Evening light falls on the White House nine days after the presidential election in Washington, DC. on Nov. 12, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Chip Somodevilla-Getty Images)
Evening light falls on the White House nine days after the presidential election in Washington, DC. on Nov. 12, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Chip Somodevilla-Getty Images)

The lame-duck that kicked butt: What Trump can do as he walks out the door

It’s going to be a long 70 days, with President Donald Trump promising what may be the most — ambitious? excruciating? take your pick based on your level of MAGA enthusiasm — transition since, well, ever.

Lame duck presidents who transfer power to an incoming president of the other party tend to issue more executive orders than they do when the next president is of their own party, scholars have found. And during his transition to Trump, Barack Obama ordered his team to allow the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution criticizing Israeli settlements, the first and only time his administration failed to use its veto to block a U.N. measure critical of Israel.

But Trump’s plans are beyond anything Obama or any previous president has attempted. He is refusing to concede, reportedly planning a host of high-profile moves and locking Joe Biden out of government offices while rushing through actions that would make Biden’s first months in office a bureaucratic misery.

Many Jewish groups are warily watching the transition and wondering how it could affect the issues they care about, ranging from terrorism prevention to keeping poor families fed. Some on the right are hoping for moves that would make it harder for Biden to resurrect the Iran deal or elements of Trump’s Israel policies.

Here’s a glance at what’s at stake in the next 10 weeks.

Who’s in charge?

Trump has fired at least six senior national security officials since the election, most prominently Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Israeli officials and pro-Israel lobbyists who spend time cultivating relationships with top security officials are now back to zero, wondering who’s in charge. Esper was the point man to soothe Israelis over the proposed sale of F-35 combat jets to the United Arab Emirates.

Also, what’s behind the firings is unsettling to Trump’s critics. The president is not giving explanations, so we’re left to read tea leaves. Esper’s most notable departure from Trumpian orthodoxy was his opposition to deploying troops to quell domestic protests. Late Tuesday, Trump replaced two top Pentagon staffers with loyalists who sought to sabotage the investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia.

Institutional memory also gets blown away. Bonnie Glick, the second-highest-ranking official at the State Department’s U.S. Agency for International Development, was let go with barely three hours’ notice last week — not because she had offended anyone, but because Trump wanted her replaced with an enforcer seeking to crush any sign of disloyalty among staff. Glick, who is Jewish, used her role to shine a light on intolerance in other countries, particularly on antisemitism.

Trump is also not allowing Biden transition team to enter federal buildings. That keeps staffers from learning about the issues Jewish and pro-Israel groups care about and inhibits the cultivation of relationships with those groups.

If history is any indication, it also poses a threat to security. The 9/11 Commission blamed the delay caused by the close vote in Florida in 2000 in part for the lack of preparedness by the incoming Bush administration. In a passage much-quoted this week, the commission said the delay “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees” in the national security area.

Halie Soifer, who directs the Jewish Democratic Council of America, was on the Obama transition team in 2008-2009, working on U.N. issues. A delay, she said, “jeopardizes our democracy and poses an acute threat to our national security. The briefings and clearances provided during a presidential transition lay the necessary groundwork for an incoming administration’s national security team.”

Nixing annexation

Trump has ticked off a lot of the items on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wish list — among them, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and getting out of the Iran deal — but don’t expect him to green-light a partial annexation of the West Bank during the final days of his administration, said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The United Arab Emirates made a freeze on any Netanyahu annexation plan a condition of entering the normalization agreement with Israel that Trump brokered over the summer, and Makovsky said the president is not about to ruin his signature foreign policy achievement by letting Netanyahu run rampant now.

“I don’t see anybody messing with this at this time,” Makovsky said.

But in a first for a sitting secretary of state, Mike Pompeo is making a trip to a West Bank settlement during his Israel trip next week. And Logan Bayroff, the communications director for the liberal Middle East policy group  J Street, said there was still a possibility that Trump, and particularly advisers who are close to Netanyahu, like U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, could push through incremental changes. He cited a decision, made just before the election, to allow science cooperation funding in West Bank settlements, a break with longstanding policy to keep U.S. government funds away from settlements.

“I would expect them to look for more stuff like that, to sort of check off the list, to push forward that kind of creeping annexation as much as possible so they can get as much out of the way before Biden comes in,” he said.

Biden has said he is opposed to any attempt to annex parts of the West Bank.

Iran up to the last minute

Trump exited the Iran nuclear deal in 2018; Biden has vowed to return to the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal, albeit with some fixes.

Axios reported this week that the Trump administration plans to “flood” Iran with sanctions through the inauguration. Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s point man on Iran, was in Israel on Sunday and Pompeo is due to arrive next week. The plan, Axios reported, is to drop a new set of sanctions each week.

Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which favors Iran sanctions and has consulted with the Trump administration, said in an email that the proposals are consistent with sanctions he has for months recommended.

The sanctions are designed to be difficult to undo: They do not target Iran’s nuclear sector, but designate entities and individuals as terrorists and target its ballistic missile system. Undoing sanctions on terrorists, particularly when Trump is making their misdeeds a matter of public record, is a hard political climb — which is the point. And that would complicate any effort by Biden to reenter the Iran deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“This will make it more difficult for Biden to simply return to the JCPOA without addressing the underlying illicit conduct that is the basis for these sanctions,” Dubowitz said.

J Street’s Bayroff said Trump’s obstructions were not insurmountable.

There will be “political pitfalls, all these news stories about the administration undoing sanctions, accusing them of coddling terrorists, but I think the reality is, the Biden administration, based on everything we’ve been hearing from them, they’re not buying into that,” he said. “They’re understanding that at the end of the day, the best path to actual national security and stability in the region and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is to return to the JCPOA.”

SNAP snapback

The Trump administration has sought to shrink SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program once commonly known as food stamps. Last month, a federal judge struck down a rule that would have required able-bodied adults without children to work at least 20 hours a week to earn the benefit, which would have removed hundreds of thousands of people from the rolls.

Josh Protas, the vice president of public policy at MAZON, a Jewish group that advocates on hunger issues, says more restrictions may be in the pipeline. One rule would restrict how states use the money they get from SNAP — states have considerable flexibility now — and another would keep beneficiaries from using SNAP to pay for utilities.

“We’ve seen this administration, even during the course of the pandemic, continue moving forward with harmful administrative action, which really defy compassion and reason and logic,” Protas said.

While Trump is seething

Jewish groups preoccupied with tending to those most afflicted by the pandemic are concerned that Trump’s preoccupation with leaving a mess for Biden could delay or even scuttle a Covid relief package. There’s even talk that an impasse could once again shutter the government.

“We are calling on Congress and the Trump administration to pass another emergency aid package that addresses Americans urgent needs such as extending pandemic unemployment insurance, expanding free and accessible testing, increasing food assistance benefits, and increasing health care funding to states,” a spokeswoman for the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center said in an email. “If Congress or the Trump administration allows the government to shut down during the highest peak of the pandemic, they would needlessly harm millions of Americans who are already struggling.”

The Jewish Federations of North America, which has led lobbying to include relief for nonprofits in the Covid packages, said the nonprofit sector is at risk unless Congress and Trump acted. So are programs addressing the needs of elderly Holocaust survivors and securing community buildings from attack.

“Ailing nonprofits who benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program are in dire need of additional funds to address ongoing economic hardship caused by Covid,” said Rebecca Dinar, the JFNA spokeswoman, in an email. “Additionally, we would like to see increased medical assistance and supports for Holocaust survivors as well as an expanded Nonprofit Security Grant Program.”

Assailing asylum

The Trump administration on June 15 announced new restrictions on asylum seekers that immigration advocacy groups say would effectively end refugee asylum. Anyone voicing objections to the rules, packed into a dense 161-page document, had 30 days to do so. At any point after that, and barring legal challenges, the Trump administration could put the new rules into effect.

It has not yet done so, and two Jewish organizations that formally objected to the restrictions, the Anti-Defamation League and HIAS, the Jewish immigration advocacy group, are watching to see if Trump and his top immigration advisor, Stephen Miller, seize on the transition to put the rules into effect.

Among other restrictions, the rules would deny asylum to refugees who come through third countries, to most refugees who are already in the United States, to refugees making a claim based on gender persecution, and to refugees who are fleeing pervasive criminal violence in their homeland. “Disapproval of a drug cartel is not a political opinion,” the document says. That means the prospect of gangs exacting deadly retribution for daring to resist them is not a criterion for an asylum application.

“It would just basically make it nearly impossible to seek asylum in this country,” said Melanie Nezer, HIAS’ senior vice president.

Asked what else she could expect from the Trump administration, Nezer drew a blank, saying that Trump and Miller had effectively gutted immigration during their four years in office, including increasing deportations, separating parents from children at the border and consigning legal refugee applicants to squalid camps in Mexico.

“It’s hard to imagine more because so much has already been done,” she said, adding it would take months or years for the Biden administration to return the United States to the levels of refugee acceptance that had existed four years ago. (Biden has said that among his first executive orders would be to reverse Trump’s immigration policies.)

Nezer said Miller, whose opposition to immigration is deeply and forcefully held, may yet surprise her. “You know it feels like, ‘What else could there be?’” she said. “But there’s always something more, so I would say that’s the concern over the next 70 days.”

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief

JTA

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