Could Trump 'Undermine The Legacy Of The Obama Presidency' With The Stroke Of A Pen?
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Now that Donald Trump is starting to put together his administration, Americans are wondering which of his provocative campaign proposals will he seriously pursue and which ones might he abandon or compromise on, how much of his agenda can he accomplish on his own without congressional action, and how quickly will he be able to have an impact in key policy areas?
Our guest, Evan Osnos, addressed those questions several weeks ago in an article in The New Yorker called "President Trump's First Term." Osnos interviewed a range of legal authorities and policy experts on what a Trump presidency might look like. Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Last year, he wrote an article for the magazine about Trump's white nationalist support.
He's reported from Iraq and spent many years in China where he shared a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting while he was the Beijing bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune. His book, "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China," won the National Book Award. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How reliable are campaign promises as a predictor of a president's agenda in office, and will Trump be different?
EVAN OSNOS: I assumed that, like, I think like a lot of Americans, that campaign promises are not very valuable in terms of actually predicting the course of a presidency. We - you know, we tend to remember when campaigns say things that they don't then fulfill. But actually, the political science on this is pretty clear, and it tells a very different story, which is that if you go back over the history of the presidency, you find that presidents tend to achieve the majority - the overwhelming majority of the things that they set out to accomplish when they were candidates.
So the sort of classic study on this was by Michael Krukones who, in 1984, tabulated all of the campaign pledges of all of the presidents between Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, and what he found was that altogether they had accomplished 73 percent of the pledges that they said they would. This has been replicated in other studies all the way up to the present where PolitiFact, which is a nonpartisan fact-checking site, has evaluated the campaign pledges by Barack Obama and found that he has achieved at least 70 percent of them. And I think his opponents would agree with that number in the sense that it has been much to their consternation that he has been able to achieve the things he has.
When candidates do not fulfill the things that they said they were going to, we remember. So, for instance, George H. W. Bush saying, read my lips, no new taxes, or Barack Obama saying that he would close Guantanamo. But those are really the exception and not the rule based on everything that scholars have learned about the presidency.
DAVIES: Now, when people look at Donald Trump, some would say it's not clear that he has any deeply held political beliefs. I mean, he used to be pro-choice. He used to be a Democrat. He's kind of been all over the place over the course of his business career, and a lot of what he says seems kind of improvised, but we have some clues. I mean, there are two big appointments just announced. The Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, will be Trump's chief of staff, and at the same time, his campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, who is from the right wing Breitbart News, will be a senior adviser with equal status to Reince Priebus. What does this tell us about Trump's likely agenda?
OSNOS: Right. Well, I think a lot of us were very wary of the idea that Trump as president would actually do a lot of the things that he said as a candidate partly because he was, you know, obviously from way outside the mainstream and - of previous presidents. So perhaps the political science was useless. But there are a couple of things that I think are important to keep in mind. One is that the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist and a counselor to the president is an extension of something that was very clear when this piece was written, which was that Donald Trump will move around on a lot of issues. He's fluid, for instance, on what he would do on the technical basis of an H-1B visa, for instance, or whether or not he would allow school teachers to carry guns in the classroom.
But on three core ideas, he has stayed completely consistent. One of them is his belief that the United States is fundamentally being damaged by immigration. Number two is his belief that trade deals have done more damage to the United States than they have helped. And number three is his belief that the United States does too much for the world. As he said in 2015, I want to take back everything that the United States has given the world.
Steve Bannon, in his career at Breitbart, really transformed that organization into the principal exponent of those three ideas. So what you see today is Donald Trump is trying to balance the strategic objectives that his campaign road to victory in the form of Steve Bannon with the practical necessity of how do you actually operate within Washington. And for that, Reince Priebus, the new chief of staff, is the ultimate Washington professional. He has been here for his professional life. He has really risen to the top ranks of the Republican establishment, and he's now in the position to be able to try to help Donald Trump achieve his objectives.
DAVIES: You know, there's a point of view that says, yeah, ideologues can have their say, but it's the chief of staff who controls the president's schedule that really moves the levers of power. Do you have an opinion about whether one will be more important than the other?
