (Emphases added.)

Later that same day Kelly’s comment was interpreted (or qualified) by the State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, who said, “General Kelly, when he said we believe that they can stop the attacks, I think what he was referring to was, one, we have the Vienna Convention [on Diplomatic Relations]. And under the Vienna Convention, . . . the Government of Cuba, has a responsibility to ensure the safety of our diplomatic staff. That didn’t happen. But there’s also another well-known fact, and that is that in a small country like Cuba, where the government is going to know a lot of things that take place within its borders, they may have more information than we are aware of right now.”[4] (Emphases added.)

The next day, October 13, President Trump addressed the 2017 Values Voter Summit.  It included the following comment: “We’re confronting rogue regimes from Iran to North Korea and we are challenging the communist dictatorship of Cuba and the socialist oppression of Venezuela. And we will not lift the sanctions on these repressive regimes until they restore political and religious freedom for their people.”[5] (Emphases added.)

Two days earlier (October 11) Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech at a National Hispanic Heritage Month celebration at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. in which he referred to meeting people from the Cuban communities here in the U.S., and had seen “the spirit of the Cuban exile community in this country firsthand.” On that same day, the Vice President continued. “President Trump announced a new policy to ensure that U.S. dollars will no longer prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the Cuban people. Under this administration, it will always be “Que viva Cuba libre![6] (Emphases added.)

Sound Recording[7]

The Associated Press obtained an audio recording of what some of the U.S. personnel in Cuba heard.  Says the AP, it “sounds sort of like a mass of crickets. A high-pitched whine, but from what? It seems to undulate, even writhe. Listen closely: There are multiple, distinct tones that sound to some like they’re colliding in a nails-on-the-chalkboard effect.”  The AP adds that it has “reviewed several recordings from Havana taken under different circumstances, and all have variations of the same high-pitched sound.”

Similar Problems at U.S. Embassy in Moscow, 1953-1976[8]

The BBC reports that in May 1953 U.S. officials at the Moscow embassy detected a microwave frequency that oscillated above the upper floors at certain times, sometimes up to eight hours a day, and that autumn some embassy workers felt inexplicably ill. At first it was dizziness, palpitations, headaches, blood pressure too high or too low. But no one understood what was happening.

In 1962, those who were still there or even those who had already left had more severe symptoms: sudden cataracts, alterations in blood tests or chromosomes. In 1965 the U.S. began what was known as the “Moscow Viral Study,” a multimillion-dollar operation in which scientists apparently looked for the potential exposure of workers to an unknown strain of a mysterious and potent virus. The eventual conclusion was the Soviets were “bombing” the U.S. embassy with very low-level microwaves, which the U.S. called the “S ENAL Moscow.” This persisted until April 1976.

Cubans Doubt[9]

From Cuba, the Associated Press reports that “the common reaction in Havana is mocking disbelief” about the attacks.

The same tone was struck by Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first vice president who is widely expected to succeed Raul Castro when he steps down as president in February. He said, “A few spokespeople and media outlets have lent themselves to divulging bizarre nonsense without the slightest evidence, with the perverse intention of discrediting Cuba’s impeccable behavior.”

Mass Hysteria?[10]

Journalists from the Guardian newspaper in London reported that “senior neurologists” say that ”no proper diagnosis is possible without more information and access to the 22 US victims,” but speculate that the diplomats’ ailments could have been caused by “mass hysteria.”

Cuba-Russia Relations[11]

According to the Miami Herald, “after the election of President Donald Trump, the pace of [Cuba’s] bilateral contact with Russia has been frantic,” even more so after the eruption of U.S.-Cuba relations associated with the medical problems of U.S. diplomats. Here are such examples:

  • Just days before Foreign Minister Rodriguez’ September 26 meeting with Secretary of State Tillerson at the State Department, the Minister met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly gathering. The conversation was “confidential,” according to a press release issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
  • On July 26 Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal, the main negotiator with the U.S., went to Moscow and met with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
  • Cuba’s ambassador to Russia has met with Ryabkov at least five times so far, this year.
  • Last December, just after the election of Mr. Trump, Russia and Cuba signed an agreement to modernize the Cuban army, and this year Russian officials — including military personnel — have made frequent visits to Havana.
  • In March, the Russian company Rosneft signed an agreement to ship 250,000 tons of crude oil and diesel to offset the decline in Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba.
  • Rosneft also has discussed other joint projects with Cuba for oil extraction and the possibility of modernizing the Cienfuegos refinery, operated jointly by Cuba’s CUPET and Venezuela’s PDVSA.
  • In April, Russia offered to fund $1.5 million in U.N. projects in Cuba for hurricane recovery and later pledged to support recovery efforts following damage caused by Irma.
  • In September, Cuban Vice President and Minister of Economy Ricardo Cabrisas signed a package of agreements with Russia in the energy, rail transport and elevator-supply sectors.
  • Recently, Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, which has an office in Washington, and the Russian news agency Sputnik signed an official cooperation agreement.

