The indelible takeaway from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was his unrelenting assault on political norms, the countless things he said and did that serious candidates just weren’t supposed to say or do. It was a reality-show circus of OMG, WTF and sometimes LOL, and it was all supposed to be disqualifying: his birtherism and vaccine denialism, his racially charged critique of a Mexican-American judge, his mockery of a disabled reporter and a Gold Star family, his insinuations that Vince Foster and Antonin Scalia were murdered, his refusals to release his tax returns or disavow David Duke, and finally his taped musings about where he likes to grab women. But none of it disqualified him. The norms that White House aspirants can’t make up crime statistics or admit they’ve never read a presidential biography or publicly urge foreign powers to hack their opponents’ emails are now ex-norms. You can’t even say that violating them is unpresidential, because their violator has been the president for almost 100 days.
The indelible takeaway from those first 100 days is that Trump’s assault on political norms has continued. In fact, he has violated Washington norms so casually and constantly that his norm-breaking is becoming normalized. That shattering of protocol and expectations may turn out to be more consequential than any of his massive policy promises or modest policy achievements to date.
Story Continued Below
Some of Trump’s he-did-what? provocations have been consequential in their own right, like his explosive accusation that President Barack Obama wiretapped him, which he refused to retract even after it was debunked, or his conspiracy theory about 3 million illegal voters, which many see as a prelude to a push to restrict voting rights. He’s flouted democratic norms with banana-republic attacks on journalists, judges, protesters, the Congressional Budget Office and other critics beyond his control. He’s flouted anti-corruption norms by refusing to divest his business empire, spending almost every weekend at his own clubs, and making little apparent effort to avoid conflicts of interest. He’s defied the Washington hypocrisy police with incredibly brazen flip-flops on Syria, Medicaid cuts, China, NATO, Goldman Sachs and the nefariousness of presidential golf. And even though he had no experience in government, he’s shocked Washington by surrounding himself with aides with no experience in government: his son-in-law, his daughter, the former head of a right-wing website and a Goldman executive.
What’s also shocking is what’s no longer shocking, like the president getting his news from “Fox & Friends,” or calling the Senate minority leader a “clown,” or obsessively trashing Hillary Clinton months after he beat her, or congratulating Turkey’s leader for rolling back democratic rules, or repeatedly threatening to let the individual health insurance market collapse to score political points, or suggesting his speech to Congress was the best speech ever given to Congress, or appearing to suggest he thinks his “good friend” Luciano Pavarotti and even Frederick Douglass are still alive. Trump’s Twitter feed is a through-the-looking-glass jumble of baseless allegations, over-the-top boasts and all-caps reactions to whatever he just saw on TV. Even more amazing: Trump’s national security adviser was fired after just three weeks in office for lying about his contacts with Russia, and his White House aides apparently helped engineer a charade where the House Intelligence chairman pretended to uncover evidence supporting the president’s impulsive wiretapping tweets. The thing is, whenever there’s amazing news, new amazements soon overshadow it, and the national conversation moves along.
The point is that the unprecedented is becoming commonplace. Imagine how the media would have reacted if Obama had signed a party-line bill to let oil companies hide their payments to foreign governments, or if his spokeswoman had urged Americans to buy products from his daughter. Imagine how Fox News would have reacted if Obama’s White House had released (and defended!) a Holocaust remembrance statement that didn’t mention Jews, or if his wife had decided to live in Manhattan instead of the White House. In the Trump era, it all blends into Trump-being-Trump background noise. We barely notice when he promises to negotiate bilateral trade deals with European countries that are legally prohibited from negotiating bilateral trade deals, or when his administration puts out a press release consisting entirely of administration officials praising him. It wasn’t a big story when Trump’s nominees for Army secretary, Navy secretary and deputy commerce secretary withdrew because they couldn’t unwind their financial conflicts, even though their would-be boss didn’t even try to unwind his. Remember his trash talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings at the National Prayer Breakfast? Did his White House really accuse the British of spying on him, too? The bar for surprise rises every day.