OSNOS: I think if you look at the way that those two roles have been used in recent history, you find that they are both important, and in many ways, that's the design here. Steve Bannon has called Breitbart, which was his media organization, quote, "the platform of the alt right," unquote. And that is the previously fringe movement on the conservative far-right edge, which was founded by Richard Spencer who lives in Montana and believes in the separation of the races. And that has now moved sort of further into the mainstream as a result of Steve Bannon's rise within the Trump campaign and now his installation in the White House. But in order to get those ideas accomplished, you need somebody who really is just as skilled as anyone in sort of managing the levers of inside power in Washington, and that's where Reince Priebus comes in.
DAVIES: OK, I want to talk about some of the areas of policy that will matter here. And we'll try and figure out, you know, what Trump has said, what he believes, what he is really committed to and what he can actually accomplish by himself and what he needs congressional action for. One thing that people have talked about is that President Obama has done a lot with executive orders because of the gridlock in Congress and that President Trump, once he is inaugurated, can immediately undo a bunch of stuff simply by signing executive orders, repealing President Obama's initiatives. Is that true?
OSNOS: Yeah, that's true, and that's an explicit part of the incoming Trump administration's plan. Campaign advisers described it to me as a first-day project, by which they meant that on the first day or within a few days Donald Trump would seek to sign as many as 25 executive orders, or uses of executive power in other forms, that would, in the words of one adviser, erase the Obama presidency.
I should point out that every president when they come in uses executive powers in one form or another. Barack Obama, for instance, signed nine executive orders in the first 10 days. Doing 25 would be ambitious. People who have been through transitions before tell me that's not realistic. But he could do several things that would significantly undermine the legacy of the Obama presidency. His team has talked about this since Election Day, that one of the things that's important to them is to restart exploration of the Keystone Pipeline.
They will significantly expand the pace and intensity of deportations. They will seek to, if not formally remove the United States from the Paris climate agreement, then they will be able to take steps that basically undermine it so they can make sure the United States is not enforcing restrictions on carbon output. They can restrict funding and so on. So they can do things right away with the stroke of a pen that would pretty significantly undermine the legacy of the Obama presidency.
DAVIES: Is there some fine print here? I mean, I believe I've read that when some executive orders have gone past the rulemaking stage...
OSNOS: That's right.
DAVIES: ...There's a process. What does that mean?
OSNOS: Yeah, that's right. The hyperbole in saying that they would undermine the Obama presidency is that once an executive order has gone beyond what's known as the rulemaking stage, then that means that in order to undo it there has to be, for instance, a period of public comment. There has to be other bureaucratic steps. And that can take as much as a year or more depending on how efficiently the bureaucracy goes about it. And that's meaningful because I think the question of how civil servants will interpret efforts to try to undermine previous initiatives matters. But the relevant point is that by issuing the executive order the clock on that process begins.
DAVIES: OK. Well, let's look at some specific policy areas and figure out what might happen. Let's start with climate change. You just mentioned that. Do we - what do we know about his views on climate change and the extent to which he is committed to them based on his appointments so far?
OSNOS: Well, as a candidate and before, Donald Trump has expressed a lot of skepticism about climate change. He's called it a hoax. At one point, he described it as a hoax that was perpetrated by the Chinese in order to try to undermine American competitiveness. He later said that was a joke. Since Election Day, some of the appointments that he's made have made clear that he's going to make good on his belief that American energy policy and attempts to combat climate change are going in the wrong direction. So, for instance, Donald Trump's transition team for the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency is run by somebody named Myron Ebell who has been really one of the most outspoken skeptics of climate change, runs a program here called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and it opposes regulation. It's not clear exactly who funds it, but in the past, it was funded by fossil fuel companies including Exxon Mobil and others.
So this would be, I think, safe to say a radical change in the way the United States has talked and thought about climate change. One of the people that he has also indicated could be powerful in terms of shaping energy policy is Harold Hamm who was a billionaire who founded the shale oil company Continental Resources. He's been a big contributor to the Koch brothers fundraising network, and there is so far no indication that Donald Trump did not mean what he said when he talked about climate change being a hoax that has damaged American competitiveness.
DAVIES: Are there some specific things President Trump could do immediately to change the direction of climate policy?