These developments are no surprise to Richard Feinberg, an expert at Brookings Institution and a former U.S. policymaker for Latin America during Bill Clinton’s administration. He says, “[Vladimir] Putin’s message is not difficult to understand. [He] longs to regain the past imperial glory and relations with Cuba follow that same pattern.” Feinberg added, “From the point of view of the Cubans, they are looking to diversify their relationships. As closer economic relations with the U.S. do not seem likely for at least the next few years, they are looking for alternative allies, especially from countries with strong states like Russia and China that can offer favorable payment terms, something very welcome in an economy with poor international credit standards.”

Conclusion

In the above and the many other reports about the medical problems affecting some U.S. personnel serving in Cuba, I find it astounding that there still is official uncertainty about the cause or causes of the medical problems.

It also is astounding that no journalist or other commentator has publicly asked whether the U.S. has investigated whether the problems were caused by a secret and perhaps malfunctioning U.S. program or device and if so, to provide details. Such a possibility would help explain the delay in the U.S. public announcement of this set of medical problems and the apparent U.S. reluctance to share details of its investigation with Cuban investigators, all as discussed in previous posts to this blog. Moreover, this possibility would render various U.S. reactions—reducing the U.S. personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats and the latest U.S. travel warning—as cover ups and as excuses for additional tightening of U.S. screws on Cuba.

Moreover, Trump’s hostile rhetoric and actions regarding Cuba, which are unjustified in and of themselves, have adverse effects on other important U.S. interests, including the prevention of increasing Russian influence in Latin America.

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[1] Cuba victim tells CBS News “complaints were ignored,” CBS News (Oct. 10, 2017); ‘Washington was trying to hide the acoustic attacks,’ says one of the victims, Diario de Cuba (Oct. 10, 2017).

[2] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing—October 10, 2017.

[3]  White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and Chief of Staff General John Kelly   (Oct. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, White House Says Cuba Could Stop Attacks on Americans, N.Y. Times (Oct. 12, 2017).

[4] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-October 12, 2017.

[5] White House, Remarks by President Trump at the 2017 Values Voter Summit (Oct. 13, 2017); Reuters, U.S. to Maintain Cuba, Venezuela Sanctions Until Freedoms Restored: Trump, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[6] White House, Remarks by Vice President Mike Pence at National Hispanic Heritage Month Reception (Oct. 11, 2017)

[7] Assoc. Press, Dangerous Sound? What Americans Heard in Cuba Attacks, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[8] Lima, The “Moscow Sign”, the mysterious Soviet Union bombardment of the US embassy, which lasted more than two decades during the Cold War, BBC News (Oct. 14, 2017).

[9] Assoc. Press, ‘Star Wars’ Fantasy? Cubans Doubt US Sonic Attacks Claims, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2017).

[10] Borger & Jaekl, Mass hysteria may explain ‘sonic attacks’ in Cuba, say top neurologists, Guardian (Oct. 12, 2017).

[11] Gámez, Amidst growing tensions with U.S., Cuba gets cozier with Russia, Miami Herald (Oct. 13, 2017).

President Trump Condemns Cuba at the United Nations

On September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly.[1]  Most media attention has focused on his bellicose remarks about North Korea and Iran. But he also condemned Cuba and Venezuela. Here the focus is on the general theses he advanced, his comments about Cuba and reactions to the speech.

Trump’s Speech

His fundamental thesis was the U.S.’ “renewing this fundamental principle of sovereignty” and “our success depends on a coalition of strong, independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.” (Emphasis added.)

In short, the world needed strong, effective sovereign nations. As he stated, the U.S. does “not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties:  to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is the foundation for cooperation and success.” (Emphasis added.)

Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect. Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny.  And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God. (Emphasis added.)

President Trump’s subsidiary premise was the assertion that “in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize that it’s in everyone’s interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.”

On the other hand, this was not a universal action item for every sovereign nation. As he stated, “we believe that no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially.  Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions.” (Emphasis added.)

“That is why in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba and embraced the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom.  My administration recently announced that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” (Emphasis added.)

President Trump then went on at length about Venezuela’s problems, at least some of which he also sees in Cuba. In his words, “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.  Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.” (Emphasis added.)

