William Crotty – Donald Trump’s Presidency: Stage One

This is a guest post by William Crotty, editor of Winning the Presidency 2016 (Routledge, 2017)

Introduction: The first 100 days of a new presidency is considered a marking point. In this post, the recently inaugurated president is evaluated in relation to:

  • his (in this case) approach to governing; the quality, background and experience of his appointees to federal office;
  • his substantive initiatives and accomplishments in domestic and international affairs (trade, military actions and relations with other nations);
  • the operational efficiency and professionalism of his administration and its decision-making.

Comparisons are then made with previous administrations and in particular with that of his predecessor.

Donald Trump responded to his 100-day anniversary with one of his many unpredictable outbursts, calling it a false standard of no significance. Then he did his best to provide the media and voters with a sense of a hyper-active presidency, on the move and transformative.

It largely failed. The Trump presidency was criticized on a number of levels from his chaotic White House to his being an uninformed and even ignorant leader, leading an administration with no clear direction or substantive achievements of merit. Nonetheless, Trump, by accident or self-interest, was correct in scoffing at the first 100 days of a presidency as a marking point; it is one that shows little predictive power in determining the final perception of an administration. Still, accepting the conventional standard serves the purpose of providing an early assessment of an administrative ability to adapt to the demands of the world’s most powerful office.

Taken in this context, the evaluations have not been kind. Trump was seen as unprepared for the presidency; ignorant of its working of government; unfamiliar with the history of the country or its relation with other nations; favoring billionaires, military personnel, conspiracy theorists and nationalists in running his administration; an unpredictable and vengeful leader; and autocratic in style and thinking. Government appeared not to interest him and his issue concerns focused mainly on rewarding those of wealth and, through his family, continuing his business interests. As he would say, he never expected the presidency to be as complicated as it was. He considered Washington a “swamp,” as he said in the campaign, and did his best to spend time in Florida golfing and entertaining at his Mar-a-Lago estate, club and golf course. He had even used his property to conduct business fully in the public eye (his meeting with the prime minister of Japan and their reacting to a North Koran threat being one of the more dramatic instances).

The pattern and style of his decision-making and the values and priorities forming these are clear extensions of those found in the campaign. Basically the administration is run exactly like the campaign – it is a one-man operation – and the promises made in the election provide the blueprint for the administration.

A final point before looking at what has and has not been achieved. However Trump may be judged by the media and outsiders, his core supporters continue to back him. Unlike Barack Obama, he has made it a priority to continue the rallies that marked the campaign, which he enjoys, to give his followers his version of events. In two national polls (taken before the firing of the director of the FBI), 97 to 98 percent of Trump voters continue to support him and believe he is doing what he promised to do. However one assesses his actions, the political landscape has been in turmoil since his assuming the office of president.

Appointments: Trump has appointed Wall Street executives to his major economic positions in the administration, all with no government experience. He has appointed high-ranking military officers to defense and national security positions. Beyond these, he has chosen people to lead Cabinet and other agencies who are committed to ending them (Gov. Rick Perry of Texas in the energy department) or want to end their mission (Betsy DeVos heading the education department and wanting to stop funding for public schools, and Scott Pruitt, who has repeatedly sued the EPA, the agency he now heads) and/or who have no knowledge of the department’s mission (Dr. Ben Carson in housing). He has fired but is yet to replace federal prosecutors nationwide. Additionally, hundreds of other government positions have been left open.

Sources of Information: Given his lack of knowledge or experience in understanding government operations, Trump depends heavily on outside sources to keep him informed and up-to-date. He does not trust government agencies and he particularly distrusts the national security agencies and the CIA. Consequently, and given his predilection for conspiracy theories and nationalist commitments in policy matters, he relies on Fox News, a conservative network (he spends a considerable amount of time watching TV), and hard-core nationalist radio programs. Stephen K. Bannon, one of his closest advisors, is a product of such an environment.

