President Barack Obama’s final weeks in office seem dedicated to setting foreign and domestic policy on fire to make life as difficult as possible on his successor, Donald Trump. Here are some of the biggest mousetraps Obama scattered across the White House floor on his way out:
Betraying Israel at the United Nations: Obama’s refusal to block a United Nations vote against Israel, his administration’s shadowy machinations to bring that ugly motion to the floor, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s long-winded broadside against Israel will leave President Trump with a massive political crisis in the Middle East, and quite possibly a security crisis, if terror groups and their “political wings” are emboldened by the rebuke of Israel.
Obama’s Israel maneuver also damages American credibility, teaching would-be allies that the United States is not the best friend to have. America’s erstwhile battlefield allies in Syria can teach the same lesson, assuming any of them are left alive to take the podium. This comes at the very moment aspiring hegemons in China and Russia are showing their allies how Beijing and Moscow will go to the mat for them.
Obama’s team thinks it was clever to saddle Trump with an international edict the U.S. president cannot easily reverse. They might not have thought this all the way through, because some of the options that are available to Trump could leave internationalists, and Palestinian leaders, cursing Barack Obama’s memory.
Note that even some commentators friendly to Obama, and sources within the Obama Administration itself, have described the Israel vote as a deliberate act of sabotage aimed at Trump, because Obama is “alarmed” by some of Trump’s appointees.
A new Cold War with Russia: After eight years of relentlessly mocking anyone who said Russia was a major geopolitical threat to the United States (most famously including his 2012 presidential opponent, Mitt Romney) Barack Obama suddenly realized: “You know what? Russia is a major threat!”
He also awoke to the dangers of cyber-warfare, after an entire presidency of treating electronic espionage as a purely political problem to be minimized and spun away, because taking it seriously made him look bad. Who can forget how Obama left victims of the OPM hack twisting in the wind for weeks, because the administration didn’t want to admit how serious the attack was?
But then a top Democrat political operative fell for a crude phishing scam, and the Democratic National Committee got hacked, so Obama… well, he still didn’t take cyber-espionage seriously. He slapped the snooze bar again, because as one anonymous official put it, they thought Hillary Clinton was a cinch to win the 2016 election, “so they were willing to kick the can down the road.”
No, it was Hillary Clinton’s loss in the election, and the desperate push to damage President-elect Trump’s legitimacy, that made the president who politely ignored China hacking 25 million American citizens’ private data get tough on information security. Until now, states involved in cyber-espionage never got anything worse than a few carefully-chosen words of sour disapproval from the expiring administration, but the Russkies received a sprinkling of sanctions, and 35 diplomats were expelled.
Presumably Obama thinks he’s maneuvered Trump into a position that will make whatever rapprochement he might have entertained with Moscow more difficult, or at least more politically costly for the new President. The end result might be easier relations between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and a lingering memory of how little Barack Obama cared about cybersecurity until it was politically expedient for him to freak out.
Ban on oil drilling: An overt act of sabotage directed at the American economy itself, leaving an especially heavy bootprint on Alaska. Smug administration flacks spent the past couple of weeks assuring media talking heads that Obama’s unprecedented abuse of an obscure law was impossible for his successor to reverse. It’s like they stayed up all night, looking for executive actions that can’t be undone by the new President four weeks later. (Amusingly, Obama dropped this bomb on our energy sector just a few weeks after publicly advising Trump not to abuse executive orders.)
It’s likely that legions of lawyers will battle throughout 2017, and perhaps beyond, to determine if Obama’s “latest poke at Trump” (as Politico put it) really is irreversible. What a lovely parting gift from the departing President to the country that elected him twice: a pile of gigantic wealth-destroying lawsuits!
National-monument land grab: The other theoretically irreversible presidential edict discovered by Obama’s munchkins is the ability to designate national monuments. Another 1.65 million acres in Utah and Nevada was yanked off the market in the last week of December, bring Obama’s Antiquities Act acreage up to an unprecedented 553 million acres.
“This arrogant act by a lame duck president will not stand. I will work tirelessly with Congress and the incoming Trump administration to honor the will of the people of Utah and undo this designation,” thundered Senator Mike Lee of Utah. Sixty-five percent of his state is now under the wise and compassionate environmental protection of the same government that turned the Colorado River into a toxic-waste dump.
Eliminating the national immigration registry: Just in case Trump got any ideas about using it as the basis for the “enhanced vetting” he has promised for immigrants from terrorist-infested regions, the Obama administration killed a long-dormant program called NSEERS that once committed the unforgivable politically-incorrect sin of tracking military-age males from violently unstable Muslim-majority countries.
It’s highly debatable whether the NSEERS program was of any practical use. When it pulled the plug, the Department of Homeland Security noted that the post-9/11 program called for collecting data that is now routinely collected for most foreign visitors, along with more sophisticated biometric information. Almost everyone saw the elimination of these roles as a purely symbolic act — i.e. political sabotage directed at the incoming President.
The great Guantanamo jailbreak: After paying little more than lip service to his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for much of his presidency, Obama went into overdrive in his last years, transferring over 150 detainees. A shocking number of them ended up back on the battlefield.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week to sound the alarm about Obama’s “midnight push to empty out Guantanamo.”
“The White House has repeatedly released detainees to countries it knew lacked the intent and capability to keep the detainees from returning to terrorism. The results have been deadly,” Royce wrote, challenging the wisdom of such Obama administration brainstorms as dropping al-Qaeda’s top bomb maker into Bosnia, a country with “limited security services” but plenty of radical mosques and unemployed military-age males. Royce’s committee has been investigating allegations the administration tried to pay the bomb-maker $100,000 to refrain from passing his deadly skills along to eager apprentices. Hunting down the rest of the transferred prisoners who transferred themselves right back into the global jihad will be a job for the Trump administration.
Depicting Trump’s election as a disaster: Let’s not forget Obama’s acts of rhetorical sabotage, such as describing Trump’s presidential campaign as a crime against American class and racial harmony, or his wife wailing that all hope was lost for America’s children. Trump himself has taken note of the “many inflammatory President Obama statements and roadblocks.”
It’s hard to remember a previous instance of the outgoing president attacking the legitimacy of his successor this way, especially during the transition, before the new chief executive has actually done anything. And it’s probably not over yet. The time for big executive orders is growing short, but Obama is always just one day away from calling a press conference and saying something else that will make the transition more difficult.
Of course he can still talk all he wants after January 20th, and he’s given every indication he won’t follow the dignified path of his predecessors and allow the new president time to chart his own course, but there’s no substitute for the bully pulpit of the presidency. The timber of Barack Obama’s political voice will be very different on January 21st than it was on January 19th. More likely than not, he’ll use it before he loses it.