Reactions to the Speech[2]

Trump’s comments on sovereignty were criticized by the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Margot Wallstrom: “This was a bombastic, nationalist speech. . . .  This was a speech at the wrong time to the wrong audience.”

Vali R. Nasr, the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies., said, “It looks like we will respect the sovereignty of countries we like, whether they are dictatorships or democracies, but we will not respect the sovereignty of countries we don’t like.” Nasr added, “His definition of sovereignty comes from a very narrow domestic prism.”

This speech generally did not get good reviews. For example, the editorial from the Guardian in London concluded that Trump “brought little clarity as to the wider strategy he contemplates. Threats and grandstanding are just bluster, not policy. Crises require a deftness the Trump administration has failed to demonstrate. He wants allies to back him, but seems oblivious that his lack of personal credibility is an obstacle to international cooperation. An “America First” approach runs counter to the UN’s multilateralism. His credo could be summed up by his claim that nations acting in their own self-interest create a more stable world. The question is what rules would states operate under? Not the UN’s, Trump’s response appeared to suggest. The president may want to speak of “principled realism”, but he is a reckless and dangerous leader, sitting, alas, in a most powerful position.”

These thoughts were echoed by a Guardian reporter, Julian Borger, who said the speech was full of “fulminations” of fear, especially his threat to “completely destroy North Korea,” which came just minutes after the U.N. Secretary General had told those at the Assembly and implicitly Trump himself, “Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.” More generally, “Trump punched yawning holes in his own would-be doctrine, singling out enemies, expressing horror at their treatment of their people and threatening interference to the point of annihilation. What was left . . . was a sense of incoherence and a capricious menace hanging in the air.”

The New York Times’ editorial said, “In all this fury, before a world body whose main purpose is the peaceful resolution of disputes, there was hardly a hint of compromise or interest in negotiations.” “Mr. Trump’s dark tone and focus seemed a significant deviation [from previous U.S. presidents], not least his relentlessly bellicose approach to North Korea.” On the other hand, “Mr. Trump’s largely benign comments about the United Nations were encouraging.”

The Washington Post editorial also criticized “Mr. Trump’s schoolboy taunts of ‘Rocket Man,’ his sobriquet for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and his threats, if the United States is ‘forced to defend itself or its allies . . . to totally destroy North Korea.’ The leader of a powerful nation makes himself sound simultaneously weak and bellicose with such bluster.” This editorial also said “there was something discordant in using the United Nations podium to proclaim the virtue, essentially, of national selfishness over international cooperation and multilateral organization. No doubt Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia will welcome this aspect of Mr. Trump’s address. They, too, have insisted on the unassailable ‘sovereignty’ of their formidable states and demanded that others not lecture them about values such as democracy and human rights, which they fear and abhor.” The editorial concluded, “Mr. Trump seemed to repudiate his own advocacy for human dignity and freedom when he said that “we do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government” — as if democracy should be optional under the U.N. Charter.”

Surprisingly the Post’s respected foreign affairs columnist, David Ignatius, had a generally favorable reaction to the speech. He said, “the most surprising thing about President Trump’s address to the [U.N.] . . .  was how conventional it was. He supported human rights and democracy; he opposed rogue regimes; he espoused a global community of strong, sovereign nations.”

The editorial by the Wall Street Journal generally approved of the speech, but thought that Trump gave too narrow a definition to “national interest” by failure to include respect for the rights of the nation’s own people. Trump’s concept of sovereignty “also leaves authoritarians too much room to claim dominant [regional] spheres of influence,” such as Chinese and Russian leaders in the South China Sea and Ukraine. In short, Trump needs to learn “there is no substitute for U.S. leadership on behalf of American values and interests if he wants to build a more peaceful world.”

The speech’s negative comments about Cuba were rejected by that country’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, who  said that Trump “lacks the moral authority to criticize Cuba, a small and solidary country with extensive international cooperation.” Rodriguez also said in an interview with Telesur that the speech “was an unusual, aggressive, dominating, blatantly imperialist speech. Sovereignty [for Trump] means sovereignty for the United States, enslavement for all others; [it] completely ignores the concept of sovereign equality that inspires the [U.N.].” These comments were echoed by Cuba’s delegation to a Bilateral Commission meeting with the U.S.; the delegation said it protested “the disrespectful, unacceptable and meddling statements” by Trump at the U.N. Rodriguez also condemned the President’s aggressive comments against Venezuela and expressed Cuba’s solidarity with that country and its leaders. Granma, however, did publish the full text of the Trump speech.

