Trump Onslaught on International Law and Institutions

In mid-March 2017, Jack Goldsmith argued that “we are witnessing the beginnings of the greatest presidential onslaught on international law and international institutions in American history.”  This page documents that onslaught, in reverse chronological order.


July 17, 2017. FP reports that, according to several State Department officials, Secretary Tillerson is planning to shutter the Office of Global Criminal Justice, which focuses on war crimes, as part of an internal reorganization of the Department. 

July 8, 2017. In an event of great geopolitical moment, President Donald Trump refuses to affirm the global commitment to fighting climate change through the Paris Agreement at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, prompting a caveat in the G20 Leaders Declaration and leading some commentators to dub the gathering of world leaders the "G20 plus one."

June 1, 2017. President Trump announces from the Rose Garden of the White House that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the international climate change accord signed by 195 countries, justifying the move on the grounds that the agreement is "draconian" and unfair to American businesses and workers. The move has been widely denounced by heads of state, former government officials, members of Congress, and leaders of industry. 

May 1, 2017. President Trump invites Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been fiercely criticized for alleged human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings, to the White House, arguing that the issue of securing against North Korea takes precedence over human rights. The invite is part of a pattern of Trump praising strongmen, including Egypt's President al-Sissi and Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. 

April 25, 2017. In a potentially major diplomatic faux pas, Secretary Tillerson sets up a meeting with African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki, the head of the 55-African-nation bloc, then backs out at the last minute.

April 12, 2017. Secretary of State Tillerson, breaking with precedent, skips meeting with civil society leaders during his trip to Russia. The move comes on the heels of massive anti-Putin protests in Moscow in late March. 

April 6, 2017. President Trump launches 59 Tomahawk missiles against Syria's Al Shayrat air field in response to a chemical weapons attack against Syrians in Idlib province by the Assad regime without providing an international law justification for the strike. There is disagreement among legal scholars about whether an international legal justification exists for the strike.

March 31, 2017. The White House signals that it will no longer allow human rights issues to become a public point of conflict with Egypt, with aides saying that President Trump will deal with the issues "in private." 

March 29, 2017. The State Department reportedly notifies Congress that it supports selling F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without requiring it to improve its human rights record, abruptly reversing an Obama administration decision to condition the sale on a better human rights regime in the country.

March 27, 2017. The State Department, after starting press briefings on March 7th following radio silence for the first six weeks of the Trump administration, abruptly ends them again in favor of giving "background briefings," by unnamed officials on specific topics. 

March 24, 2017. The Trump administration plans a 40% cut to the State Department peacekeeping budget and the elimination of all U.S. funding to the International Organizations and Programs account, which provides large amounts of funding to UNICEF, the U.N. Development Program, and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, among other international organizations. The administration also plans to eliminate the State Department's Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance (ERMA) account. 

March 23, 2017. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says he will reschedule a meeting of NATO foreign ministers next month after Secretary of State Tillerson makes plans to skip the meeting in favor of a visit to Russia later in April. 

March 21, 2017. The Trump administration refuses to attend hearings in Washington by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on its immigration and asylum policies, citing on-going litigation over the matters in U.S. courts. This justification is decried as flimsy and absurd.  

March 18, 2017.  Under American pressure, the G20 drops its traditional pledge to oppose protectionism. 

March 16, 2017.  NYT documents Secretary of State Tillerson’s “low-energy” diplomacy.  

March 15, 2017.  Trump proposes a budget that would cut sharply the State Department and USAID budgets, and that would eliminate various agencies related to international affairs as well as funding for the United Nations and many of its agencies.

March 13, 2017.  It becomes clear that President Trump is in the process of removing the policy restrictions that President Obama imposed on the use of force against terrorists and of using force closer to the broad legal limits marked out by the Obama administration.

March 8, 2017.  Secretary of State Tillerson threatens to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council absent “considerable reform.” 

March 3, 2017.  In a breach of tradition, neither Secretary of State Tillerson nor anyone else at the State Department appears in person to introduce the rollout of the Department’s annual human rights report.

February 15, 2017.   Secretary of Defense Mattis threatens to reduce NATO funding unless NATO allies pony up. 

January 25, 2017.  Draft Executive Orders on “Auditing and Reducing U.S. Funding of International Organizations” and “Moratorium on New Multilateral Treaties” leak.

January 23, 2017.  President Trump formally abandons the Trans-Pacific Partnership.