Trump’s critics complain that his constant envelope-pushing distracts from more important news, like the Russia scandal, his failure to deliver on his campaign policy agenda, and his unwillingness to drain the Washington swamp he once railed against. And yes, it’s important to focus on issues that matter. Trump’s “Contract with the American Voter” listed 10 pieces of legislation in his “100-day plan,” and it’s a big deal that he and the Republican-controlled Congress have passed zero of the 10. He keeps saying he’s achieved far more in his first 100 days than any previous president, but other than the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and a tougher approach to undocumented immigrants, he hasn’t implemented many tangible changes to federal policy. It’s just as important to recognize that he’s proposed some radical shifts for the future—lower taxes, less regulation of businesses, a reversal of Obama’s climate and civil rights policies—and installed movement conservatives in positions where they could help make them happen. Presidents also have a lot of power to affect the world, and Trump has already begun talking tough with nuclear North Korea, sending missiles into Syria and dropping mega-bombs on Afghanistan.
Still, the weirdness and norm-breaking of this White House isn’t a distraction from what matters. It matters.
It matters partly because it reflects Trump’s apparent belief, most famously expressed in his observation that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing votes, that he can do whatever he wants without repercussions. It also matters because Trump’s whoppers about everything from his inaugural crowds to media cover-ups of terrorist attacks actually do have repercussions for his credibility, serving notice to the world that he’ll invent his own facts to suit his own narratives. Trump promised to be unpredictable in foreign affairs, and he has kept that promise, but his turn-on-a-dime decisions to bomb Syria and declare NATO no longer obsolete also served notice to the world that nothing America says can be taken for granted. If the Trump administration says a naval carrier is heading toward North Korea, it might be, or maybe not.
This is uncharted territory for America, and that’s the real takeaway from Trump’s first 100 days. In this fifth edition of Politico’s Did-It-Matter-Meter, we’ll try once again to evaluate the immediate impact and potential significance of major Trump-era developments. But honesty compels us to admit that we don’t really know how this Life Comes At You Fast presidency will shake out. Nobody does.
The Short List: On a recent cold opening of “Saturday Night Live,” a fake President Trump—played by Alec Baldwin, whose impression of Trump, according to the real Trump, “just can’t get any worse”—asked Vice President Mike Pence to read his list of 100-day accomplishments. “Of course, sir,” Pence replied. “Nominated Neil Gorsuch.”
“God, I love that list,” Trump replied. “What a beautiful long list.”
That was an exaggeration, but not a wild exaggeration. Trump seemed to think he could snap his fingers and reverse the Obama era, but so far, he has gotten very little done. His travel ban was blocked in court, so he revised it, but the revised version was blocked as well. The Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare crashed and burned. Trump pledged to undo Obama’s Wall Street reforms, carbon regulations and tax hikes on the rich, but they’re all still in place. He hasn’t pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, reversed Obama’s opening to Cuba, scuttled Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, or moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, either. Not only has he failed to persuade Mexico to pay for his border wall, he’s failed to persuade Congress to pay for it. His entire budget was declared dead on arrival on Capitol Hill, and there’s still no sign of his trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. He’s signed a lot of executive orders, but most of them were glorified memos, signaling policy desires without forcing policy changes. He did sign bills blocking 13 out of more than 20,000 Obama-era regulations from taking effect, but they merely preserved a small slice of the status quo, and he hasn’t signed any other substantive legislation. Of course, getting a Scalia-style conservative on the high court was a victory that produced real change; Gorsuch could swing U.S. jurisprudence to the right for decades. Trump also formally pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal—although Congress hadn’t ratified it, and wasn’t going to ratify it—and began the process of trying to renegotiate NAFTA, although that could be as difficult as replacing Obamacare. Whether or not Trump is right to boast that he’s put together “the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled,” he’s stocked that Cabinet with some extremely conservative forces for change, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, budget director Mick Mulvaney, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Elections do have consequences, and those men will steer their agencies in new directions.
