By Donna Mo


President Trump has so far failed in his attempt to end the nuclear threat from North Korea, according to Yale legal scholar Harold Koh, who says Trump originally threatened Pyongyang only to later revert to a diplomatic approach.

“He needs to do his homework and develop a strategy that’s going to work,” Koh told a UC Santa Barbara audience last week in the first of two lectures on Trump’s foreign policy, sponsored by the Walter H. Capps Center.

A former legal adviser to the Dept. of State, Koh also spoke on the contradictions between Trump’s foreign policy and international law in his evening lecture. He focused on issues such as immigration reform, human rights and climate change.

His main message was clear: Donald Trump is not winning against a global legal system that developed during the 20th century. “He doesn’t own the law,” Koh said.  

There is a counter-strategy at work similar to boxer Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope” technique, Koh said, where Ali allowed his opponents to tire themselves out. As Trump continues to create policies that threaten to violate international law, those working outside the federal government can oppose these policies on legal grounds. “Let Trump ‘punch himself out’ by expending energy and capital on various initiatives that do not advance party chance for re-election,” Koh said.

Critics worry that Trump’s policy initiatives will have lasting negative repercussions, but Koh outlined how Trump has been largely unsuccessful in his attempts to enact these policies.

One of his most controversial policies, the so-called ‘travel ban,’ which blocked citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, violates the First Amendment religion clause. The ban came under criticism by media outlets, members of Congress, states and U.S. allies. It was legally challenged by many, including former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and John Kerry, who filed a six-page joint declaration against the ban. Soon, continued pressure and resistance forced Trump to withdraw the original travel ban and then second and third versions of the ban.

“But the travel ban is not over,” Koh said. It was upheld in the Supreme Court. Still, Koh believes that Democrats, who now hold majority in the House, will start to create legislation to undo it.

Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy, which separates children from their parents at the border, was similarly overruled by two judges. One ruled that children and families cannot be apart for more than 20 days. “As a result, Trump has pretty much reverted back to the policy of catch and release,” Koh said, continuing to explain Trump’s failed policies.  

In June 2017, Trump announced the decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, a treaty meant to lower greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. The decision came under much criticism, but Koh argues that Trump’s decision has little meaningful legal impact.  Under the terms of the Paris agreement, Trump can’t withdraw from it until November 4, 2020, the day after the next U.S. presidential election. The legal scholar’s message about that was similar to what he said about other policies. “Trump doesn’t own climate change,” said Koh. 

Koh reassured his UC Santa Barbara audience that Trump’s policies will not last if citizens continue to fight for laws they wish to uphold. “POTUS is not the only one player in the process. We all own it.” 

Donna Mo is a fourth year Communication major and Theater minor. She is a Web and Social Media intern with the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.