Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Trump Report Card after 6 Months

Six months have passed since the inauguration of President Donald Trump.  That represents nearly 13% of a presidential term.  They should have been able to legislate with little interference considering the Republican Party maintains majorities in the House and the Senate.  What does Trump and his administration have to show?  Well, not much.

The inability to pass any significant legislation in the first six months of Trump’s term represents his biggest failure as president.  Trump’s administration has control of both houses of Congress, yet efforts to create healthcare legislation augmenting the Affordable Care Act (ACA) have consumed too much time and the process has been haphazard.  

The White House seems absent in the actual process of crafting a replacement bill for the ACA.  Trump’s team appears to have ceded its power to Congressional leadership, which has twice stumbled in presenting the American Health Care Act of 2017 to the nation.  The bill failed so magnificently that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would not allow a floor vote (presumably to avoid further humiliation by watching many Republican senators vote against it).  When the AHCA experienced a painful death in the Senate, GOP leadership sought to vote on a repeal only bill of the ACA.  Like the AHCA, it never came to the floor.  

During the 2016 campaign, Trump created a “Contract with the American Voter,” a slate of issues to tackle within his first 100 days in office.  Here’s where the nation stands with the promises of Trump:

  • The White House is expected to create some sort of tax overhaul program for consideration by Congress, but no one seems to know when that will arrive on Capitol Hill.  
  • During his campaign, Trump promised to work on a spending bill that would improve existing infrastructure in the nation.  This isn’t on anyone’s radar right now.  
  • The proposed End Offshoring Act concept was a promise to levy tariffs against corporations who outsource and bring products back to the country.   This also included promises of returning manufacturing to the nation. Still no progress there.
  • The Trump administration also promised changes to education policy that would allow more educational options, such as devoting more funding for private schools and a voucher system.  Congress is said to be working on a bill, but nothing has been officially introduced.
  • Any type of immigration bill has escaped the attention of the White House, though the president’s budget included a request for billions of dollars to construct the now infamous ‘wall’ on the southern border of the nation.

Trump’s grade on his legislative agendaF, these issues have not been addressed in any significant way, nor is his team actively working with Congress to make them happen.

Beyond the legislative suggestions a president makes to Congress, the chief executive does have additional power to issue executive orders.  These are orders which direct a specific enforcement of an already existing law.  They can be overridden by a law passed through Congress or ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  Until that occurs, though, these orders have the force of law.

Hampered by the inability to pass legislation at the moment, Trump turned to executive orders to change some policies, but most of the 40-something orders he has issued thus far are rhetoric with little action.  Here’s a rundown of the significant orders thus far:

  • EO 13771 - This order requires that any government agency which issues a new rule or regulation must repeal two already existing rules.
  • EO 13780 - Undoubtedly the most well-known of the president’s executive orders, this particular statement directed that a travel ban be imposed on anyone coming from Somalia, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and Libya.  Critics have contested this in the federal court system and the Supreme Court is expected to take up the issue during its next session.  
  • EO 13784 - This enabled the president to establish a commission on combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis.  It requires that a commission be established and they provide a report within 90 days whereby they advise the president about how to best fight the ongoing drug problem in the country.

Those these three executive orders help advance the president’s agenda, most of the orders are benign and don’t do much to change actual policy.  For instance, EO 13783 promotes energy independence and exploration of all forms of energy.  EO 13800 mandates that the president holds cabinet officers accountable for the cyber security of their respective departments.  

Trump’s grade on executive orders I, this can’t really be graded until we know the final result of the contested travel ban.  It represents one of the main priorities from the campaign trail and so far, it’s the only order to receive real scrutiny.  Many of the other orders create commissions or compel departments to create reports about various issues, which have not yet been issued.

What about President Trump’s foreign policy?  Trump deserves some credit for a few of his appointments to key foreign policy positions.  General James “Mad Dog” Mattis received bipartisan support as Secretary of Defense.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley are also highly regarded and have performed well in difficult roles.

The president’s ability to conduct foreign affairs is far greater than acting to push domestic legislation.  One of the nagging problems in the world pertains to the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in North Korea.  Trump has done little other than offer threats towards Kim Jong Un, while China has done little to curtail the activities of their quirky neighbor.  North Korea has tested nuclear weapons, and the Trump team has moved forward with an already existing plan to implement an anti-missile defense system in South Korea.  

President Trump has also backed off some of the campaign rhetoric directed at China and Japan, whom he claimed were currency manipulators, and he would instruct his administration to label them as much.  Moreover, the administration claimed they would work to adjust the trade deficits with these two nations, but that is largely connected to the ability of this administration to return manufacturing to the area.  The administration has implemented some tariffs on steel and lumber, but the long term results cannot be predicted at this point.

In the Middle East, Trump offered harsh words towards Iran during his campaign, but stated he will not cancel the executive agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program.  Moreover, Trump admitted that Iran was complying with the agreement, though he lamented they were not “honoring the spirit” of the agreement.  President Trump declined to offer specifics on what that meant, but did claim his administration was reviewing the agreement “very, very carefully.”

