“America is paying a terrible price for having a president who acts like a 19th-century carnival barker, riding the rails and hustling dubious elixirs.”
– Michael Spector, 2020.
The four-year circus will soon leave town, and the clean-up effort will take at least a decade. The three rings of Trump’s circus—his White House, his do-nothing Senate, and his politicized judiciary—have contaminated governance, and given the Biden administration the worst political inheritance in U.S. history both at home and abroad.
Trump’s attacks on Obama’s health care and environmental legacies during a pandemic is literally breathtaking. We will never fully know the extent of the pandemic deaths that can be attributed to his malicious and unconscionable incompetence. Central American families have been separated, some never to be reunited. Syrian Kurds have been thrown to Turkish wolves. The racist Muslim travel ban is sordid. Donald Trump is responsible for it all and, as a result, the reputation of the United States has never been lower.
Domestic agencies have been savaged by the Trump administration, following Steve Bannon’s pledge to “deconstruct the administrative state.” Trump has trampled democratic norms, and has purged professional civil servants and policy experts. Lobbyists have been in charge of key agencies and departments such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. Just last week, Trump signed an executive order that ended job protection for tens of thousands civil servants. As a result, governmental departments have lost their institutional memory and their ability to conduct proper mentoring of new civil servants. There has never been so little interest in joining the Civil Service or the Foreign Service.
The Biden administration must work assiduously to regain the trust of the American people and the international community. Trump went to the Central Intelligence Agency on his first full day in office, and made a fool of himself in front of the agency’s memorial wall. Biden could go to the Department of State (DoS) on his first full day to pronounce that the United States is coming back, which would provide encouragement to our diplomats and our friends in Europe and Asia. Moreover, the world’s authoritarian leaders must know that the free ride they have enjoyed from Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, and Steven Miller is over.
The DoS is a serious reclamation project. Secretaries of State Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo did their best to hollow out the department. As a result, for the first time in history, every assistant-secretary position is filled by an acting chief or a political appointee. When Donald Trump, who referred to the department as the “Department of Deep State,” called out the lack of loyalists at Foggy Bottom, Pompeo responded “When we identify them, we move them out of the way.” And when Pompeo complained to the president about the Inspector General’s investigation of the secretary’s malfeasance, Trump removed the inspector general from the department. The IGs at four other departments of the government, including the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, were similarly removed without cause, a violation of federal law. The congressional guardrails against such actions were trampled.
Trump and Pompeo have combined to leave U.S. foreign policy in shambles. The United States is on a mindless collision course with China, and lacks an effective policy for dealing with Russia. Moscow and Beijing have taken advantage of Washington’s ineptitude to forge their closest state-to-state relationship since the 1950s. Trump’s unrequited love affair with Kim Jong-un has ignored a revived North Korean nuclear weapons program that has produced a new intercontinental ballistic missile. Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran has angered our European allies and allowed Tehran to revive its nuclear industry. The transatlantic situation is in its worst shape since the end of World War II, and our West European allies would give Biden and an experienced foreign policy team a warm embrace.
Trump’s international legacy is a disaster. For the first time since the end of World War II, we’ve had a president without interest in or understanding of the importance of arms control and disarmament. Instead of demilitarizing space, Trump has created a Space Force over the Pentagon’s resistance, and has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty over European resistance. He abrogated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty negotiated by the Reagan administration, which will lead to a renewed arms race in Europe and Asia. The New START treaty is soon to expire, and one of Biden’s first acts must be the extension of the treaty for another five years. Without the treaty, the Russian and American strategic arsenals will face no limits for the first time in nearly fifty years. Biden needs to initiate a serious arms dialogue with Russia, which was the key to Soviet-American detente in the 1970s and 1980s.
The international community presumably expects Biden to return to the Paris climate control, the Iran nuclear agreement, and the World Health Organization. More importantly, Biden could take a huge step to regain international stature for the United States by promoting the complete elimination of all intercontinental ballistic missiles. Nuclear missiles can create problems; they cannot contribute to solutions. They are costly, outmoded and unnecessary.
There is no justification for the hundreds of ICBMs that are on high alert in silos in five western states. A single U.S. nuclear-armed submarine holds warheads that are ten times more powerful than all the bombs dropped during World War II, including the two atomic bombs. One full salvo from a single sub could wipe out two dozen cities, and the U.S. Navy has a fleet of 12 strategic subs at sea. Meanwhile, defense contractors are savoring the prospect of the $100 billion currently allocated for modernizing our ICBM force.
The total cost for defense of this nation exceeds over $1 trillion annually, which is more than the rest of the international community spends on defense. The $44.5 billion for nuclear weapons exceeds the aggregate spending of every other member of the nuclear club, more than four times the $10.4 billion China spent, and five times more than the $8.5 billion Russia spent. Nevertheless, Congress rubber-stamped the Trump administration’s 2021 request for $44.5 billion for nuclear weapons, a 20 percent increase over last year’s allocation. Sadly, President Obama had to cave into Republican demands for nuclear modernization in order to get support for the New START treaty in 2010.
The Union of Concerned Scientists determined there was no technological justification for land-based missiles. Once upon a time, ICBMs were more accurate and powerful than submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and communications links with submarines were unreliable. This is no longer the case. My colleague at the Center for International Policy, William Hartung, has effectively made the case that ICBMs are not only dangerous, but also superfluous. During the 2016 presidential debates, Donald Trump demonstrated he had no idea what the nuclear triad was all about; nevertheless, as president he told the Joint Chiefs of Staff he wanted to increase the nuclear inventory by ten times.
On the domestic front, Biden must repair the damage to the Department of Justice (DoJ). Attorney General William Barr has both politicized and weaponized the DoJ, where six career prosecutors have protested the interference of the White House in cases involving Trump allies. An unusual letter-to-the-editor in last Saturday’s Washington Post from four senior federal prosecutors said that Barr’s role in clearing protestors from Lafayette Square in June was “outrageous” and that his comparison of a pandemic quarantine with slavery was “insulting.”
The behavior of the attorney general, like the rest of Trump’s political appointees, is truly repugnant. Barr initiated a criminal investigation of the FBI and the CIA in order to satisfy Trump’s misbegotten charges of a phony investigation of his campaign. Barr eviscerated the findings of the Mueller investigation, which provided a comprehensive template for impeachment proceedings. Barr did his best to stifle a CIA whistleblower’s report that documented Trump’s illegal shakedown of the new Ukrainian president. The whistleblower requires security protection from the CIA. Meanwhile, Trump has named over 200 Federal judges as well as three reactionary justices to the Supreme Court. As a result, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have conducted a reactionary—not conservative—transformation of the judicial branch of government that will be empowered for several decades.
Trump’s contempt for democratic governance is unprecedented. Andrew Johnson was contemptuous toward the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, and Richard Nixon did his best to reverse the domestic legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson. But Donald Trump’s trampling of the Obama legacy is without equal. Joe Biden’s restoration project at home and abroad will be historic on every level.