So far, though, 532 of the 554 key jobs requiring Senate confirmation are still empty—and Trump has not even nominated a candidate for 508 of them. In general, the story of his first 100 days has been a words story, not a deeds story, an embarrassing contrast to Obama’s action-packed early presidency. Trump has seized control of the national narrative and taken up residence in the national headspace, but he hasn’t put much of a stamp on federal law, federal rules or the federal bureaucracy. So far he’s been a showhorse, not a workhorse, and in Washington, showhorses often struggle to produce lasting change.
Immediate Impact: 4. Potential significance: 8.
A Change in the Climate: Perhaps the most significant example of the gap between Trump’s rhetoric and early achievements is in the high-stakes arena of climate policy. The president has promised to scrap Obama’s Clean Power Plan regulating carbon and other EPA restrictions on electric plants, ease fuel efficiency mandates for automakers, abandon the Paris climate deal and bring coal mining back to life. He hasn’t done any of those things yet. He’s gotten a lot of press for signing executive orders proclaiming his desire to do many of them, but that’s not the same thing. Utilities are continuing to phase out coal. Clean energy is still on the rise. Trump’s administration probably won’t enforce rules that limit carbon, mercury, ozone, methane and other fossil-fuel pollution too vigorously, but it won’t be easy for him to kill the rules.
Still, as the scientific community and national security establishment warn of a climate emergency, it’s undeniably consequential that Trump has transformed the U.S. government from the leader of the world’s efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to a hostile bystander. The climate doesn’t care that the president has dismissed global warming as a made-in-China hoax; last year was the hottest year ever recorded on Earth, and last month the extent of Arctic sea ice melted to a record low. Nevertheless, the U.S. was the only country that refused to reaffirm its commitment to the Paris deal at a recent meeting of G-7 energy ministers. Trump’s budget proposed to slash climate programs—it dismissed NASA’s climate research as overly “Earth-centric”—and Mulvaney called them all “a waste of your money.” Pruitt has been a climate skeptic as well as an avid opponent of EPA regulations, and now he’s in charge of them.
Trump can’t stop climate progress. But he can slow it down, when the fate of the planet may depend on full-speed-ahead.
Immediate impact: 2. Potential significance: 9.
You’re Not Welcome: The domestic policy area where Trump is having the biggest impact is immigration enforcement, because it’s the area where he has the most discretion. He hasn’t changed any laws or built any walls, but he has sent a powerful message that undocumented immigrants are no longer welcome here, and he has ended the Obama administration’s policy of leaving noncriminal aliens alone. His tougher approach has produced instant results: The Border Patrol said its arrests at the southern border were down 67 percent in March, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests of noncriminal aliens inside the U.S. have more than doubled. America’s undocumented population—which remained steady around 11 million during the Obama years, despite Trump’s claims of an overwhelming surge—seems likely to shrink significantly under Trump, through voluntary and involuntary removals.
This is obviously a promise kept. And even if you think the Obama administration was right to focus scarce enforcement resources on felons rather than undocumented hotel maids and tomato pickers, Trump has the right to enforce the law. But he is causing a lot of stress in immigrant communities; families are living in fear of getting torn apart, and many American-born children now worry that their undocumented parents might get detained and deported while they’re at school. Trump has also demonized the undocumented as dangers to ordinary Americans, ordering regular government reports on crimes they commit as well as a new federal office to care for their victims. At the same time, Trump’s Fortress America attitude—even while his proposed ban on new refugees remains on hold—is sending a stay-away message to the world. Tourism officials have reported a distinct “Trump Slump” as foreign bookings decline, with Travel Weekly estimating a drop of 6.8 percent.
The U.S. hasn’t always honored the “give us your tired, your poor” creed on the Statue of Liberty, but we’ve always been seen as a welcome-mat country, sending an inviting message to the world. Trump sees us more as a doormat country, letting the world walk all over us, and that’s something even a showhorse president can change.
Immediate impact: 5. Potential significance: 8.