Trump acted swiftly in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against rebels by ordering a launch of 59 cruise missiles on a military air base.  Since that strike in April, the only other major action was the cancellation of a CIA program that armed the Syrian rebels.  This move has been viewed by many as an aid to Russia, who has supported Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.  These two actions appear to be a contradiction of sorts, and there does not appear to be any coherent policy pertaining to Syria.

Long-time ally Israel has welcomed President Trump’s administration.  The US has placed little pressure on the Israeli government for its expanded settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank, areas that were once considered off-limits for expansion of Jewish populations.  Trump also noted that he would be satisfied with a one-state or two-state solution with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He is essentially offering President Benjamin Netanyahu carte blanche in the region.

Trump has wrangled several longstanding allies in Europe and North America, however.  Great Britain once considered banning Trump from entering the nation and mass protests occurred when the British government extended an invite.  Mexico is notably frustrated about Trump’s proposal of a wall on the shared border in the South (and more so with the idea that Mexico would pay for it) and the attempted renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  Canada and France have also expressed annoyance with the bombastic comments Trump frequently makes.

The United States also made waves when it opted out of the Paris Climate Accords, a decision made by the president though many of his administrative team recommended staying, including his daughter, Ivanka, and Secretary of State Tillerson.  This made the United States only the third nation in the world to not participate in this widely popular agreement.

And finally, there’s Russia.  Currently, the relationship between the United States and Russia is somewhat frosty.  Intelligence agencies have stated the Russian government participated in illicit computer hacking in an attempt to sway the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election (in Trump’s favor).  In December, outgoing President Barack Obama imposed certain sanctions against Russia and confiscated certain properties they held in the United States.  Trump has yet to reverse those actions, but numerous inquiries have been made about whether or not the president’s campaign team colluded with Russian officials for their assistance in the election.

Despite these allegations and concerns, Trump has been friendly with President Vladimir Putin and not taken him to task on his illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory in the Crimean Peninsula.  

Trump’s grade on foreign policyC-, The appointments of Tillerson, Haley, and especially Mattis earn Trump some credibility.  Yet, there is no cohesive policy about how the nation will handle specific issues.  Nations are left to wonder how their policies will be viewed by the United States.  Also, the friendly stance with Russia definitely deserves heightened scrutiny considering the circumstances.  Many Trump supporters remain puzzled because the candidate’s promises do not meet the president’s actions.

Communication might be the biggest problem facing the Trump administration.  President Trump uses Twitter as a platform to convey his thoughts, which are often confusing and misleading.  In several situations, he has focused on issues not relevant to his agenda, which only makes it more difficult to have the nation and Congress talk about anything other than trivial issues.

Trump created an issue just days into his presidency when he insisted his presidential inauguration had a larger crowd than former President Obama.  Despite evidence to the contrary, Trump kept perpetuating a false narrative, while the White House Staff labeled the president’s version as “alternative facts.”  

Though President Trump secured election victory by winning the vote in the Electoral College, he did not win the popular vote.  Hillary Clinton secured more overall votes, but Trump persisted that the final popular vote tally was incorrect because of millions of illegally cast votes.  He did not elaborate on this, nor could any proof substantiate such a claim.  

The Internet nearly broke after Trump rambled in a late night tweet, “Despite the constant negative press covfefe …” That was it.  Memes, random comments, and plenty of coverage trying to figure out what ‘covfefe’ is.  

The current administration is struggling to deal with the media who is becoming increasingly critical.  Trump’s response has been to label unfriendly reporters and media outlets as “fake news.”  This strained relationship between the White House and the media has led to scaled back briefings and cancelled credentials of veteran reporters.  Instead of using social media as a way to reach Americans, President Trump would rather tweet about how Morning Joe is an overrated show, and the New York Times is bad journalism.

Conservative news giant Fox News has even seen some of its journalists express frustration, including Shepard Smith, who vented of this administration, “Why is it lie after lie after lie? … The deception is mind-boggling and there are still people out there who believe we’re making it up.”

If the tweets and poor treatment of the media was not enough, Trump has also consistently contradicted subordinates on various issues, which makes apparent that the members of the administration are not on the same page.  

Ambassador Nikki Haley broke with the president on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, noting the two-state solution was the intent of the United States.  Secretary of State Tillerson had to assuage Mexican officials who are still unhappy about the notion that they will pay for a border wall they do not want.  Tillerson was personally upended by the president on the issue of Qatar, a small Middle Eastern nation accused by the secretary of financing terror operations.  Less than two hours after Tillerson stated that the United States would not tolerate such actions, Trump contradicted his most important diplomat by reassuring Qatar had the support of the US.

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly had noted that Executive Order 13780, which temporarily halted immigration from several Muslim nations was not a “ban.”  Trump tweeted days later that he would call it a ban, which was precisely what it is in his view.  

Grade on Trump’s communicationF, There is no credible institution in the world who would think for a moment that Trump’s ranting tweets do anything but distract.  Additionally, the way Trump and his administration present a combative and insulting posture towards the media demonstrate they have no real message to deliver.  The slogan of “Make America Great Again” is their rallying cry, but the White House has yet to offer a cogent plan on how that will happen.  Allies and enemies alike have no clue what to expect from the US, and while Trump prides himself on unpredictability, this creates a far more unstable world.

