Trump Sidelines State Dept., Tasks Trusted Staffers with Making Case to Decertify Iran
President Donald Trump has reportedly sidelined the State Department and entrusted White House staffers with making the potential case for withholding certification of Iran at the next 90-day review of the nuclear deal, Foreign Policy reported.
According to the report, the president made the decision after his "contentious meeting" with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week.
"The president assigned White House staffers with the task of preparing for the possibility of decertification for the 90-day review period that ends in October — a task he had previously given to Secretary Tillerson and the State Department," an unnamed source told FP.
FP explained that Trump relayed the new assignment last Tuesday to a group of White House staffers after he reluctantly signed certification.
"This is the president telling the White House that he wants to be in a place to decertify 90 days from now and it's their job to put him there," the source told FP.
According to FP, three unnamed sources described the new process as a way to work around the State Department, which the president felt had given him no other options but to sign certification.
“This is about the president asking Tillerson at the last certification meeting 90 days earlier to lay the groundwork so Trump could consider his options," one of the sources said.
"Tillerson did not do this, and Trump is infuriated. He can't trust his secretary of state to do his job, so he is turning to the few White House staffers he trusts the most," the source added.
According to FP, there's been friction for "months" between the White House and State Department over how to handle the Iran nuclear pact — something Trump had vowed to tear up during his presidential campaign.
Last Monday, as the administration was set to certify that Iran was meeting the necessary conditions, "the president expressed second thoughts around midday" and a meeting between Trump and Tillerson that afternoon "quickly turned into a meltdown," FP reported.
Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, and Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president, repeatedly asked Tillerson to explain the U.S. national security benefits of certification, FP reported.
"The president kept demanding why he should certify, and the answers Tillerson gave him infuriated him," one source told FP.
Tillerson is "trying to be a counterweight against the hard-liners, trying to save the [nuclear deal], but how long can that last?" one unnamed senior State Department official told FP. "The White House, they see the State Department as 'the swamp.'"
Tillerson's communications adviser, R.C. Hammond, disputed the account of the meeting between Trump and Tillerson, however.
"Not everybody in the room agreed with what the secretary was saying,” Hammond said. "But the president is certainly appreciative that someone is giving him clear, coherent information."
Former UN ambassador John Bolton advocated for the United States to withdraw from the Iran deal last week in an opinion piece at The Hill, calling recertification "an unforced error."
Certification is an unforced error because the applicable statute (the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, or “INARA”) requires neither certifying Iranian compliance nor certifying Iranian noncompliance. Paula DeSutter and I previously explained that INARA requires merely that the Secretary of State (to whom President Obama delegated the task) “determine…whether [he] is able to certify” compliance (emphasis added). The secretary can satisfy the statute simply by “determining” that he is not prepared for now to certify compliance and that U.S. policy is under review.
This is a policy of true neutrality while the review continues. Certifying compliance is far from neutral. Indeed, it risks damaging American credibility should a decision subsequently be made to abrogate the deal.
Bolton on Twitter Monday derided the Deep State's arguments defending Iran as "complete nonsense."
Trump's team of "hardliners" tasked with making the case for withdrawal includes "Middle East adviser Derek Harvey; Joel Rayburn, the director for Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria; Michael Anton, who handles strategic communications; and Victoria Coates, who works as Anton's deputy on strategic communications," according to the report. Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka are also expected to be involved.