Conclusion

There is much to criticize in the President’s speech. Foremost was his threat that the U.S. might have ”no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” (Emphasis added)

His perceived need for “strong sovereign nations” totally ignores all the destruction and pain inflicted on the world by such nations throughout history. This emphasis also ignores the multilateral efforts, especially after World War II, to develop multilateral, international treaties and institutions, including the United Nations, to protect the world against the excesses of strong sovereign nations. Yes, like all human institutions, the U.N. is not perfect and can and should be improved. Although Trump had some kind words for the U.N. and the Marshall Plan after World War II, he said the U.S. could no longer enter into “one-sided alliances or agreements.”

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, in her September 20 speech to the General Assembly implicitly gave the proper retort to the main thesis of Trump’s speech, that strong sovereign states were the appropriate building blocks for the contemporary world.[3] She said the following:

  • “The only way for us to respond to this vast array of challenges is to come together and defend the international order that we have worked so hard to create and the values by which we stand. For it is the fundamental values that we share, values of fairness, justice and human rights, that have created the common cause between nations to act together in our shared interest and form the multilateral system. And it is this rules-based system which we have developed, including the institutions, the international frameworks of free and fair trade, agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord and laws and conventions like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enables the global cooperation through which we can protect those values”
  • “If this system we have created is found no longer to be capable of meeting the challenges of our time then there will be a crisis of faith in multilateralism and global cooperation that will damage the interests of all our peoples. So those of us who hold true to our shared values, who hold true to that desire to defend the rules and high standards that have shaped and protected the world we live in, need to strive harder than ever to show that institutions like this United Nations can work for the countries that form them and for the people who we represent.”
  • “This means reforming our United Nations and the wider international system so it can prove its worth in helping us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. And it means ensuring that those who flout the rules and spirit of our international system are held to account, that nations honor their responsibilities and play their part in upholding and renewing a rules-based international order that can deliver prosperity and security for us all.”

Trump’s comments on Cuba were a reprise of his June 2017 speech in Miami, Florida with severe criticism of Cuba that was enthusiastically received by the many older Cuban-Americans in the audience.[4] Both speeches, however, lacked nuance and failed to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, especially in health and education. It also is difficult to understand the basis for Trump’s assertion that the Cuban government was “destabilizing” or that it was “thoroughly corrupt.”

Both speeches also ignored the fact that Trump in June was only proposing to change two aspects of President Obama’s normalization policies: (a) banning U.S. persons from doing business with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or secret services and (b) banning U.S. citizens from going to Cuba on individual person-to-person travel, the latter of which has been subjected to criticism in this blog.[5]

The U.N. speech also failed to acknowledge that simultaneously and incongruously in Washington, D.C. the U.S. and Cuba were holding the sixth session of their Bilateral Commission that was established in the Obama Administration as a means to discuss the many unresolved issues that had accumulated in the nearly 60 years of strained relations; this session will be discussed in a subsequent post.

President Trump’s U.N. speech boasted about the U.S. announcing “that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” This presumably refers to the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba, which no longer serves any legitimate purpose for the U.S. and which, therefore, should be unilaterally terminated by the U.S. Moreover, the embargo soon will be the subject of a General Assembly resolution that again will condemn that U.S. policy and again undoubtedly will be overwhelming adopted.[6]

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[1] White House, Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Sept. 19, 2017); Landler, Trump Offers a Selective View of Sovereignty in U.N. Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Jaffe & DeYoung, In Trump’s U.N. speech, emphasis on sovereignty echoes his domestic agenda, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, Reaction to Trump’s UN General Assembly Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, The Guardian view on Trump at the UN: bluster and belligerence, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Borger, A blunt, fearful rant: Trump’s UN speech left presidential norms in the dust, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Warmongers and Peacemakers at the U.N., N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump undermines his own advocacy for human dignity, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Ignatius, The most surprising thing about Trump’s U.N. speech, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump Shock at Turtle Bay, W.S.J. (Sept. 20, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister Condemns Trump’s Aggressive Address at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister in Telesur interview condemns Trump’s aggressive speech at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Calls Trump’s U.N. Address ‘Unacceptable and Meddling,’ N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Statement by President Trump to the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly, Granma (Sept. 20, 2017).

[3] Theresa May’s speech to the UN General Assembly 2017 (Sept, 20, 2017).

[4] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).

[5] Posts to dwkcommentaries,com: President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies (June 19, 2017); U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 21, 2017); Cuban Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies  (June 22, 2017); This Blogger’s Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 23, 2017). Other posts have criticised the proposed ban on individual person-to-person travel to Cuba, E.g., Cuban Entrepreneurs Issue Policy Recommendations to Trump Administration (July 19, 2017).

[6] Last year’s U.N. General Assembly resolution against the embargo is discussed in an earlier post. Other posts about the embargo are listed in the “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA .