Trump’s Dangerous Government of No

President Trump wants to show how different his policies are from President Obama’s, but that negative approach is careening his young administration into trouble, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The abortive attempt to pass House Speaker Paul Ryan’s bill for tax cuts and partial dismantling of the health care system vividly demonstrated the consequences of trying to govern according to what one is against, rather than what one is for.

President Trump addressing a joint session of Congress on Feb. 28, 2017. (Screen shot from

If this overwhelmingly negative approach had not been the Republicans’ approach (and Donald Trump’s), the story of the Affordable Care Act, and the politics surrounding it, would have been far different. That is certainly true given how the ACA is centered on a system of commercial insurance that was earlier associated at the state level with Mitt Romney.

But with Congressional Republicans deciding from the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency to oppose him at almost every turn and to deny him significant achievements (and, per Mitch McConnell, to make denying him a second term their top priority), and with the ACA being seen as Obama’s premier domestic legislative accomplishment, total and automatic opposition to the ACA was the course taken. Trashing Obamacare became a mantra divorced from what the law was or was not doing, and divorced from any careful consideration of Americans’ health care needs.

If the Republicans were to develop an alternative, they had seven years to do it. Instead, House Republicans spent that time, as part of the recitation of the mantra, passing dozens of repeal resolutions. When the dog finally caught the car — when the GOP won control of both the legislative and executive branches — the realities that the ACA was designed to deal with were still there.

Realities such as that if people who need extensive medical care now are to be covered, people who do not happen to need a lot of care right now will have to help pay for it, through buying commercial policies, paying penalties or taxes, or whatever. It was impossible both to assure affordable health care coverage for the great majority of Americans and to have a system that, however it might be dressed up, didn’t look a lot like Obamacare (impossible, that is, without going to a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system with which Democrats would be much more comfortable than Republicans). Hence the disarray among House Republicans and their political meltdown last week.


President Trump has since been emphatic in trying to shift responsibility onto Democrats for anything unfavorable that happens henceforth with the health care system. But of course it is his administration, not Obama’s or any other Democratic one, that is now responsible for administering the law.

President Barack Obama walks through the Rose Garden to the Oval Office following an all-appointees summer event on the South Lawn, June 13, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

His assertion of Democratic responsibility, coupled with his forecast that the ACA will “explode”, gives him a motivation to sabotage the workings of the ACA. That sabotage has already begun, as it did earlier at the state level where Republican-controlled state governments refused federal funds to provide help under Medicaid to their citizens needing such assistance.

The years-long drumbeat about getting rid of the ACA has probably been the biggest source of hesitation to insurers about participating in the insurance exchanges created under the act. Since entering office, the Trump administration has been curtailing advertising encouraging people to sign up for insurance and moving away from enforcement of ACA-related requirements such as the individual mandate.

We are seeing here an example of the most perverse possible consequence when a party of No becomes a government of No: the intentional undermining of a public program to make it work poorly rather than well.

The handling of the ACA is perhaps an extreme example because it became an extreme Republican obsession. But some of the same dynamics may be seen elsewhere, including foreign policy. For example, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear agreement, occupied a place in Barack Obama’s foreign policy comparable in significance to the ACA in domestic policy. So again, it elicited reflexive Republican opposition.

It does not appear that Trump will pull directly out of the JCPOA; doing so would obviously negate any assertions that the agreement would “explode” on its own. The preferred methods of sabotage include imposition of enough additional sanctions on Iran that the Iranians would proclaim the agreement was voided by the United States reneging on its obligations. And like the ACA, the JCPOA requires ongoing attention and implementation. For the United States to remain in compliance, the administration will have to renew some waivers to existing sanctions legislation.

Thus Trump could in effect sabotage the agreement by doing nothing. The JCPOA example illustrates another attribute of a government of No, which is a failure to consider what the alternatives are to whatever is the policy being opposed, and to consider the relative merits of each alternative. Opposition to the JCPOA has all along failed to face the fact that the alternative to the agreement, which is no agreement, would mean an end to the special limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and an end to the enhanced international inspections of that program.

In many other areas of foreign policy, in which circumstances and problems are imposed on policymakers at least as much as they tend to be with domestic policies, it is difficult to come up with approaches that look new and different, as well as being prudent and effective. There are only so many things the United States can do with good effect, and chances are that the relevant options have already been thoroughly considered.

Tackling ISIS 

Thus, key attributes of many policies look very similar from one administration to another. This has been the case so far with some of the major foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration, such as the fight against ISIS.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis welcomes Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman to the Pentagon, March 16, 2017. (DoD photo by Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Although candidate Trump had berated Obama for not taking more effective action against the group, when Trump’s Secretary of State presented to a gathering last week the administration’s plans for dealing with ISIS, those plans, in the words of the New York Times report on the meeting, “closely parroted Mr. Obama’s strategy.” Consistent with that resemblance, so far the Trump administration has followed the general lines of Obama’s policies regarding military activity in Syria.

Similarly with the problem of North Korea and its nuclear weapons: even though Secretary Tillerson spoke earlier this month about a “new approach” toward North Korea, as Jeffrey Lewis observes, the supposedly new approach is “in fact, the old approach,” with even many of the same exact words that the Obama administration had used.

For any administration that thinks more in terms of what it wants rather than what it opposes, such similarities are not necessarily a problem. The continuities are accepted, while asserting responsible stewardship of the nation’s interests and openness to adjustments and improvements in existing polices where appropriate.

But for an administration of No, the similarities are a problem. With its coming to power based overwhelmingly on rejection of what came before, how can it defend continuation of what it rejected?

A resulting hazard is the temptation on the part of such an administration to go out of its way to pursue policies that look new and different even though they are not prudent or effective. Such a hazard may be materializing with moves to become more deeply immersed in the Yemeni civil war on the side favored by the Saudis and Emiratis, whose intervention in the conflict has multiplied the human suffering without bringing the war any closer to a conclusion.

Other motivations probably are also at play, including an itch to be assertive anywhere there is a possible Iran angle (an itch exhibited by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, whose department has forwarded a proposal for escalation of the U.S. involvement in Yemen). But an escalation that can be portrayed, as this one is, as a removing of “Obama-era restrictions” will be attractive to the Trump White House because it can be described as contrary to something Obama did. Trump’s setback on health care and his sliding poll numbers will tend to make the temptation all the greater.

Damage that results from succumbing to this sort of temptation is likely to continue until and unless this administration can decide, more than it has so far, what it stands for — in the sense of workable policies, not just slogans or promises — and not just what it is against.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

16 comments for “Trump’s Dangerous Government of No

  1. Rob Roy
    March 30, 2017 at 17:11

    “Thus, key attributes of many policies look very similar from one administration to another. This has been the case so far with some of the major foreign policy challenges facing the Trump administration, such as the fight against ISIS.”
    Did anyone happen to watch Frontline on PBS March 21 2017, “Iraq Uncovered,” with correspondent Ramita Navai going undercover to report on areas in Iraq regarding ISIS. She revealed that the citizens in that torn up place are more afraid of the militia than they are of ISIS, and the government says it cannot control the militia; it’s stronger than both ISIS and the government. I have never heard any news source talk about this.

  2. Rob Roy
    March 30, 2017 at 16:58

    ‘Opposition to the JCPOA has all along failed to face the fact that the alternative to the agreement, which is no agreement, would mean an end to the special limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and an end to the enhanced international inspections of that program.”

    I would like to remind Consortium News readers that since 2003 Iran has not had a nuclear weapons program and wants limited nuclear capabilities only for energy and medical isotopes. That always should be made clear in any discussion of Iran’s nuclear program. Most people think of weapons when the phrase “Iran’s nuclear program” is mentioned. Iran has never attacked another country and has no intention of doing it in the future, whereas Israel is chomping at the bit to attack that country and its innocent people. Not long ago Mossad murdered five Iranian scientists. Don’t think they are going to stop pushing for that war. Zionists are crazy.

  3. J'hon Doe II
    March 30, 2017 at 13:02

    ar·che·type (är?k?-t?p?)
    1. An original model or type after which other similar things are patterned; a prototype: “‘Frankenstein’ … ‘Dracula’ … ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ … the archetypes that have influenced all subsequent horror stories” (New York Times).

    >> 2. An ideal example of a type; quintessence: an archetype of the successful entrepreneur.

    3. In Jungian psychology, an inherited pattern of thought or symbolic imagery
    derived from past collective experience and present in the individual unconscious.

  4. J'hon Doe II
    March 30, 2017 at 12:38

    The government of No is under the control of an arch typical elementary school Bully.

    MAGA is an insignia and a reflect moment and a serious call to arms/ those with ears.


    adjective– directed or moving backward.
    “a retrograde flow”

    synonyms: backward, backwards, reverse, rearward [rear guard]
    “retrograde motion”

    1. a degenerate person.

    verb: retrograde; 3rd person present: retrogrades; past participle: retrograding

    go back in position or time.
    “our history must retrograde for the space of a few pages”

  5. Peter Loeb
    March 30, 2017 at 07:16


    The Affordable Health Care bill is a bad piece of legislation
    which provides subsidies and major control on the issurance
    model by the big insurance corporations and “Big Pharma”
    (pharmaceutical industries). These lobbies were large
    donors to many of Barack Obama’s political campaigns
    AMERICAN POLITICS). This may, of course, be a mere

    The only way to guarantee health care as a RIGHT to
    all Americans is a single payer plan (su h as Medicare
    for All?). This would not work without an increase
    in progressive taxation. Healthcare is not cheap
    either here or abroad.

    I oppose such bills at this time as they would divide
    opposition to the Trump-Ryan draconian legislation.

    Perhaps you sense that America is eager for a
    tax increase. This writer does not.

    For what it’s worth, defense spending in the US for
    what Noam Chomsky calls “waste” and profICIANCY
    in killing is at about 63 cents on the dollar in the
    US. In many other nations which have health care
    programs, defense spending is at about 5-6

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  6. Eddie
    March 29, 2017 at 22:59

    This contrarian policy of ‘NO!’ by the Republicans didn’t just start with Trump & friends — from what I recall it was even more prominent in the Clinton POTUS years. Remember New Gingrich and friends shutting down the government? I would classify that in virtually the same category, albeit with better pseudo-serious justifications voiced by more politically devious practitioners.