OSNOS: Yeah, he could. The Paris climate deal is a formal matter, requires four years to unwind. So in the interim, he could immediately suspend American payments to the deal in effect. These are the payments that the United States would make to U.N.-affiliated agencies that would be in charge of both implementing the deal and then also helping developing countries pay for making some of the concessions and transitions that are required in order to implement it.
DAVIES: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Evan Osnos. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker. A few weeks ago, he wrote a piece about what a Trump administration might look like, what powers it would have to act immediately on his policy initiatives. And we're consulting with him now to look ahead at what a Trump administration might look like.
Let's talk about immigration. During the campaign talked about the wall at every rally building, a wall across the southern border. Often at times deporting up to 11 million undocumented workers, banning Muslims. Do we see movement on any of those positions?
OSNOS: Well, he in his very first interview since Election Day on "60 Minutes," Donald Trump said that he would plan to go ahead with deporting what he described as criminal undocumented immigrants. On one level, this is familiar and on another level, this could be very radical. The familiar element of this is that the Obama administration's own policy has been that if you are in fact an undocumented immigrant who is found guilty of a crime, then you are in fact subject to deportation. People sometimes forget that the Obama administration was criticized by some advocates for immigration for being too quick to deport people.
But the difference here and the point at which it may depart significantly from precedent in American history is how he defines what are the crimes and the infractions that would constitute grounds for deportation. So, for instance, is it that if somebody is convicted of a crime and goes to jail then therefore they can be deported? That will be one thing. But if it's that somebody can be stopped for a traffic infraction, for instance, or caught up in a raid at a factory or caught up in a raid at a boarding house, well then that would significantly change the way in which we understand deportation and the risks associated with it. So at this point, it's not entirely clear. He's talked about 2 to 3 million. Independent estimates say that if he follows through on the plan, he's talking about that that would be 5 million in the sort of short and medium term and then ultimately has talked about trying to achieve the deportation of all 11.3 estimated undocumented immigrants. But to get to $5 million, he would have to expand to something else which he said clearly on the campaign trail which is that people who have overstayed their visas would then be subject to deportation that that represents a large part of the number.
DAVIES: You talk to some experienced people in immigration for your piece in The New Yorker about what it would take to affirmatively go out and find millions of undocumented workers and get them out of the country. You want to share a bit of that with us?
OSNOS: Yeah. I spoke to Julie Myers Wood, for instance, who was the head of Immigration Customs and Enforcement under George W. Bush, and she is opposed to Donald Trump-stated policies on immigration in many ways. But she also said that it's a big mistake to assume that his ideas are so radical as to therefore be impossible, and that was her major point to me was that there are tools that are at the disposal of a president that would allow them to do this dramatic escalation of deportations. For instance, a president could give the IRS files to ICE, to Immigrations Customs Enforcement. So IRS files are considered to be the most reliable source of home addresses because a lot of undocumented immigrants who pay taxes, for instance, put in a reliable home address so that they can receive their refund.
If the president allowed it, that would then make it much easier for enforcement agents to be able to go out and find people. Another thing that would be at the disposal of a President is what's known as 287-G of the Immigration Act which would allow the local and state agents, basically cops of one kind or another, to be enlisted in service of the deportation project. So that's how you begin to see, for instance, local police being brought in for the purposes of raiding farms or factories and beginning to achieve the deportation numbers that he's talked about.
But in order to do so, it would take a significant escalation of manpower and also of resources. But what came clear from my reporting on the subject was that it's a big mistake to assume that it's - this is binary that you either will have the system as it exists today or you would have some completely unimaginable system that Donald Trump has talked about. There is in fact a spectrum in between that Donald Trump could move fairly substantially down the road to achieving his objectives on immigration.
DAVIES: And it would be very expensive to do that.
OSNOS: It would be very, very expensive. Depending on what he does, it could cost hundreds of billions of dollars because, for instance, if they were going to hire the number of what's known in formal immigration literature as apprehension personnel, that would need 90,000 apprehension personnel. That's several times the size of the total number of special agents in the FBI. That's not realistic. So I think more likely they would invoke 287-G which would allow them to draw on other government agencies to do that.
DAVIES: Do people think he'll really build the wall?