Trump relies primarily on himself and his instincts, does not prepare himself for situations and comes across as disorganized, temperamental and unpredictable, qualities he appears to value. Add to this his family, and especially his daughter Ivanka who has an office in the White House, who are called on for advice and to run his business affairs. He also has a large if informal number of corporate executives who meet with him personally or on a semi-regular basis.

Trump’s major issues in the campaign were repealing the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”); revising (“reforming”) the tax code to cut rates and further reward the wealthiest; and stopping immigration and deporting undocumented aliens and anyone who has entered the country illegally, regardless of length of residence.

The record:

  • Trump’s major preoccupation during his campaign as well as a major agenda item of the Republican party since it was passed by the Congress was the repeal of Obamacare. He promised a better, more efficient and less expensive replacement that would continue to be inclusive.

It turned out that neither Trump or the Republicans had a plan in mind. House Speaker Paul Ryan along with a handful of House colleagues did put together a bill that would largely end Obamacare, change the tax code to help the wealthy and cripple Medicaid which serves many of the medical needs of the poorest Americans. Trump signed on and promised a “bloodbath” if all Republicans did not vote for it. It fell short of 11 supporters to gain a majority and so was not brought to the House floor. The outcome was considered a disaster for the administration and Democrats claimed that Obamacare was now safe. They were wrong.

The Far Right Freedom/Tea Party Caucus opposition had sunk the bill. They then came up with a more restrictive bill that eliminated more services, cut Medicaid by $800 billion and changed the tax code to move the same amount to the wealthiest of Americans. The bill would deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, a particularly sensitive issue.  Trump and Ryan signed on. It passed by 4 votes. The bill passed a Republican-controlled House in a matter of days and without Congressional Budget Office review of the cost, making a mockery of the legislative process. The Republican Senate indicated it may write its own bill.

The second attempt at repeal (The American Health Care Act) makes changes to the subsidies for those who buy their own healthcare insurance. It includes a provision that states can opt out of some or all of the act’s provisions. Most of the state governments are now in the hands of the Republicans who have argued for the ability to opt-out from the beginning. It has a particular appeal to them and should the final bill keep this option, most states will enforce it, using this as the opportunity to limit or totally deny benefits to their residents.

Trump sent a one-page revision of the tax code to Congress. It would redraw the tax laws, again transferring wealth to the best-off, ending estate and other taxes that affected the richest and lowering the maximum tax a corporation or individual could pay to 15 percent (down from a standard of 35%). It offered minor changes to advantage the working and middle classes. The Congressional Budget Office has yet to calculate the losses in revenue for the government from the tax proposal or for the health care repeal bill passed by the House.

Trump increased arrests and efforts to deport undocumented aliens (a total of 22,000 from January to March, 2017) and attempted to shut down immigration from five Muslim countries. The administration has encountered court efforts to review or halt such actions. Trump responded to the courts’ questioning of his plans by saying he would restructure the federal court system to eliminate such delays in the execution of his orders.

These were Trump’s major initiatives.

In addition:

  • Trump is reviewing and cancelling as promised all Executive Orders issued by his predecessor Barack Obama. These include environmental restrictions on oil, gas and coal production and other (health-related) provisions; efforts to control climate change; limits on pipeline expansion throughout the country including approval of the Dakota Access pipeline and allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to proceed; set-asides of public lands for national parks and recreation; safety guidelines; the Dodd-Frank bill limits on Wall Street; government support for the arts and PBS; and so on. He is attempting to reverse the Clean Power Plan and international agreements on air and water pollution, open national parks and protected waterways to oil drilling, reverse efforts to prohibit oil and coal companies from dumping toxic waste into waterways; and end any restrictions on corporate earnings. Further in this context, he proposes to cut the EPA’s budget by 31 percent, along with related cuts in the budgets of other federal agencies concerned with domestic programs.
  • Trump’s off-hand remarks appeared to reverse the two states objectives for Israel-Palestine and reinstate the two nations approach for China and Taiwan.
  • He imposed tariffs on goods coming into the U.S. such as lumber and dairy products while threatening to withdraw from NATO and canceling the Trans-Pacific Partnership Obama attempted to have passed in his final days in office.
  • Trump appointed and had confirmed in close Senate vote hard-right conservative Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
  • Trump ordered 59 cruise missiles fired into Syria in response, the White House said, to the Syrian government’s use of poison gas on its population.
  • With or without his direct approval, the military dropped the “mother of all bombs” second in impact only to a nuclear bomb and never before used on a reputed ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan.
  • He signed order for constructing a wall along the Mexican border but funding has been left uncertain.