From Russia With Love: The slow-rolling scandal over Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election is clearly a threat to the Trump agenda and the Trump presidency, but it’s pretty complicated to follow. And Trump has further muddied the waters with his unfounded allegations about political surveillance, which have helped his allies spin bombshell revelations about his campaign—like the Justice Department getting a warrant to investigate whether one of his foreign policy advisers was a Russian spy—into talking points about Obama overreach. The Trump campaign’s connections to Russia have the makings of a Watergate-style nightmare, but Trump’s allegations about Obama, if true, would also be a Watergate-style nightmare. It’s just that there’s no evidence for Trump’s charges, while the Russia revelations continue to drip, drip, drip.
Here’s a simple way to think about it. Watergate required a byzantine connect-the-dots investigation to connect low-level burglars to the president, while two of the figures at the heart of Kremlingate, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, were Trump’s national security adviser and campaign manager. Both have a history of ties to Russia, and both are reportedly under FBI investigation for neglecting until recently to register as foreign agents—Flynn for Turkey, which has cozied up Russia in recent years, and Manafort for his work with a Ukrainian political party with close Moscow ties. Flynn was fired after just three weeks in the White House for lying about his chats with the Russian ambassador, and has asked Congress for immunity to testify about what he knows. Manafort has said he did not knowingly talk to Russian intelligence officers while working for Trump, but top presidential campaign officials don’t usually need to include the word “knowingly” in statements like that. Those guys were major figures in Trump world. There’s no need for elaborate connecting of dots beyond them.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Sessions, who chaired the Trump campaign’s national security committee, was forced to recuse himself from his department’s Russia investigation after misleading Congress about his own contacts with Russia. House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes had to step aside from his committee’s investigation as well, after his odd Kabuki show designed to promote Trump’s surveillance conspiracy theory was exposed as a sham. Trump’s connections to Russia are still shrouded in mystery, but he did publicly call for Russia to hack Clinton’s emails, he was bizarrely solicitous of Vladimir Putin on the trail, and wide-ranging investigations are never good news for a president. The fate of his White House could depend on the results, and this story will be a major headache for him until the results are in.
Immediate impact: 4. Potential significance: 9.
Team Players. Democrats have spent Trump’s first 100 days raging about his Russia connections, his business conflicts, his unreleased taxes, his government-funded trips to Mar-a-Lago and just about everything else he’s said or done. But the Republicans who control Congress have not. In fact, when the federal ethics watchdog criticized Trump’s conflicts of interest, House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz threatened to subpoena the watchdog. And when damning news has aired about Russia, Chaffetz, Nunes and other Republicans have vowed to get to the bottom of who leaked the news, not the actual news. After its ferocious, interminable, generally fruitless investigations of the Obama administration, the GOP has shown little interest in oversight of the Trump administration.
This is perhaps predictable in this hyperpartisan era, even though Trump repeatedly attacked the Republican establishment and the Republican Congress on the trail. After all, GOP lawmakers will depend on Trump supporters to reelect them in 2018. The president’s overall approval ratings have hovered around a historically abysmal 40 percent, but more than 80 percent of Republicans still back him, so congressional Republicans are reluctant to buck him. The big exception was the GOP health care bill, which was so wildly unpopular—one poll found just 17 percent of the public liked it—that House leaders couldn’t cobble together a majority to pass it. Still, for the most part, Capitol Hill Republicans have generally aligned themselves with Trump, voicing few objections to any of his Cabinet picks, acknowledging him as the leader of their team. “Saturday Night Live” parodied this phenomenon, too, in this trailer for a movie about a brave Republican—TBD—who stood up to Trump. There are still a fair amount of Never Trump Republicans on Twitter and in think tanks, but not in Congress.
That’s crucial, because as long as Republicans continue to support Trump and hold majorities in Congress, he won’t be impeached or probably even seriously investigated. On the other hand, if GOP lawmakers start to distance themselves, everything could be fair game, and Trump’s hopes for his legislative agenda could go from slim to none. GOP leaders were thrilled to get Justice Gorsuch, and they’re hoping for more victories on judges, tax cuts and other conservative priorities. But in swing districts and swing states, Republicans know there could be risks to aligning with the president if he doesn’t get more popular.
Immediate impact: 4. Potential significance: 9.