No presidential administration can succeed unless the chief executive chooses the right personnel to carry out policies and solve problems.  Trump’s selections of Mattis, Tillerson, and Haley were widely seen as solid selections.  The president also receives high marks for filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court with Justice Neil Gorsuch, a reputable judge who withstood a great deal of angsty questioning from a Democratic Party who believed this seat was stolen (it remained unfilled for nearly the last year of Obama’s presidency). 

Though Trump has made a few wise decisions, the number of poor choices has become an exceedingly glaring problem.  First, there was Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.  She lacked any serious credentials in the field of education and has never attended a public school.  The fact that DeVos and her husband have donated hundreds of millions of dollars did not escape the attention of the Senate, who confirmed her by a 51-50 margin with Vice President Mike Pence having to cast the tie-breaking vote.

Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, was nominated to serve as the Secretary of Energy.  While he served in public office from a state known for energy production, there is an element of irony he received a nomination for this particular department.  In the 2012 presidential primary debates, Perry stated that if elected, he would eliminate four executive departments.  He named three of them, and forgot the fourth.  This, of course, was the Department of Energy.

Trump’s selection for Attorney General was former Senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama, a legislator with spotty record on civil rights issues.  The NAACP and ACLU strongly opposed his nomination, as they did in 1986, when his nomination for a federal judgeship was shot down.  Letters from the like of Coretta Scott King discussing Sessions’ poor record in supporting minority rights created a significant backlash.  Sessions was confirmed in a 52-47 vote along party lines.

Trump’s cabinet secretaries at least had to be confirmed by the Senate, which necessitated selecting individuals who would be questioned and vetted.  Members of the White House Staff, however, can be hired and fired at the discretion of the president.  This administrative team includes:
  • Kellyanne Conway - Special counsel to the president who coined the phrase “alternative facts” in the wake of the inauguration debacle.
  • Jared Kushner - Son-in-law of the president, who is facing a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to determine his level of involvement in a meeting with a Russian attorney who offered the Trump campaign damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
  • Steve Bannon - Chief White House Strategist former boss of the Breitbart news outlet, which is the preferred medium of the “alt-right” extreme conservatism movement.  
  • Michael Flynn - the short lived National Security Advisor for the administration who lasted a scant 24 days before resigning when it became known he misled Vice President Pence about meetings with the Russian Ambassador to the United States.  
  • Sean Spicer - former White House Press Secretary who had the unenviable task of attempting to defend the president’s policies and strange actions.  Spicer left voluntarily after disagreeing with the administration on various issues, including the hiring of a new communications director.

After six months in office, Trump has made more terrible choices than some presidents do in a full four year term.  It doesn’t help matters that Trump has made threats to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.  Also, there are rumors swirling that Secretary Tillerson has already grown tired of Trump’s antics and is considering resigning.
Trump’s selections in hiring have been suspect, but one firing is drawing more attention away from his agenda than anything else.  Shortly after taking office, President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was conducting an investigation into possible election tampering by Russian operatives.  
Comey had received high praise from Trump previously, for his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail servers and possible use of private e-mail for sending and receiving top secret information.  As late as January, Trump indicated he would retain Comey as head of the FBI, only to reverse course, claiming he lost confidence in Comey’s abilities to lead.

The firing of Comey set off alarm bells across the nation, as critics accused President Trump of attempting to cut off any investigation of his campaign’s collusion with Russian officials.  To look into the matter further, a special investigator was appointed by the Deputy Attorney General.  Jeff Sessions recused himself from involvement, citing his own involvement as a member of Trump’s campaign team.  

Trump quickly derided Sessions for his action, noting he probably would not have appointed Sessions if he was going to recuse himself in this action.  This only further fuels speculation about Trump’s campaign team and their meetings with various Russian officials.

Grade on Trump’s personnel choicesD-, The constant undercutting of his subordinates will chase off the good candidates and the ones who remain have proven to be sycophants who only seek to empower themselves.  The only reason this grade isn’t lower is due to the high level of respect garnered by Mattis, Tillerson, Haley, and Gorsuch. 

Overall grade for the Trump administration F,  The president has not been able to further his own legislative agenda because of the numerous distractions and the inability to focus his message.  The success or failure of his executive orders, including the travel ban, have yet to be determined, but his personnel decisions leave much to be desired.  

Trump seems unaware that government cannot be run like a business.  Power is greatly distributed and rightfully so.  In the case of the president, his power is largely based on his ability to persuade.  

Most incoming presidents have a certain amount of political capital they can use to leverage Congress into acting.  Trump did not win the popular vote, his approval ratings are low, and the Republican Party is unwilling to follow his lead.  When a president has this little capital at the beginning of the term, there is no margin for error.  

If Trump survives for an entire four year term (and that is anything but guaranteed), he will need to adapt to his surroundings and become more presidential.  Focus on solving problems, and responding to specific needs of the people rather than ranting on social media.

The Republican Party should be significantly worried about their immediate future.  Their majority in Congress could easily disappear in the 2018 midterm elections and the White House has shown no signs of following the party platform.  

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