The actions taken have been frantic and mostly unpredictable, a style that Trump likes and one that suits his temperament. In broad terms, the effort is to reduce domestic programs to a minimum; remove all restrictions in the public interest on economic activity; end environmental safeguards; stop immigration; and introduce a contentious and challenging foreign policy to international affairs, a phase that is just developing.

An issue that would not go away is Russia‘s role in the election in promoting Trump’s candidacy and in the number of advisors to Trump’s campaign and nominees for federal office with contacts of various kinds to the Russians. Most of these have been denied. They include the senator (Jeff Sessions of Alabama) chosen as Attorney General who lied on his ties to the Russians in his confirmation hearing and the national security director, former general Michael T. Flynn, who had lied to the Vice President and others about his Russian associations. He was fired by Trump. There have also been such alleged associations between other members of the administration and advisors to Trump’s campaign.

The White House refused to investigate the charges as to date has the Congress and the Justice Department which also has refused to appoint a Special Prosecutor to look into the matter. The FBI says it is investigating such ties but will not give out any information. Critics argue this is what the FBI should have been doing during the campaign.

Shortly after appearing before the Congress and indicating the Russian connections to the Trump campaign and White House appointments and advisors was under investigation, Trump fired the FBI director, James T. Comey. The firing caused a sensation and drew comparisons to Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Presidential historian Richard North Patterson: “… this latest spasm of self-absorbed self-preservation carries the anomalous stamp of Trump’s disordered psyche.

… what is so distinctive and disturbing here is Trump’s naked desire to attack the legal system itself, reducing his presidency to a cage match between our institutions of justice and a man who does not even pretend to represent them.”  (Richard North Patterson, “A President Is Acting Guilty and Unhinged,” Boston Globe, May 11, 2017, p. A14).

Trump’s reaction was to meet with Russian government officials, including that county’s ambassador to the United States, a principal in the controversy, and to prohibit the American press from covering the meeting. The photo of the event to appear in the media was supplied by the Russians. Trump has also said he may stop daily press briefings for the media and limit these to one every two weeks which he himself may lead, rather than his communications staff.

One thing is clear: Trump loves strongmen. He has praised Vladimir Putin of Russia repeatedly. He personally called President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, charged with the mass killings of drug dealers, praised him and invited him to the White House. After having his Secretary of State threaten North Korea with the possibility of military action, he completely changed direction, praising North Korean dictator Kim Jung-Un and while warning that “nobody is safe” from North Korea nuclear weapons said he would be “honored” to meet with him. Besides Putin and Duterte, Trump has congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, a former army officer who instigated a ruthless purge of dissidents and Islamists. “. … Trump seems to have a genuine affinity for men of action who brook little dissent.” (Ishaan Tharoor, Today’s Worldview: “Trump’s Invitation to Duterte Is a Sign of the Times,” Washington Post, May 1, 2017.