OSNOS: Yeah. I think the wall is one of the easier things to - for him to accomplish because he can redefine what the wall is, and you've heard him just in the several days since his election talk about the idea that fencing might be a part of it. The most reliable independent estimates of what it would cost to build a wall are somewhere between 25 and $40 billion. Michael Chertoff who was secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush has been very opposed to Donald Trump's presidency said to me, look, I think the wall is a ridiculous idea, but it's not logistically impossible.
And I think after talking to people on the Hill and talking to immigration experts and people who are involved in the actual construction of these sorts of large-scale infrastructure, what they say is that the most likely outcome here is that he will make a symbolic extension of what is already a federally financed border fence that has been in place for about a decade. And that that would allow him to satisfy his base and to say that he has gone ahead and built the, quote, unquote, "wall." But as a practical matter, it wouldn't really transform the way that the border is policed.
DAVIES: Let's talk about health care. I mean, he has - he and many others have promised to repeal and replace Obamacare. What do we know of his views since he was elected?
OSNOS: Yeah, as a candidate, he and certainly everybody in his campaign that I spoke to described their intention to uproot Obamacare root and branch. They talked about the replacing it, though it's not clear what that would be. Since then, he has changed his view on that.
He talks about holding on to two important elements of Obamacare. One is the ability to insure that people with pre-existing conditions can still get insurance, cannot be discriminated against by insurance companies. And then the other is to allow people up to the age of 26 to continue receiving insurance from their parents' providers. It's not clear how Donald Trump would be able to preserve those two elements while undoing the rest of the law.
However, there are some pieces of it that are vulnerable right away. For instance, Donald Trump and a Republican Congress could undermine the ability of the states to field health care exchanges. They could also remove federal funding for subsidies that help reduce the cost for individual policyholders.
But if he's going to try to do what he has talked about, which is to keep those two elements while getting rid of the rest of it, that's where you may begin to see that he starts running up against the edge of some of the internal dynamics in Congress because you have parts of, for instance, the Freedom Caucus, which is the far-right elements of the Republican House conference, 40 members or so, who would regard it as a concession, probably a compromise they couldn't accept if he decided to keep Obamacare and simply amended on its details. So that's where you may find that he runs up against that kind of opposition.
I think this goes back to something we talked about earlier, Dave, that's important, which is will Donald Trump do the things that he says he did as a candidate - because part of the reason why presidents end up doing the things that they said they would is often not because they absolutely wanted to do those things. It's because the internal dynamics of the presidency are such that if they don't do the things they campaigned on, well, then they begin to lose credibility with Congress and with the public. And so they almost get driven into these policy cul-de-sacs where they have to go ahead with things. You know, they have to sort of achieve the thing that they said they would otherwise it hurts their ability to do other things.
DAVIES: I mean, the tricky thing about saying that you're going to keep the provision which prohibits denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions and permits kids in their 20s to stay on their parents' policies is that if you do that but don't mandate everybody to get insurance, you know, it changes the economics because you don't have young healthy people paying in.
OSNOS: Absolutely. I mean, there's a reason why this law took so long to craft and involved so many subtleties is because you had to balance the political objectives, the policy goals with the practical economic realities. And the simple fact is that if you change one of the elements of this very delicate process, well, then it becomes very hard to imagine how you're going to be able to pay for it at all. So this - you know, we're beginning to see the point at which some of these sort of abstract declarations that he would replace it with something terrific will become much more practical and tested over the course of the next few weeks and months.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with The New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos about his article "President Trump's First Term." Let's talk about what changes Trump might make regarding tax cuts, the Iran nuclear agreement, trade and what the consequences might be if Trump starts a trade war with China after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos about what it would take for President Donald Trump to fulfill the promises he made during the campaign and how much of his agenda he can accomplish on his own without congressional action.
DAVIES: Let's talk about trade and the economy. You know, one of his core principles you said is the belief that trade deals have harmed America's economy and killed jobs. What authority would he have immediately to remake or undo American trade policy?
OSNOS: The president has broad authority on trade. So, for instance, right away, the president could end American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I think it's fair to assume that the TPP as it's known is now dead. But beyond that, he could also force Canada and Mexico to renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from it eventually.
