On Friday, President Trump told Congress to fix the Iran nuclear deal for him and threatened that if lawmakers did not obey, he would "terminate" the agreement. Yet the administration's convoluted strategy virtually assures that Congress won't succeed — foreshadowing yet another crisis over the deal and perhaps a U.S. withdrawal in just three months' time.
In a sense, the move was classic Trump. As with other campaign promises, including on health care and immigration, the president combined tough-sounding rhetoric about reversing part of President Barack Obama's legacy with a too-clever-by-half plan to avoid doing the heavy lifting himself. Now Congress is left to deal with the mess while the international community scratches its head.
"I am directing my administration to work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal's many serious flaws," Trump said. "In the event we are not able to reach a solution working with Congress and our allies, then the agreement will be terminated."
Set aside that the United States cannot "terminate" the deal and that if the United States withdrew unilaterally, our allies would likely stay in the agreement without us. What Trump is proposing is that Congress amend the 2015 law originally meant to oversee the agreement, which passed under the expectation that Congress would be checking a deal-friendly Democratic president.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson worked quietly for weeks with Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to craft a bill that would amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. Their proposal would effectively change the terms of the nuclear deal by imposing new sanctions "triggers" if Iran got close to nuclear weapons capability and negating the "sunset" provisions easing restrictions on Iran in the deal's out years.
Tillerson unveiled the legislative gambit to reporters by framing it as the last chance to save the deal. He said the United States must "either put more teeth into this obligation that Iran has undertaken . . . or let's just forget the whole thing. We'll walk away and start all over."
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told me that the president is putting the burden on Congress to avoid a withdrawal and that, if Congress fails, Trump will make good on his threat. Graham said the politics of the Iran issue favor Republicans, and the strategy is to present the new legislation as a reasonable fix to a bad deal.
If Congress does what the president wants, then the U.S. government can present a united front to European allies, and even Iran. "It doesn't just put pressure on Congress, it puts pressure on the international community too," Graham said.
But congressional Democrats and international partners swiftly rejected Trump's plan. The leaders of France, Britain and Germany defended the deal Friday. Democrats in both chambers said they won't take part in what they see as a half-baked, ill-advised scheme.
"The president's plan doesn't make sense," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Negotiating additional terms to the nuclear deal requires a coalition of international partners, not unilateral congressional action."
Democrats know they are being set up to take the fall if Congress fails to act. They expect Trump to accuse them of being weak on Iran. Nevertheless, Senate Democratic aides said, they don't want to be complicit in a process that could lead to the United States being in violation of the agreement.
Some congressional Republicans are upset as well. GOP aides point out that Trump has all the authority he needs to set up triggers, reimpose sanctions or do anything else he is asking Congress to do. House leadership issued cautious statements reacting to Trump's announcement, stopping short of agreeing to take up the Corker-Cotton legislation.
"They don't want to own it," said one senior GOP congressional aide of the White House.
When asked why the administration is punting the issue to Congress rather than dealing with it itself, Tillerson said that congressional action would bolster the administration's credibility both with allies and Iran. He claimed that could fuel a new diplomatic process to negotiate a follow-on agreement.
Tillerson didn't mention the downside risk of passing the buck to Congress. If Congress rejects the plan, the administration will lose credibility on the world stage, the government will look divided and the nation will be isolated. At that point, advocates for staying in the deal, including Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, will be out of options to present Trump for fixing the agreement.
Perhaps that's exactly what Trump wants — to be able to withdraw from the deal in three months saying he would have fixed it but for congressional opposition and international intransigence. And if Trump has his mind set on that course, no confusing, far-fetched legislative scheme will be able to stop him.
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