Trump's tax bill. Ramaphosa elected ANC leader. Capital punishment abounds. By Hamish McDonald.

President Trump: A year in the strife

President Donald Trump in the cabinet room of the White House.
President Donald Trump in the cabinet room of the White House.
Credit: REUTERS / Carlos Barria

Donald Trump has threatened to withhold “billions” of dollars of United States aid from countries that vote in favour of a United Nations resolution rejecting the US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

His comments came after the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, wrote to about 180 of 193 member states warning that she will be “taking names” of countries that vote for a general assembly resolution on Thursday critical of the announcement which overturned decades of US foreign policy.

Speaking at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Trump amplified Haley’s threat.

“Let them vote against us,” he said. “We’ll save a lot. We don’t care. But this isn’t like it used to be where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. “We’re not going to be taken advantage of any longer.”

The world can expect more of the same from Trump, it would seem, judging from the speech he gave introducing the administration’s new national security strategy. The document itself is pretty mainstream, hedging all the America-First nativism with a rubric of “principled realism” – indicating the conventional neo-cons in the White House, such as National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, tempered Trump’s instincts.

While they can do that with a document, they can’t rewire Trump. He tossed out most of the caveats, warning rivals and allies alike that “we will stand up for ourselves and we will stand up for our country like we have never stood up before”. He is still calling for a border wall with Mexico and an end to “chain migration” of migrant family members.

The document cites Russia and China as “revisionist” powers intent on upsetting the existing world order, and notes that “actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies”. Trump chose instead to mention his friendship with Vladimir Putin, who’d just rung him to thank the CIA for helping stop a terrorist attack in St Petersburg.

There is more coherence on the Middle East, where it looks as if Trump is hoping for a de facto alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia and other conservative Sunni Arab states against Iran, and never mind the Palestinians. “For generations the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region,” the statement says. “Today, the threats from radical jihadist terrorist organisations and the threat from Iran are creating the realisation that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems. States have increasingly found common interests with Israel in confronting common threats.”

As the neo-cons battled the nativists, the disarray in US foreign policy continues. The marginalised secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said Washington was open to talks with North Korea without precondition. Trump and Haley say, in effect, Pyongyang has to agree to disarm first. From other remarks by Hockey on his home visit, it would appear Canberra has said it would be with Trump if he launches a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.

Rich reforms

Political moves otherwise in Washington would delight the heart of fiscal neo-cons such as the former treasurer who framed the Coalition’s disastrous 2014 budget. The congress finally passed the tax reform bill that will give away some $US1.5 trillion in tax cuts mostly for business and wealthy people over the next decade, and leave millions of Americans without health insurance.

The tax bill contains a provision that will directly benefit Trump himself and several congress members. It allows people to take a 20 per cent deduction on real estate earnings they channel through companies, partnerships and other “pass-through” entities. Congress’s joint committee on taxation said it will cost $US414.5 billion in lost revenue over 10 years.

The big political question is how soon middle-income Americans realise the tax reform will ultimately shaft them, once temporary tax measures expire after a decade. The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Centre sees 70 per cent of them worse off, while 92 per cent of the top 0.1 per cent of earners will get an average tax cut of $US206,280.

The gutting of regulation – the latest the abandonment of internet neutrality for users – has been extended into language. Agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services, such as the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, were this week instructed not to use the terms “vulnerable”, “entitlement”, “diversity”, “transgender”, “fetus”, “evidence-based” and “science-based”, They’ve also been told to use the pejorative (for conservatives) “Obamacare” instead of the “Affordable Care Act”, and “exchanges” not “marketplaces” for venues where people can buy health insurance.

Zuma lens

Out of Africa, some goodish news at last. After the clouded re-election of Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya and with questions about Zimbabwe’s future course under new president Emmerson Mnangagwa, South Africa this week rejected dynastic succession for the corrupt president Jacob Zuma.

The ruling African National Congress chose the anti-apartheid campaigner and businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, 65, as its new leader over Zuma’s former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, making him a certainty to replace Zuma in elections in 2019. The late Nelson Mandela had wanted Ramaphosa, a former trade union organiser who helped negotiate the transition from apartheid, as his successor.

The change has boosted hopes of reform and a drive against corruption, though doubts are expressed that Ramaphosa has the political will to battle the patronage machine the ANC has become. Indeed, he seems to have done well out of it, acquiring assets that make him one of the richest people in South Africa. As a board member of the mining company Lonmin, he dubbed as “criminal” some of the 34 strikers shot dead by police at its Marikana platinum mine in 2012.

With more than a year in office to go, and the ANC unlikely to support his impeachment over the “state capture” by the Gupta conglomerate, Zuma will continue to trash the ANC’s base. In local elections last year, the party lost control of most urban areas, reflecting the disillusionment of middle-class South Africans.

Execution suite

Former Liberal attorney-general and immigration minister Philip Ruddock’s recent post-retirement stint as roving ambassador for the abolition of capital punishment is not showing much of a result, even putting aside repeat offenders such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the US.

Iraq, where we’ve installed democracy and helped fight off Daesh, announced it executed 38 terrorism-case prisoners in one day at a prison in Nasiriyah this week. Human Rights Watch says 5500 Daesh-connected prisoners are being put through the courts with only token defence advice. One counterterrorism judge told its researcher Belkis Wille that Daesh would never have come into existence if the US military had executed detainees in its Camp Bucca prison. “This time around we need to make sure we kill them all,” the judge said.

On Tuesday in Japan, two prisoners were hanged for murder, one of them who’d been 19 and legally a minor in 1992 when he killed four people. This brings to 21 the number of executions since Prime Minister Shinzō Abe took office in 2012.

Double trouble

Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet reshuffle sets up for a new internal security order, with the punitive-minded Peter Dutton and Christian Porter in dual command as home affairs minister and attorney-general respectively.

But someone should put some le Carré in Dutton’s Chrissie stocking so the new political master of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation at least understands what “double agent” means. Unless he’s been telling us ASIO agents do sometimes dress up as Elvis impersonators to fool the Chinese.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 23, 2017 as "President Trump: A year in the strife".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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