There is a process in the case of NAFTA. He couldn't just do it immediately. But when it comes to slapping tariffs, for instance, on other countries, there's two ways to do it. One requires Congress and one doesn't. If he goes after specific categories of goods - so if he says, for instance, that, you know, Chinese exports of one specific type, let's call it, you know, chicken or tires or something like that, then he can use his own presidential power to do that sort of on an emergency basis. But if he's going to try to impose a broad-based tariff against a country, that would actually require the consent of Congress.
But I think the important point is that he has the ability to change the tenor of the trade relationship with a country by talking about it in other ways. And as we all know, you know, he talked about China in very harsh terms during this campaign. My own sense based on talking to his trade advisers and his China specialists was that that was a kind of theater. I don't believe that Donald Trump is prepared actually in any way to go to a trade war with China, I think, meaning that, you know, one of the things that his advisers said to me was that Donald Trump's persona that he - you know, he's confrontational, he says outrageous things, that that would have a chilling effect on the other side and that China would then fall in line. That's their theory. They're not actually prepared for the full economic consequences, which would be severe and profound, of a trade war with the world's second-largest economy.
DAVIES: Well, this is an interesting and important question. And you can't predict the future, but if, in fact, one of his core beliefs is that this is a big problem, we have to fix this to rebuild the American economy, what do the economists you talk to expect to happen? Are we going to have a trade war? What would it do?
OSNOS: A trade war could be a really dramatic turn in American economic history. If you talk to independent analysts, people who are not involved in either campaign, somebody - there's a guy, for instance, named Mark Zandi, who's an economist at Moody's Analytics. And he's worked for Republicans and he's worked for Democrats in the past. And what he says is that Trump's plan, if he actually did the things that he said he would and triggered a trade war with China that that would put probably somewhere around 4 million Americans out of work. And then over the ensuing recession that it would also cost the economy another 3 million jobs that would have been created otherwise.
Most economists broadly agree that a trade war would be hugely damaging to the United States. It's worth pointing out that actually Trump's own trade advisers, somebody named Peter Navarro and Dan D'Amico, they disagree. They believe that in fact it could be beneficial to the United States.
But I think this is one of those examples that once he gets to Washington and begins to hear from a broader range of more mainstream economists that he will begin to see that, OK, you know, a trade war really is not his first priority. And this helps me kind of form a general theory of how Trump will or will not do the things that he says he would. And what I've come to believe based on a lot of these interviews over the course of the last several months with people in the campaign and outside is that on economic matters, on matters of sort of tax policy, for instance, and most trade elements, I think he will basically conform to a traditional conservative set of ideas. And by the end of the campaign, his tax policy, for instance, was a fairly conventional supply-side case. It really didn't depart substantially from what previous Republicans have run on.
But when it comes to these other issues like immigration and sort of what we might describe as sort of political culture issues, things like treatment of the press and also his dealings in foreign affairs, on those matters, that's, I think, where we should expect him to be more like the candidate Trump than like a traditional Republican president.
DAVIES: One of the things he also says he wants to do is immediately cut the regulatory burdens on businesses on Wall Street. Can he do that himself?
OSNOS: He can. The president has authority, ultimate authority over 15 executive agencies. And he would be able to direct them to change the pace and spirit in which they are issuing regulations. He has said - I'm not clear on whether this is legally possible - that he wants to do a version of what Vice President-elect Mike Pence did in Indiana.
Pence created an agency that was dedicated to suspending the creation of all new regulations except for public health and safety. And it was a sort of an independent agency of its own. He did that at the state level. At the federal level, my understanding based on everybody I've spoken to is that it's more likely that he will try to do this through personnel, so, for instance, by appointing people at the top of the agencies - that the people he puts there could have a pretty dramatic effect on slowing down or stalling the creation of new regulations or rolling back things that are already in place.
DAVIES: He's promised big tax cuts. Will they really happen?
OSNOS: That, I think, is one of his better bets. He's got a Republican Congress on his side. And at this point, it's hard to see them not doing it.
DAVIES: And what kind of tax cuts are we talking about? I mean, for those of us who haven't carefully followed his campaign positions, are they upper income, middle income, everybody?
OSNOS: They provide the greatest relief to the upper stratum of the tax base, so the highest earners will do best. There is also tax relief for the sort of upper-middle-class. Then corporate tax rates will be substantially relieved. This has been at the core of his plan. His economics team said to me that they want corporate tax relief, meaning changing the percentage that companies would have to pay to be their stimulus plan. They want to put more money in the hands of corporations so that that can then drive growth overall in the economy.
