Nearing exit, Obama seeks to tie Trump's hands
President Obama has taken a flurry of unilateral actions in the waning days of his tenure that appear designed to box in President-elect Donald Trump.
Obama's decision Thursday to sanction Russian entities for election-related hacking is just the latest obstacle he has placed in Trump's way.
Day before the sanctions were unveiled, the Obama administration allowed the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israeli settlement activity — something that could have an indelible impact on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Obama has also permanently banned oil and gas drilling large swaths of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, closed off 1.6 million acres of Western land to development and scrapped the last vestiges of a registration system used largely on Muslim immigrants.
Those actions, as well as Obama’s claim he could have won a third term, seem to have irked Trump and his associates as the transition period enters its final weeks.
Trump on Wednesday morning went on the attack against Obama.
“Doing my best to disregard the many inflammatory President O statements and roadblocks,” he tweeted. “Thought it was going to be a smooth transition - NOT!”
Later in the day, Trump spoke on the phone with Obama and turned down the temperature on the spat, telling reporters roughly six hours after his initial comments the transition is going “very, very smoothly.”
Yet it’s clearly not lost on Trump or his team that the president is using his power in aggressive ways.
Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday said Obama’s actions could hamper his successor, even as he praised the president’s team for being “very helpful” with the logistical aspects of the transition.
“Both the regulatory stuff, the executive orders that are on the way out … that [is] something that I believe, you know, makes it a little bit tougher in terms of the transition on the policy side,” Spicer told conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt.
It’s unclear how many of Obama’s late actions Trump will able to reverse upon taking office.
Should Trump seek to scrap the sanctions on Russia next year, it could trigger a fight with congressional Republicans, who mostly praised the retaliatory steps Thursday even as they lambasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called the sanctions “overdue.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called it a “good initial step, however late in coming,"
Senior administration officials argued that any effort to roll back the sanctions would be “inadvisable” because they apply to Russian intelligence agencies working against America’s national interest.
“Hypothetically, you could reverse those sanctions,” one official told reporters. “But it wouldn’t make a lot of sense.”
The actions against Russia included booting 35 officials from the United States and closing down two compounds that were suspected of being used by Russian intelligence.
Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on claims of Russian election interference, and has said the U.S. should try and “get along” with the country and seek to fight Islamic terrorists.
Yet his response to the sanctions Thursday was muted. While he called for the country to “move on” from the controversy in a statement, he also suggested he’s willing to hear out the intelligence officials who say Russia targeted the U.S.
“It's time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation."
The U.N. vote on Israeli settlements is another late move by Obama that complicates Trump’s policy goals.
Trump has vowed to break with past administrations on Israeli settlement activity and move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Those moves would align the U.S. closer with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But even if Trump follows through on changing U.S. policy toward Israel, it’s unlikely he will be able to repeal the U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements.
To do so, he would need to convince nine members of the Security Council — and the four other members with veto power, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom — to back a measure scrapping the resolution.
The settlement resolution passed the council 14-0, with the U.S. abstaining.
While the resolution has no direct, practical effect on current settlement activity, it could make peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians more difficult in the future.
The Palestinians could use it as leverage in negotiating land swaps and the final status of holy sites in East Jerusalem, which the resolution refers to as occupied Palestinian territory.
Undoing Obama’s national monument designations — the latest protecting two massive areas in the American West — could prove a heavy lift as well, likely requiring a prolonged legal battle.
No president has ever reversed a predecessor’s actions to create a monument under the Antiquities Act.
The Obama administration and environmental groups argue it can’t legally be done, though some Republican lawmakers argue otherwise.
“In terms of whether it can be overturned, no,” said Christie Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “The Antiquities Act gives the president the authority to create monuments, but does not provide explicit authority to undo them.”
Meanwhile, by dismantling the dormant National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, Obama could slow any possible effort Trump makes to set up a registry for Muslims in the U.S. The system could have served as a foundation for a new Trump program.
But Trump has signaled he plans to forge ahead with controversial counterterrorism efforts, including his proposal to ban immigration from countries with ties to Islamic extremism.
“You've known my plans all along and I’ve been proven to be right, 100 percent correct,” Trump said last week in response to a string of attacks in Europe.