Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, walks behind President Donald Trump after answering questions from the media following a meeting at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., on Aug. 11, 2017.

Trump's move on Iran deal? At its core, a compromise with his cabinet.

Trump decides to 'decertify,' but not scuttle, the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, illustrating both how the president is at odds with his top advisers, and what are the limits of their influence.

Donald Trump’s presidency has given new meaning to the phrase “team of rivals.”

Under President Abraham Lincoln, it meant bringing former political foes from his own party into the cabinet. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, it meant forming a diverse, bipartisan cabinet that would present conflicting points of view, allowing the president to draw his own informed conclusions on policy.

For President Trump, it has meant – at least on international relations – cabinet and other top advisers at odds with the boss, pitting a more stay-the-course foreign policy against some of the president’s more dramatic, and often nationalist, impulses. It is a conflict that has increasingly burst into the open.

Trump’s decision Friday to “decertify” the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal presents a stark example. His advisers wanted him to declare that Iran is still in compliance with the accord, which aims to limit Iran’s nuclear program to civilian purposes, and that the deal is in America's national interest. But Trump rejected that advice, forcing his advisers to find a compromise.

“There are some issues that unite these advisers, and one is not blowing up the Iran deal altogether,” says Elizabeth Saunders, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. “It’s Trump versus everybody on his team.”

Trump did not quit the Iran deal outright, but instead said Iran is not complying, and sent the matter to Congress, which will have 60 days to set up new conditions for US participation in the deal. During that period, it can decide whether to introduce or restore sanctions on Iran. Decertification is allowed under the multinational accord, but imposing sanctions is not.

“We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror, and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout,” Trump said.

This victory for the “mainstreamers” who dominate Trump’s national security team was not a foregone conclusion. When Trump took office, his original team included the controversial national security adviser Michael Flynn, as well as nationalist firebrands Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. All three are now gone, with Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster taking over as national security adviser and John Kelly, a Marine Corps general, as chief of staff.

“The mainstreamers now control the bureaucratic process,” says Thomas Wright, a senior fellow on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “It doesn’t mean they can get everything they want, but they can block things that they don’t particularly want.”

That has meant preventing outreach to Russian President Vladimir Putin, preventing a trade war with China, and reaffirming support for the mutual defense principles of NATO, Mr. Wright notes.

The administration is working hard to present a united front, telling reporters the entire national security team is behind Trump's Iran decision. But that image of unity has been undercut by the recent slew of stories about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly calling Trump a “moron” – the issue was US nuclear weapons – and threatening to resign. Secretary Tillerson has denied the threat, but pointedly did not deny the slur on Trump’s intelligence (although his State Department spokeswoman did deny it).

And Trump has very publicly undercut top members of his foreign policy team, particularly Tillerson. Trump’s tweets this month on North Korea, saying that Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with the North Korean leader, struck a jarring tone. “Save your energy Rex,” Trump continued.

Trump’s feud with Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has also fed the narrative of a mercurial president at odds with his top advisers. Once considered a prospect for Trump's running mate and then secretary of State, Senator Corker told reporters that a handful of top Trump advisers were keeping the country from “chaos,” warned that the president could trigger “World War III,” and called the White House an “adult day care.” Trump blamed Corker for the Iran deal (though the senator did not support its original passage), and mocked his slight stature.

Fissures in the GOP

Trump’s unorthodox style, combined with his newness to foreign policy and to government in general, has made for an unsettling stew to some observers. But behind all the palace intrigue there sit more fundamental questions: Where, in fact, is Trump going with a foreign policy predicated on a campaign slogan of “America First,” and what, if anything, do the tensions over his foreign policy direction say about the Republican Party?

The answers, analysts say, begin not with Trump but with the sweep of Republican history going back decades.

“If there is a division between Trump and his cabinet on foreign policy, it only reflects longstanding fissures within the GOP on the general subject,” says historian David Pietrusza. “It goes beyond the Iran deal or Korea. It goes beyond neocons and Iraq.”

The division also extends beyond the great 1952 presidential rivalry between isolationist Robert Taft and internationalist Dwight Eisenhower, back to the “America First” debates preceding Pearl Harbor, and even to hashing out whether the US should join the League of Nations, Mr. Pietrusza says.

In the modern era, however, the America First ethos has not resided in the White House – until Trump. And so for the nation, this is a signal moment.

Some describe the tension between Trump and his cabinet as “anti-establishment” vs. “establishment.” Tillerson, perhaps, belongs in a third category – like Trump, an outsider, as one new to government after a career in business, but also with an “establishment” seal of approval. Tillerson came to Trump recommended by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

Policy tensions are also visible over international trade, most urgently on the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, the free trade pact among the US, Canada, and Mexico. Trump made clear during the campaign he wanted to rip up NAFTA, but then as president he backed off, after his secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce showed him a US map indicating areas where jobs would be lost if NAFTA ended – many of them populated by Trump voters.

This week, during an Oval Office visit with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump again suggested NAFTA might be on the chopping block. If Mexico, Canada, and the US can’t make a deal, he said, the pact “will be terminated and that will be fine.”

'Pretty conventional'

Still, the earlier NAFTA decision and others – such as Trump’s decision in August to boost US troop levels in Afghanistan, despite his skepticism – demonstrate a willingness to hear out his advisers and change course.

James Carafano, a Heritage Foundation foreign policy expert who served on Trump’s transition team, calls the president’s foreign policy “pretty conventional,” and cites Trump’s decision to put the Iran nuclear deal in Congress’s lap as one example.

“Europe ought to be pleased that the White House is listening to them,” says Mr. Carafano.

“The core of his foreign policy is peace and stability in Western Europe, Asia, and the Middle East,” he adds, citing Trump’s continuing commitment to NATO as one example. “We’re not going to withdraw from the world. I don’t think anyone believes he’s an isolationist.”

Carafano points to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and his handling of the Iran deal as instructive. Neither are formal treaties, and President Obama could not have gotten either through Congress if he had tried, he notes: “So in pulling out, it’s difficult to say he’s way out of the mainstream.”

As for the future of Trump’s national security team, questions abound. The predominance of “mainstreamers” on his team came in part from his love of military generals and because there wasn’t much of a “bench,” says Wright of the Brookings Institution.

But “in time, he will find kindred spirits or people who will be more aligned with what he wants to do,” says Wright. “Some of those will be opportunists, others may be true believers. But I think as he finds people, he may very well try to change the script and remove some of the mainstream elements.”

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