China calls for US restraint; Macron and Le Pen into election second round; Turnbull committed on Afghanistan. By Hamish McDonald.

Donald Trump’s grandiose Mexico promise hits a wall

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron smiles as he leaves a polling booth in northern France last weekend.
French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron smiles as he leaves a polling booth in northern France last weekend.

And so we’ve got to 100 days of the Donald Trump presidency, which The Donald won’t be celebrating by turning up at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner at the Washington Hilton on Saturday night to hear the predictable roasting by comedian Hasan Minhaj. It’s not the kind of name and humour Trump likes, so instead he’ll be holding his own rally in Pittsburgh.

Through the week, his Republicans were scrambling to avoid the shutdown of the federal government that would have started this morning. As they have majorities in both houses of the United States congress, this would have been some achievement. But Trump cleared the way for budget legislation to pass by backing off his insistence on it including a start on his famous $US21.6 billion wall along the Mexican border. With Republicans joining Democrats against this folly, Trump friends are talking of “the wall” as a figurative thing, actually consisting of motion detectors, fences, and surveillance blimps. Meanwhile, Trump is taking things out by slapping a tariff on Canadian timber, and said he will seek changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Aside from avoiding fiscal deadlock, Trump’s record of achievement looks thin. His one win was getting the social conservative judge Neil Gorsuch into the vacant Supreme Court seat. In his first ruling, Gorsuch showed his colours by using his swing vote to deny a stay of execution to one of eight convicts the state of Arkansas is hoping to execute by the end of April, the expiry date of one of the drugs it uses in lethal injections (with pharmaceutical companies refusing to supply more).

On Wednesday, Trump showed a one-page plan to cut company tax from 35 per cent to a tax haven-like 15 per cent, lower personal income taxes and abolish pesky measures such as the “alternative minimum tax” that ensnared him in 2005. The gift for corporate and rich America would cost $US2.4 trillion over a decade, experts said. State and local governments would pay part of this, as deductions for their taxes would go. Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, the former hedge fund manager and champion mortgage-forecloser, said it would “pay for itself” from higher growth.

Xi calls for restraint

Trump again ramped up the rhetoric and pressure on North Korea. His aircraft carrier “armada” finally arrived off the peninsula, a nuclear submarine armed with 150 cruise missiles called at Busan, an anti-missile battery shaped upon a South Korean golf course, and the entire US senate was invited in for a classified briefing at the White House.

An alarmed Xi Jinping called Trump on Sunday to urge restraint. China’s foreign ministry said manoeuvres by the People’s Liberation Army along the North Korean border were routine exercises. Reports from the Russian Far East said Moscow was moving extra forces including anti-aircraft missiles to its short border with Korea.

Some in Australia’s strategic policy circles were almost thrilled to be included in Pyongyang’s rhetorical counter-blasts. Its foreign ministry spokesman said during US Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit last weekend: “If Australia persists in following the US’s moves to isolate and stifle North Korea, this will be a suicidal act of coming within the range of the nuclear strike of the strategic force of North Korea.”

US analysts said Pyongyang doesn’t yet have that capability, but might attain it as early as four years from now, raising questions about the value of US “extended deterrence” to allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia. Mack Williams, a former Australian ambassador in Seoul, suggests Pine Gap might one day be an excellent nuclear warning shot for Pyongyang, causing enormous damage to US space warfare capabilities but few human casualties.

As we went to press, Kim Jong-un had not yet called Trump’s bluff by conducting a sixth nuclear test his scientists have been preparing, but delivered a cautionary message. On Tuesday, his army marked its foundation anniversary by live shooting from the kind of long-range artillery it has ranged against Seoul and its 10 million people. As Trump remarked after talking about North Korea with China’s Xi at Mar-a-Lago this month: “After listening for 10 minutes, I realised it’s not so easy.”

Nativist trackers

Hopes the tide of nativism has peaked in Europe rose after last Sunday’s first-round presidential election in France. The pro-European Union independent Emmanuel Macron won the largest vote and was quickly backed by the two traditional parties, the Republicans and the Socialists, for the second round on May 7.

This followed the failure of the far-right figure Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections in March. In Germany, the comparable Alternative für Deutschland made itself less electable for the September elections at its party conference in Cologne last weekend. Its delegates threw out a plan by co-chairwoman Frauke Petry to write anti-racism into its policies.

The far right in France is not quite beaten, however. Marine Le Pen got the second-biggest vote of 21.3 per cent to Macron’s 24 per cent. She has stepped aside from her leadership of the National Front in order to broaden her appeal.

She could also benefit from the refusal of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon to endorse Macron, at least immediately. Instead his “Unsubmissive France” movement will consult its supporters about three choices: a blank ballot, abstention, or support for Macron.

Mélenchon’s supporters are aggrieved by his failure to make it to the second round. Some vented in the time-honoured fashion of Parisian students, rampaging through the streets and setting fire to cars. They see Macron taking France into further “Uberisation” of its protected workforce. As Mélenchon got 19.6 per cent of the vote, against just 6.4 per cent for the Socialist Party’s Benoît Hamon, there is now a stronger possibility of leftist working-class voters shifting to Le Pen, who promises to maintain the 35-hour week and reduce the retirement age to 60.

Turnbull engages with Afghanistan

Malcolm Turnbull committed Australia to an ongoing role in Afghanistan in his Anzac Day visit to the troops there and in Iraq, as the US-led war against the Taliban insurgency enters its 16th year and the local branch of Daesh joins the fight.

In Kabul on Monday he crossed paths with US Defence Secretary James Mattis, who’s been asked by the local American commander for “a few thousand more” troops on top of the 9800 left after Barack Obama’s wind-down of forces. As they spoke, the Afghan defence minister and army chief had just resigned to take responsibility for the Taliban attack on an Afghan army base that killed more than 140 soldiers.

As Turnbull makes a quick visit to Washington next week to meet Trump, he will need either an offer of more forces − on top of the 270 soldiers currently there for training and protection and the odd special mission − or a good argument why “more of the same” is not the solution for Afghanistan.

At least Turnbull, unlike his Coalition predecessors, has not kept the Afghan government leadership at arm’s length. He hosted President Ashraf Ghani in Canberra this month, the first visit by an Afghan leader, and called on him while in Kabul this week. There’s also a welcome emphasis on civil development, with Turnbull signing up to a $320 million four-year aid program focused on infrastructure, female education and employment, agriculture, mining rules and administrative skills.

John Howard didn’t even get the previous president, Hamid Karzai, over for the opening of his personal-best pork-barrel exercise, the Alice Springs–Darwin railway named after the legendary Afghan cameleers of the inland.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2017 as "Trump’s grandiose promise hits a wall".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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