When it comes to Iran, Trump and Obama aren't yet looking much different

Story highlights

  • Trump strikes a very different rhetorical tone than President Obama
  • But his foreign policy has not yet taken a sharp curve away from the last president

New York (CNN)As a candidate, President Donald Trump pulled no punches in his criticism of the Obama administration's multilateral pact with Tehran to curb the Iranian nuclear program. The deal stank, he said then.

Now his secretary of state is, for the time being, certifying it.
"I've been doing deals for a long time, I've been making lots of wonderful deals -- great deals -- that's what I do. Never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran. And I mean, never."
    It was September 9, 2015, a few months into his presidential campaign, and Trump was in Washington, where he was addressing a rally against the Obama administration's historic nuclear pact with Tehran. Trump by then had established himself as a Republican primary player. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz welcomed his rival to the event, reasoning that where Trump went, the cameras followed.
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    That much has remained the same. But when it comes to the Iran deal, Trump has, for the moment, changed. Blaring skepticism has given way to (yet another) pragmatic adjustment. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday delivered a letter to Congress confirming that Iran has kept up its end of the controversial bargain.
    The letter pads what will be an unpopular conclusion among GOP hawks with word that Trump has ordered a review of plans to lift sanctions in accordance with the deal, citing the Iranian government's ties to assorted terror groups. To follow through on the implicit threat would, ironically, put the US in defiance of the terms of the agreement.
    Which is to say, it's not happening. At least not yet. By fate or fancy, the Trump administration has effectively taken on the foreign policy of its predecessor. The missile attack on Syria -- a one-off tactical jab -- was initially celebrated (or denounced) as a departure from Obama's caution, but the reality is that American strategic positions in multiple foreign theaters remain essentially indistinguishable from a year ago.
    Democrats will, of course, use this as another example of Trump betraying his campaign promises. That's fair enough. Candidates make outlandish claims at their own political peril. But the reality here is that reality, more than any president, rules. Who saw it coming? Former Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, kidnapped by Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, in 1985 and held for nearly seven years, offered a pretty good preview.
    "The Iranians aren't at Trump's beck and call, and they won't be if he's elected president," Anderson told The New Yorker after the 2015 speech. "It's so idiotic that I don't know how to address it. One of the first things a president learns when he comes into office is that he can't simply order things and make them happen -- in our government, let alone anyone else's."
    If he hasn't yet learned that, then Trump has surely experienced it. Though largely true to his campaign pledges as a matter of effort, he has been repeatedly turned back by the same forces he vowed to tame. Obamacare remains, thanks to in the intransigence of his own party. NATO? "Obsolete" no more. Tax reform? That could be the most difficult feat of all.
    President Trump's reversals
    before becoming president
    after becoming president
    NATO
    March 27, 2016
    "I think NATO's obsolete. NATO was done at a time you had the Soviet Union, which was obviously larger, much larger than Russia is today. I'm not saying Russia's not a threat. But we have other threats."
    April 12, 2017
    "I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change. Now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete."
    China
    June 28, 2016
    "I'm going to instruct my treasury secretary to label China a currency manipulator."
    Attacking the Syrian government
    August 29, 2013
    Tweet: "What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval."
    April 6, 2017
    "Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched…" Trump did not ask for nor receive congressional approval to launch his attack.
    Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen
    September 12, 2016
    "She's keeping (rates) artificially low to get Obama retired … I think she is very political and to a certain extent, I think she should be ashamed of herself because it is not supposed to be that way."
    April 12, 2017
    "I like her, I respect her … It's very early."
    Executive orders
    July 10, 2012
    Tweet: "Why is @BarackObama constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority?"
    March 31, 2017
    Trump has issued 23 executive orders, including his controversial travel ban, since taking office on January 20.
    The unemployment rate
    March 12, 2016
    "The numbers are phony. These are all phony numbers. Numbers given to politicians to look good. These are phony numbers."
    March 10, 2017
    White House press secretary Sean Spicer: "I talked to the President prior to this and he said to quote him very clearly: 'They may have been phony in the past, but it's very real now.' "
    Presidential golf
    October 13, 2014
    Tweet: "Can you believe that,with all of the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf.Worse than Carter"
    February 11, 2017
    Trump has visited his golf courses 16 times since taking office. In early February he tweeted: "Played golf today with Prime Minister Abe of Japan and @TheBig_Easy, Ernie Els, and had a great time. Japan is very well represented!"
    The Export-Import Bank
    August 4, 2015
    "I don't like it because I don't think it's necessary … It's sort of a featherbedding for politicians and others, and a few companies. And these are companies that can do very well without it. So I don't like it. I think it's a lot of excess baggage. I think it's unnecessary. And when you think about free enterprise it's really not free enterprise. I'd be against it."
    April 12, 2017
    "It turns out that, first of all, lots of small companies are really helped, the vendor companies. But also, maybe more important, other countries give [assistance]. When other countries give it we lose a tremendous amount of business."
    Federal hiring freeze
    October 23, 2016
    "On the first day of my term of office, my administration will immediately pursue … a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce the federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health)."
    April 12, 2017
    Trump signed a presidential memorandum freezing federal hiring days after taking office. Then, on his 82nd day in office, budget director Mick Mulvaney announced this: "What we are doing tomorrow is replacing the across-the-board hiring freeze that we put into place on day one in office and replacing it with a smarter plan, a more strategic plan, a more surgical plan."
    Even China, an ever-present campaign trail piñata, has been spared in deference to existential concerns on the Korean Peninsula. "They're not currency manipulators," Trump told the Wall Street Journal a week ago, after more than a year of guarantees that he would order his treasury secretary to label the country a currency manipulator.
    His explanation was simple. Pyongyang and its nukes were the priority.
    "What, am I going to start trade war with China in the middle of (Chinese President Xi Jinping) working on a bigger problem with North Korea?" Trump said during an interview with Fox News. "I'm dealing with China with great respect. I have great respect for him. We'll see what he can do. Maybe he won't be able to help. That's possible. I think he is trying. Maybe he won't be able to help. That's a whole different story."
    And so it goes for the Iran deal. Is Trump going to begin unraveling the dense, multinational accord in the middle of a ramped-up war on ISIS and escalating tensions with Syria (plus Russia and Iran by proxy)?
    Not yet. His tactical unpredictability, for now, only stretches so far. Through nearly 100 days in office, Trump's foreign policy has a familiar ring.