As Donald Trump abandoned the international nuclear agreement with Iran yesterday, the president offered a handy soundbite, intended to capture his resolve:
There was some irony hanging over the boast: Trump, for reasons that don’t make any sense, yesterday abandoned an American promise to honor an international agreement, which made it an odd time for the president to brag about keeping promises.
“Today’s action sends a critical message: The United States no longer makes empty threats. When I make promises, I keep them.”
It was also curious to hear Trump denounce empty threats, given how regularly he bluffs badly. Indeed, it was last summer when the president promised to rain “fire and fury” onto North Korea if Pyongyang continued to threaten the United States. In response, Kim Jong-un continued to threaten the United States, at which point Trump did nothing – except eventually praise Kim and give the dictator much of what he wants.
While we’re at it, the idea that Trump keeps his promises is itself rather amusing. After all, this is a president who promised not to cut taxes on the wealthy and not to endorse cuts to Medicaid and Social Security. He also promised Dreamers they could “breathe easy,” right before he cut them off at the knees, while also promising families he’d repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with a plan that achieved universal coverage with higher quality and at a lower price.
But even putting all of this aside, there’s something else about this that bugged me: yesterday’s move on the Iran deal isn’t exactly what Trump promised he’d do.
Way back in September 2015, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent noted that then-candidate Trump’s posture on the Iran deal was actually marginally more sensible than many of his GOP rivals’ positions. “Politically, and certainly for the nomination, I would love to tell you that I’m gonna rip up this contract,” Trump told MSNBC at the time. “I’m going to be the toughest guy in the world. But you know what? Life doesn’t work that way.”
It seems like ancient history, but at the time, the future president’s position was that walking away from the Iran deal was probably unrealistic. Indeed, Trump was even more explicit on this point during a “Meet the Press” interview in August 2015.
Donald Trump warned that the nuclear deal with Iran would lead to a “nuclear holocaust” but said, in an interview that aired Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” it would be “very hard” to undo the deal. […]
[H]e went on to acknowledge that even as president he may have to abide by it. “It’s very hard to say, ‘We’re ripping it up,’” Trump said. […]
[A]dmitting he’s likely stuck with the deal, Trump said he would do with it one of the things he says he does best in the business world – “police the contract.”
“I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that even if they’re bad,” he said, in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd on his private plane. “I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance. As bad as the contract is, I will be so tough on that contract.”
It’s worth emphasizing that there are some examples of Trump taking a tougher line on this policy. That’s part of the problem with scrutinizing the president’s record to see if he’s keeping his promises: Trump made all kinds of promises, mostly without any real thought, many of which plainly contradicted each other.
But no one should take yesterday’s rhetoric at face value. As a presidential candidate, Trump effectively promised to enforce the Iran deal, not kill it.