Who Is Trump? Why Is He Here? One reason Washington Republicans are sticking with Trump is that, when you look past the noise, he has mostly tried to govern like a typical Washington Republican, more corporatist/globalist than populist/nationalist. He has already broken his populist promises to fight cuts to Medicaid, stay out of the Syria conflict, and declare China a currency manipulator. He signed all 13 of those Republican bills striking down Obama-era rules, even though most of them reflected the desires of GOP-friendly business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rather than his drain-the-swamp campaign rhetoric. He’s stocked his administration with Goldman alumni and K Street lobbyists, and he’s relying heavily on the CEOs he keeps shuttling into the White House for advice.
The big proxy battle for this struggle over the soul of Trumpism has been the vicious White House rift between chief strategist Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart media mogul who is the keeper of Trump’s populist/nationalist flame, and more establishment-minded advisers like Trump’s daughter Ivanka; son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and top economic aide Gary Cohn. Bannon was winning early on, engineering a slot for himself on the National Security Council, inspiring a variety of President Bannon memes and a Time magazine cover that angered his boss. But lately his star is fading, as he’s lost repeated policy battles, gotten kicked off the NSC and suffered the indignity of a public presidential warning that he isn’t indispensable. Bannon is the White House aide who best represents Trump’s middle finger of a campaign—the racial and cultural resentments, the America First assault on the free-trade, global-cop Republican establishment, the appeal to working men at VFW halls rather than businessmen at country clubs. Bannon still keeps a whiteboard of Trump’s campaign promises in his office. But the dimming of his star suggests that Trump is embracing a more standard Republican ideology, ditching his fight-the-power campaign rhetoric.
Then again, Trump used to be a pro-choice Democrat; he’s never been driven or constrained by deep ideological principles. If standard Republican ideology doesn’t work out for him, he could easily evolve again.
Immediate Impact: 6. Potential Significance: 8.
The Community Organizer: The 2016 election was a debacle for Democrats, and the aftermath has featured a predictably circular firing squad. But Trump may be achieving the impossible, mobilizing Bernie Bros and Wall Street Dems and Hillary dead-enders toward the common purpose of fighting him. The anti-Trump energy has been obvious ever since the day after his inauguration, when Women’s March protests attracted more people than the inauguration itself. The Trump backlash has helped a populist Bernie Dem in Kansas and a more conventional Clinton Dem in Georgia run competitive races in special House elections in deep-red districts, and it could conceivably drive a Democratic wave in 2018.
Or maybe it won’t. Democrats not named Barack Obama have not fared well at the polls in recent years, and they face a tough political map in 2018. But the resistance to Trump, like the tea party resistance to Obama, is already making a substantive mark; ferocious grass-roots opposition to the Republican health care bill helped scuttle it in Congress. The mobilization against Trump could persuade vulnerable Republicans to resist him on issues like tax reform as well. And if Democrats do manage to convert Trump’s unpopularity into House or Senate majorities next year, it will completely scramble American politics.
Immediate Impact: 4. Potential Significance: 9.
Tough Town: Trump is obviously a successful man with a flair for communication and self-promotion. He resurrected his business career after bankruptcies; he stunned the political world by winning the presidency. He’s often underestimated.
Still, it must be said: He seems totally clueless about Washington.
It was no secret during the campaign that Trump knew virtually nothing about public policy, but it’s still been eye-opening to watch that play out on the White House stage. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he said at one event, which was like saying that nobody knew Geico could save you 15 percent on your car insurance. Trump has also admitted that he dropped his opposition to the Export-Import Bank after a brief chat with the CEO of Boeing, the biggest beneficiary of the Export-Import Bank, and that he believed China controlled North Korea before a brief chat with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump said.
