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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.

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.

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.