DAVIES: If we're going to see big tax cuts and he still wants to spend a lot on rebuilding the military and some other areas, the wall and immigration enforcement, what's the fiscal impact in a world in which deficits are a serious concern?
OSNOS: Some of the independent analyses of his tax proposal put the impact on deficits to be in a vast range between $4 trillion dollars and $10 trillion dollars. I should say the Trump administration opposed those estimates. They said that they were biased. They said that the economists who'd produced them were sort of - they tried to establish links between those economists and liberal funding sources. At this point, I think it's realistic to expect that if Donald Trump does the things that he has talked about even since Election Day, that those would impose enormous new costs on the federal government.
And this is one of the ways in which he might find himself facing greater opposition than he expected from his own party because there are people in the House, certainly, and some also in the Senate who would be offended by the idea of introducing these enormous new costs. That's one of the things that I think is hard to anticipate at the outset, but he's almost likely - certainly likely to kick in after the honeymoon between, you know, the Republicans on the Hill and this new Republican White House is over.
DAVIES: And his answer has always been jobs and growth will take care of all that, revenues will soar. It'll be fine.
OSNOS: That's right. That's the - you know, typically that's the traditional answer when somebody is trying to introduce a major new spending initiative while also trying to cut taxes. But historically that has turned out not to be as reliable a formula as it's often described.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Evan Osnos. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker who's written about what a Trump administration might look like. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Evan Osnos. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He's written about what a Trump administration might look like.
Let's talk about foreign and military policy. He's criticized the deal with Iran. Can he scuttle that deal by himself?
OSNOS: Yes, he can. What he has said he wants to do is renegotiate the deal with Iran, and renegotiate is a sort of a flexible word. It's not clear what he means entirely. But were he to try to reopen that deal, that could actually - that could really change the course of things more broadly beyond just the Iran deal because at that point what happens is that Iran - and Iran specialists told me as much months ago - would regard the United States seeking to renegotiate the deal as an abrogation of the deal.
At that point, they would say that the United States has basically not held up its end of the bargain, and they would have the right - the legal authority and the right - to restart the development of nuclear energy. So I think he's going to find once he begins to get into the details of this that by simply announcing that he's going to renegotiate that might not achieve the effect he has in mind. It might actually hasten the restart of the Iranian nuclear program.
DAVIES: And so - well, this is confusing. There are other countries that are parties to the deal, right?
OSNOS: That's right, yeah. The challenge here is that in order to achieve the Iran deal at all, you had to get this kind of perfect storm in the best sense where you had to get the European countries onboard at precisely the moment that you had the United States and Iran at the bargaining table. And by reopening negotiations at a point when it's not clear that the United States is actually going to hold up its end of the deal anymore, that will, I think - Iran specialists say as much - will have the effect of driving some of the Europeans away from the table.
So the chances of being able to renegotiate the deal while also preventing further development of the nuclear program are very small. And if I had to guess, I suspect that this is one of the issues that he might have an evolution in his thinking once he gets into the room with people who know the most about the status of the program now and what would happen if they restarted it.
DAVIES: Gosh, it's hard to imagine after all of the harsh rhetoric about the Iran deal and what a terrible giveaway it was and all the money that he could back away from it.
OSNOS: And that gets us back to this kind of the core discovery that surprised me most which is that even when candidates don't seek to do the things that they actually said they would on the stump that the internal momentum of politics ends up forcing them to do things that are more emphatic or more absolute than perhaps they might have originally imagined.
DAVIES: When you wrote about Donald Trump and his policies towards the military and towards foreign affairs, the issue of temperament comes up. This is a loaded word. He hated being criticized for his temperament. But you have - you found a quote from his book "Think Like A Billionaire." It can be smart to be shallow, that he has a penchant for making big decisions quickly, that he trusts his gut. Share what - some of what you learned about what that might mean from your conversations with military and intelligence officials.