In fairness, Trump never claimed he was a policy wonk. He always said he would rely on his common sense and his instincts rather than briefing books and study. But he did claim he was a master negotiator, and so far the author of The Art of the Deal has shown no feel whatsoever for the art of the Washington deal. He summoned the House Freedom Caucus to the Oval Office to try to muscle them into supporting his health care bill, to no avail; he also threatened them on Twitter with primary challenges, to no avail. He’s been just as ham-handed with Democrats on health care, infrastructure and the budget; he noisily demanded that they fund his border wall, but when they refused, he backed down. His assumption that he could easily bully Mexico into paying for the wall and granting big concessions on NAFTA looks wrong, too. He hasn’t made an actual deal yet on anything. He never seems to recognize how much leverage he has or doesn’t have, or what his negotiating partners might want or need. He just blurts out what he thinks should happen and then distributes the blame when it doesn’t happen.
The usual Washington solution to this kind of Washington problem is to bring in a “Washington hand,” a fixer who can help the president get things done. But Trump sees himself as his own fixer, working the phones, cutting the deals. It’s just not clear whether his particular set of fixing skills can work in D.C. There’s some truth to Trump’s recent complaint that 100 days is a ridiculous timeline for judging accomplishments—even though he promised unprecedented accomplishments in his first 100 days, then repeatedly declared that he had kept his promise—but he doesn’t seem eager to change his approach over the next 100 days. And presidents don’t usually get more powerful as time passes without major achievements.
Immediate Impact: 5. Potential Significance: 8.
The Freak Show: Yes, the Trump administration really did hire a massage therapist with no energy experience to run a major office at the Energy Department, and yes, the guy really was fired for calling Muslims “scum sucking maggots of the world” on Twitter. Yes, the president attacked Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s clothing line, and yes, the Chinese government approved 35 of his trademarks almost immediately after he agreed to respect its One China policy. Yes, he had Sarah Palin, Kid Rock and Ted Nugent to dinner at the White House, and yes, he quasi-endorsed a quasi-fascist in the French election.
The Trump presidency often feels like reality TV. But it’s reality. His current showdown with North Korea is a real showdown. His painfully awkward meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was a real meeting. His news conference where he described his rookie-run, blood-feuding White House as a “fine tuned machine,” claimed his Electoral College victory was the largest since Reagan’s—it was actually the second-smallest—and asked a black reporter whether she could broker a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus was a real news conference. His tweet urging his 28 million followers to buy a gag book called “Reasons to Vote for Democrats”—the gag is that all 266 pages are blank—was a real tweet.
It wasn’t normal, though. Very little about the past 100 days has been normal.
Trump made it clear the day he descended his golden escalator to launch his campaign, and within minutes accused Mexico of sending rapists across the border, that he was not a normal candidate. And he swiftly built his candidacy around a dystopian vision of America that simply wasn’t real. Unemployment was falling, not soaring; crime was near a 45-year low, not a 45-year high; illegal immigration was not surging at all. But Trump had tremendous success with his alternative facts, and made it clear during his dark inaugural address about “American carnage” that he’d continue to deploy them in the White House. He’ll decide what’s fake news, not the fact-checkers. When Obama was president, the low unemployment rate was “phony,” but as his press secretary Sean Spicer sheepishly explained, now that Trump is president, the low unemployment rate isn’t phony anymore. That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.
This kind of gaslighting works better for messaging than governing. Trump made lots of promises about a terrific theoretical health care plan that would increase coverage and improve care and reduce costs, but when he finally backed an actual health care plan that didn’t do any of those things, hardly anybody liked it, and he couldn’t browbeat Republicans into passing it. He’s promised a wonderful tax reform plan and a fabulous infrastructure plan, too, but he hasn’t shared any details yet with anyone on Capitol Hill. Reality has also intruded on his foreign policy promises about swiftly crushing ISIS and fixing NAFTA and showing China who’s boss; actual war and diplomacy has turned out to be much harder than theoretical war and diplomacy.
This is why Trump has gotten so little done, and why he’s breaking unpopularity records for new presidents. For now, though, only 2 percent of Trump’s voters say they regret their vote. They still trust Trump’s alternative facts more than reported facts. And they still prefer Trump’s norm-breaking to Washington norms.
It’s a good bet that he’ll keep breaking them. It’s anyone’s bet how that will turn out.
Immediate impact: 3. Potential Significance: 9.
More from POLITICO Magazine
Let’s block ads! (Why?)