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Ex-Obama Adviser Talks About Trump

  • Harold Hongju Koh (Yale Law School photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 2/17/2017 12:08:55 AM
Modified: 2/17/2017 10:37:08 AM

Hanover — The former legal adviser at the U.S. Department of State during the Obama administration told an audience at Dartmouth College on Thursday night that international law in the Trump era faces a dire fate.

“After less than a month in office, is there any strategy ... just turmoil,” said Harold Hongju Koh, referring to the administration’s immigration executive orders that have been blocked by several court decisions.

Koh is an international law professor at Yale, where he formerly was a dean. About 100 people attended the talk in the college’s Filene Auditorium.

“The refugee ban is bad, bad policy ... reflecting a total breakdown in the legal process,” Koh said. “Twenty-three lawsuits have been filed against the (immigration) orders; only one judge ruled in the administration’s favor. When the news of the ban came out, 4,000 lawyers volunteered to provide legal advice (to people affected). ... Some raced to (New York’s John F.) Kennedy airport in cabs driven by people from the seven countries (named in the executive order).”

“(President Donald) Trump tweeted, ‘See you in court.’ But which one? And on what basis?” Koh continued. “Where is the evidence that the terrorist threat has increased?”

He mocked the current administration’s contention that the immigration order is not a ban on Muslims.

“If you put lipstick on a pig, it is still a pig,” he said.

The child of Korean immigrants, Koh has had extensive experience in international law and was a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. He met with students and faculty earlier in the day, sporting a black suit, bright yellow tie and bulky rubber snow boots. He mentioned that he will represent Ukraine at the International Court of Justice in a case against Russia for the annexation of Crimea and military incursions into eastern Ukraine.

Using colorful slides and graphics, Koh briefly touched on a range of global issues facing the United States, all with complicated legal implications: accelerated climate change, cyberwarfare, use of drones for targeted killings and Russian hacking and meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“How much does Trump care about these things? He seems to think everything is politics and since he won the election, he can do what he wants. ... He doesn’t realize that these things are connected and you might want to pause before making pronouncements or decisions. ... For example, he made the overture to Taiwan, infuriating China. Yet, he may need China’s help in trying to deal with the potential threat from North Korea,” Koh said.

Despite the gloomy forecast for international law, Koh suggested there could be hope for the country in adopting a version of the “rope-a-dope” boxing strategy used by the late Muhammad Ali.

“Let Trump flood the zone, punch himself out, rope the dope,” he said. “Congress will get tired of him. ... The federal bureaucracy will push back with leaks.”

He emphasized the need for citizens to organize and speak out against policies they feel are unjust or ill-conceived. And he warned against despair, cautioning the audience not to give up too easily.

“Just remember what (New England Patriots quarterback Tom) Brady did in the last quarter of the Super Bowl,” he said.

Tom Blinkhorn can be reached at

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