OSNOS: Yeah. When you talk to a broad range of people who have been involved in the most sensitive national security questions, you know - these are the people who've been in the Situation Room at crucial moments particularly from Republican administrations what they'll tell you is that the crucial ingredient is whether or not a president is impetuous, whether or not the president makes decisions before they have as much information and as many competing points of view as possible. And often as one - James Woolsey who is a former director of the CIA is now an adviser to the Trump administration - before he became an adviser to Trump, he said to me in an interview that very often the first information that a president receives is wrong. And we've seen that beginning all the way from Vietnam up to the present day. And part of the sort of crucial patience that's required is the ability to both wait until you have a fuller picture and then also be prepared to act. But if you act on the basis of limited information, history suggests to us that we would have made a lot of catastrophic choices.
If you look at Donald Trump's experience, he obviously does not have experience in government. He's never held public office or served in the military. What you find is that he prides himself - he's written about at several places - on his ability to make big decisions very fast. As he put it in his book he says, you know, I remember the day that I discovered that being shallow is a profound insight. And what he meant by that was that you don't want to get bogged down in overthinking things. You want to be able to be decisive.
And, you know, in the course of the campaign, we saw moments when he would do things impulsively. He would say something in an interview on a subject that he didn't know very much about and would then find himself having to backpedal. So, for instance, when he talked about the idea of punishing women who get abortions and then was informed later that that was contrary to precedent and legal norms that he had to sort of walk that back. If you put that into a national security context, there's going to be enormous pressure on his staff to ensure that he does not do things which his authority allows him to do before he has all the information that's possible.
DAVIES: And I guess that raises the question based on past experience and, you know, people who've been there, what constraints are there on a president who might make a rash and unwise decision?
OSNOS: The presidency is a unique office, to state the obvious. There is nobody who has the power to overrule the president, for instance, on nuclear authority. There are others in the chain of command who, if the president was incapacitated or disabled in some way would be able to use the nuclear arsenal. But they would have to do it in cooperation with others.
So what we find when you look back over the course of national security history is that the people who have interfered with a president's ability to use nuclear weapons, it's been individuals. It's been people who essentially acted out of their own judgment or conscience to do so. There's a couple examples. You know, to give you one, under President Nixon, Nixon actually asked his secretary of defense at the time, Melvin Laird, to put the United States on nuclear high alert.
Nixon hoped that this would frighten the Soviet Union. It would make the Soviet Union think that he was irrational. This was known as the madman theory. And Mel Laird thought that this was a very, very dangerous thing to do. And so what he did is he dissembled. He told Nixon that actually this was a bad idea because they had a previously scheduled training exercise, and he hoped that Nixon would forget about it. Nixon still said no.
After a couple days, he wanted him to go ahead with it, so they did. They put U.S. aircraft on course to fly towards the Soviet Union armed with nuclear weapons just as - essentially as a gesture. And there was an after action report later that described that exercise as a dangerous undertaking because there was an almost mid-air collision. So it does depend ultimately on the decisions of individuals but how they implement the president's will.
DAVIES: You've said one of his core beliefs is that America tries to do too much in the world, and he's made some pretty remarkable statements about welcoming new nuclear powers in the Far East, like Korea and Japan, suggesting that we might not live up to NATO obligations unless some of the nations pay more for American troops. Do the experts that you spoke to think he will actually do that? And even if he doesn't, what is talking that way - what's the impact of saying those things?
OSNOS: Well, if you take Asia for a second, in his - since Election Day, he has spoken to the South Korean president. And according to South Korean reports, he has indicated 100-percent support for that alliance. He has over the last few months disputed his own statements on the subject of whether or not he wants Korea and Japan to develop nuclear weapons. He said so clearly at one point, but he may have had a revision in his thinking.
But it's actually already had an effect on the way that nuclear weapons are understood in Korea. So, for instance, if you go to Korea today, you find that there are people in politics out on the edges of - particularly on the far right who are now talking about developing nuclear weapons in ways that they weren't before. And in effect, Donald Trump sort of gave them permission to do so.
So that's a demonstration, I think, of an important element here, which is that the words of a president are in their own way enormously powerful. You know, we talk about what he could sign, but really even before he signs something, just simply indicating something or saying something off hand can have a powerful effect. I think the best example of that based on the research for this piece was what he could do in Europe. Donald Trump as a candidate talked about the idea that he might not support NATO unconditionally. He was asked if a NATO member, for instance, was attacked, would you come to its defense. And he said I would first check to see if they'd fulfilled their financial obligations.