Donald Trump had begun his post–100 day presidency by:

  • Saying the Civil War (1861-1865) in which 600,000 Americans died was unnecessary. Abraham Lincoln was responsible for it. If Trump’s new hero, populist President Andrew Jackson, was in charge the war would not have taken place. Jackson was a slave holder. The two sides (North and South) should have made a deal, according to the president.
  • Said visitors logs to the White House will no longer be publicly available.
  • Changed May 1st, normally a day to celebrate labor unions, into “loyalty day” intended to honor nationalism, small government and his presidency
  • Announced an increase in military actions in Afghanistan
  • Said the United States government needed “a good shutdown” in the fall to force a partisan confrontation over federal spending
  • Waived all rules on the conflict of interests

There of course is much more but this should give an idea of the administration, how it operates and what it believes important.

Democratic Party Opposition: As for the Democrats, potential presidential candidates for the party’s 2020 nomination are beginning to stir. These include the familiar – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and possibly Hillary Clinton – and the not-so-well-known- members of Congress, mayors of major cities and governors. Meanwhile, while the congressional House and Senate parties have vigorously contested the Trump presidency, the 2018 congressional elections are coming up, for which the Democratic party has not prepared.

The party was devastated under Barack Obama. He had no interest in it, did little campaigning for candidates, ignored party-building and basically controlled the national party to ensure it offered no opposition to his presidency. In the process, he left the field to the Republicans. The results were the Democrats lost 69 House seats and 13 Senate seats and lost their majority in both houses of the Congress. They also lost just under 1,000 state legislative seats. The party is in its worse shape since 1922 and Democratic governors at their lowest ebb since 1865. To date, it has yet to begin recruiting candidates for the 2018 off-year congressional and state races.

The DNC during Obama’s presidency and under his control was a part-time operation. The then-chair’s one preoccupation was in advancing Hillary Clinton’s pursuit of the presidency. In the words of the Democratic leader of the Senate, the national committee was “useless.” And the neglect took its toll.

Given this, the battle for control of the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in early 2017 assumed unusual importance. It pitted a progressive Congressman committed to rebuilding the party against a member of the Obama administration, a centrist with no electoral experience, strongly backed by Obama in his last days in the White House. Obama’s candidate was supported by, in addition to Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. His opponent was supported by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, the major labor unions and grassroots Democrats hoping to mobilize those taking part in anti-Trump rallies nationwide. Obama’s candidate won a close race and the national committee has continued to remain essentially dormant while Obama has announced a $400,000 fee for a Wall Street talk. Such talks and his commitment to writing a book on his presidency are his present concerns (book contracts with Barack and Michelle Obama in the range of $60 million have been reported by The Guardian. The biggest problem for the National Democratic Party is not opposing Trump, although it has done little along these lines, but getting out from under Barack Obama’s control.

Conclusion: The 100-day reckoning may be a false standard as claimed. Still a number of things about Trump and his presidency have become clear. First, he is not prepared for the job of president. Second, while he enjoys exercising power he does not like the demands of the presidency, the public and media scrutiny and the criticisms of his behavior and he hates “the swamp,” Washington. Third, he with his family’s assistance will keep their main focus on making money and extending the Trump brand. Fourth, he is determined to destroy what is left of a soft social welfare state in the United States. Fifth, he is committed to increasing the already extensive polarization of wealth in the country, further enriching those at the top of the income pyramid (himself included), making a situation already the worst among advanced democracies that much worse. Sixth, he wants an aggressive, contentious and militaristic defense and foreign policy, the outlines of which are just becoming clear. And finally he is an autocrat determined to do whatever is needed to increase his personal power, testing the limits imposed by a democratic society.

Finally, Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times (May 3, 2017, p. A27) writes: “Has the first 100 days of the presidency made Donald Trump nuts? … You read all of Trump’s 100-day interviews and they are just bizarre.” It is an administration “… bound not by a shared vision but by a shared willingness to overlook Trump’s core ignorance, instability and indecency.”*

The question left is where do we go from here and the answer is likely more of the same.

 

 

*For Trump’s assessment of the first 100 days, see his speech to a rally of supporters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on April 29, 2017.

(Note: As of May 12, 2017, the WhiteHouse.gov website has the link above “being updated,”
although video of the rally is available from various web sources.)

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