    It all goes back to the 1980 mantra of Republicans that St Ronnie voiced when he infamously said ‘government isn’t the solution to our problems, it’s the problem’ (paraphrased). So when you hire people to run your government who don’t believe in government… hmmm… I wonder what will happen? If I take my car to a mechanic who doesn’t believe in the internal combustion engine, I wonder how well that engine-knock will get fixed? If I hire a plumber who doesn’t believe in indoor plumbing, I wonder how effectively he’ll fix my toilet or leaky faucet? The recent Republicans have a simplistic 1800’s philosophy of government only being used for domestic law & order and international military conquest, and if enough of the general public keeps voting for them, that’s what we’ll continue to get, and the results will keep getting worse and worse for the general public…

  7. Sam F
    March 29, 2017 at 16:36

    Urging Mr. Trump to try something worse than Obama on Isis and Korea would not be responsible counsel. Both present risks of major war and offer zero benefits to the US. A greater presence in Syria serves absolutely no purpose but getting zionist/MIC/KSA bribes. If he does that, half of his supporters will abandon him.

    There seems to be no likely benefit Trump can or will bring in domestic policy. He will not advocate single-payer, and there will be revolution if he makes things even worse. His only chance of retaining his supporters is to give them high employment and Medicare for all.

  8. D5-5
    March 29, 2017 at 12:49

    From Mike Whitney’s article Mar 28 in counterpunch: “Ending Syria’s nightmare will take pressure from below”:

    “In a matter of weeks, Washington’s approach to the war has changed dramatically. While the US has reported ended its support for the Sunni militias that have torn the country apart and killed over 400,000 people, the US has increased its aid to the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] that is making impressive gains across the eastern corridor. The ultimate goal for the SDF fighters is an autonomous Kurdish homeland carved out of West Iraq and East Syria, while US forces focus primarily on the breakup of the Syrian state, the removal of elected government, the control over critical pipeline routes, and the redrawing of national borders to better serve the interests of the US and Israel.”

    • D5-5
      March 29, 2017 at 13:01

      Trump would probably call this new action in Syria “positive,” but it seems to disregard a lot of problems. The Turks are furious over US support for the Kurds in the region, Assad has indicated US presence is illegal, in “de-conflicting” with Russia (i.e. avoiding conflict, but not, officially, “cooperating”) there are obviously risks of mistakes, and working to put a permanent presence in the region is akin to pouring gasoline on fire. In Iraq, has the US and Trump forgotten the Sadrists in Iraq? Moqtada al-Sadr once had a million man militia behind him and was one of the reasons Obama chose to leave Iraq, since Moqtada said he would not rest until ALL troops were out of Iraq, plus there was Iraq’s refusal to avoid war crime charges against US forces. Trump seems to have forgotten all this, or never knew it, and is piling into a new quagmire. Mr. Pillar needs to update his view of Syria.

    • J'hon Doe II
      March 30, 2017 at 12:05

      The Kurds, deserve absolutely, their own homeland.
      They are a tough and determined Ethnic People; and have been ‘erased off the face of the map’, as-it-were.

  9. D5-5
    March 29, 2017 at 12:40

    Mike Whitney’s comment on Syria yesterday (Mar 28) is more up to date than Mr. Pillar’s link above (at NY Times Mar 22). The Trump administration appears intent on establishing permanent presence in Syria and safe zones to vie against Assad regaining control of the country.

  10. mike k
    March 29, 2017 at 11:24

    The formula is simple: foster chaos, blame it on your enemies, then promote yourself as the savior if your are given a “free hand” (translates as unlimited powers). Hitler had it down pat.

    • Rob Roy
      March 30, 2017 at 16:45

      mike k,
      …….so did Milton Friedman; it’s the Shock Doctrine and that foolish man got a Nobel prize for economics. Doesn’t ever work out, though, as we can see by the havoc the U.S. has spread in the middle east.

  11. mike k
    March 29, 2017 at 11:19

    The more serious problems Trump and his crew create, the more they will blame it all on others, and the more outrageous their promises to have the solutions to fix everything will be.

  12. mike k
    March 29, 2017 at 11:13

    “NO” is music to Bannon’s ears. Trump’s Guru loves deconstruction, demolition, and chaos. He and Trump are having fun trashing the government. They are not about constructing anything other than making a mess that will then justify their demands for sweeping powers.

  13. Joe Tedesky
    March 29, 2017 at 10:52

    I agree that when you operate on the principle of mean spirited revenge you will lose the focus of your mission. To further that thought, you would really be hurting yourself if you had no new plan, but instead you went out the door with pure revenge to hopefully do better than your competition. Like Paul Pillar said, when you legislate against what you hate, and don’t legislate because you have a better plan, then you lose.

    Watching at how so far this Trump Adminstration is determined to overturn everything Obama, but yet in the end it appears that the best they can do is to tweak the existing laws and programs gives me the impression that this Adminstration is all rhetoric and noise.

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