The Rand Corporation, which is a, you know, non-government research organization - over the years it's received four Nobel Prizes for its work on simulating conflict, on sort of gaming out future scenarios - and they had actually run a scenario just over the last couple of years that looked at exactly this question. What would happen if Russia was no longer deterred from attacking a NATO state? And what they discovered was that if they were no longer deterred that they could in fact achieve victory within 36 hours. They could be in the capital of Estonia, for instance.
And at that point then, it would come down to the question of whether the United States would seek to try to salvage NATO and protect it or whether it would abandon it entirely, which if it did so would be the end of basically 70 years of American national security strategy in Europe.
DAVIES: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. We will continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Evan Osnos. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. He's written about what a Trump administration may look like.
You know, there was reporting in the course of the campaign that suggests that Donald Trump doesn't have the patience to read long documents and burrow into policy detail. What's your sense of how he'll handle the demands of this, you know, huge waterfront of policy and decisions that you can't put on autopilot that the president needs to weigh in on?
OSNOS: Well, Donald Trump has said himself that he doesn't like to read as a way of getting information. He trusts his - what he describes as his own common sense. That's the term he uses often. He relies on people that he trusts, people that are around him. He does not have a computer. He uses his mobile phone, obviously, for Twitter as we know. But this would be a profound departure from previous presidents in terms of how they get information. I think, you know, Donald Trump tends to want to govern from his gut.
But in the early days here since Election Day, we've received some indications that he has been surprised. The Wall Street Journal reported from inside the meeting with President Obama they received reports that Donald Trump seemed to be taken aback by the scope of responsibility that he would have as president, the sheer range of responsibilities that he would have on a daily basis. So, you know, I think what historians will tell you is that the office of the presidency has a dramatic effect on people, and the simple act of getting into the office suddenly conveys to them the solemnity of that responsibility and having 310 million souls on their watch.
But it's not clear. You know, Donald Trump really is so different than anybody that we've had before that for him to change now at the age of 70 and take on a whole new set of decision-making instincts and to begin to challenge his own assumptions and his own instincts to say, look, the things that got me here are not the things that will help me succeed. I find that hard to imagine.
DAVIES: You know, last year, you wrote about white nationalist groups that have embraced Trump, and they feel he's expanded their reach, given them some legitimacy and, of course, since the election there have been some very troubling cases of swastikas, racist graffiti, some assaults racist hate speech. You know, some would see this as just a fringe that is an embarrassment to most Republicans and conservatives I'm wondering what you make of this and what the impact will be of Trump being in the White House?
OSNOS: Well, in some ways, this was a storyline that I think people who generally covered politics didn't initially embrace, you know, the idea that somehow the alt-right or the white nationalist world would be even talked about in a discussion of an incoming presidential. It was so ludicrous that we didn't even really do it. And then it just became very clear early on in the Trump campaign that they were a part of this phenomenon. The neo-Nazi website endorsed him for president 12 days after he announced. And later you follow it all the way through 20 months later. He was endorsed by the newspaper the KKK. Steve Bannon has been - who is now chief strategist in the White House - has been really the sort of principal thinker in terms of how do you take ideas that exist way out on the far right and get them in front of people's eyes that are more conventional readers?
And at Breitbart, that's really what he did. He sort of - it became the platform for the alt-right. When I spoke on Election Day to a white nationalist leader named Matthew Heimbach as the sort of results became clear, I said, you know, how are you feeling? And he said vindicated. And what he said was that this campaign and that the victory of Donald Trump has shown that there is an appetite out there for his ideas, even if people can't quite bring themselves to say so.
You know, I just have to say, I mean, this was so preposterous that we'd be talking about this a couple of years ago, that it's a reminder of how much politics have changed and been changed by the candidacy of Donald Trump. Now, look, how that actually translates into a White House, we don't yet know. But Steve Bannon is now a couple of steps from the Oval Office, and that's - we're in uncharted territory there.
DAVIES: Evan Osnos, thanks so much for speaking with us.
OSNOS: Thanks for having me, Dave.
GROSS: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. The article they discussed in The New Yorker is titled "President Trump's First Term." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.