Year one : The impact of Trump’s Presidency
In the 12 months since his inauguration, the headlines from Donald Trump’s presidency have been dominated by disruption: provocative tweets, derisive language and epic feuds.
All of which has overshadowed some of the fine print — that is, the consequential actions Trump has taken that have changed the way the federal government works and the role the United States plays in the world. Indeed, that’s the implicit bargain congressional Republican leaders have made with the White House. Most have muted their public criticism of the president during controversies over his words, including the latest one on his vulgar description of African countries, on the theory he can help implement their policy agenda.
“There is so much hue and cry and rending of cloth over the truly outlandish statements that no previous president would ever make publicly, and that are so breaking with any kind of precedent for a president, that we’re really missing the fact that the tweets are the ripples on top of the water,” said Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “The big impactful currents are well below.”
Despite scoring the lowest approval ratings of any modern president, and facing united Democratic opposition to most of his proposals, Trump has had an important impact on everything from the taxes to regulation to Americans’ regard, or lack of it, for the nation’s institutions. Trump’s legacy will affect American governance and life long after he has moved out of the White House.
Here’s a look at a half-dozen examples.
1. THE TAX BILL
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which Trump signed in December, was the biggest tax cut enacted in three decades. The White House argues the legislation will boost economic growth, create jobs, and put more money in the pockets of most families. Critics note that the lion’s share of the benefits will go to corporations and the wealthy, warning it will exacerbate the growing financial disparity between the rich and everybody else. Either outcome would be significant.
Provisions major and minor are likely to have cascading effects, some of them unintended, that will take years to unfold. For instance, the decision to cap the itemized deduction for state and local taxes at $10,000 could encourage some families to relocate to low-tax states. Some high-tax states are trying to figure out how to preempt that by ameliorating the impact on their residents; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week proposed replacing state income taxes on wage-earners with an employer payroll tax, which under federal law still would be deductible.
And the expansion of the standard deduction means that the proportion of middle-income households that will benefit from itemizing will drop by more than half. Advocates for churches and nonprofit groups worry that the fact that many families will no longer be taking a tax deduction for charitable contributions will dampen their enthusiasm for giving.
Then there’s the $1.5 trillion price tag. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan organization of deficit hawks, calculates that the cost means the national debt will be larger than the size of the economy by 2028 — which will make it harder to find funds to spend on anything else.
2. AMERICA FIRST
Trump has shaken up the security alliances that emerged from World War II and pulled back from global free-trade agreements — policies consistent with the America First rhetoric that marked his presidential candidacy from the start. He withdrew the United States from the Paris accord on climate change and upended the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He continues to promise to overhaul immigration laws and build a “big, beautiful wall” along the Southern border, although he’s generally dropped his campaign vow to make Mexico pay for it.
On some fronts, Trump hasn’t changed some existing policies that he has fiercely criticized, at least not yet. He hasn’t blown up the Iran nuclear deal, although he’s called on Congress and the European allies to revise it. He hasn’t withdrawn the United States from NAFTA, although he says he’s renegotiating the free-trade deal. During his administration, U.S. troop deployments have edged up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Generally, though, Trump’s rhetoric and action on foreign policy have reduced the U.S. role and influence in the world — to the delight of some of his most fervent supporters, and to the concern of many in the foreign-policy establishment. His presidency has prompted allies in NATO and elsewhere to depend less on America to lead, and it’s opened the door to a bigger role for China in Asia, especially in economic affairs.
3. REGULATORY ROLLBACK
At the beginning of Trump’s term, Republicans used an obscure law called the Congressional Review Act to withdraw more than a dozen regulations enacted during the final months of President Obama’s administration. They overturned new limits on gun sales to the mentally ill, privacy protections on the use and sale of personal data on the web, and regulatory changes designed to make it easier for consumers to file class-action lawsuits against financial firms.
Since then, Trump appointees across the federal government have reversed, revised or delayed some of the signature initiatives of the Obama era.
Among them: The Interior Department this month lifted an Obama administration ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling for almost all waters off the U.S. coast, though the administration quickly agreed to carve out an exemption for Florida. The Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines last month to eliminate so-called net neutrality rules that required internet service providers to treat all internet traffic equally. The Education Department in September eased the federal guidelines for addressing sex assault on college campuses.
And the EPA last fall reversed Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which required states to meet targets to cut the greenhouse gases that scientists say drive climate change.
4. BRAIN DRAIN
Career scientists have been resigning from the Environmental Protection Agency and diplomats from the State Department in record numbers since Trump’s inauguration. Turnover is common with any new administration, of course, but disagreements with Trump’s team over climate change and foreign policy have prompted an unprecedented wave of departures in those offices and others.
At the State Department, the U.S. ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, resigned last week, citing irreconcilable differences with the Trump administration. The career foreign service officer was just the latest in a stream of departures over the past year. They range from all four senior members of the department’s management team, who resigned en masse in January, to the official named to oversee Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s controversial reorganization of the department. She left in November.
At the EPA, a study by ProPublica and The New York Times found that by the end of September more than 700 people had left the agency since Trump took office, among them more than 200 scientists and nine department directors; most have not been replaced. Advocates say decades of expertise in environmental protect has been lost, with serious long-term repercussions. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said the administration was determined to curb government overreach at the EPA and elsewhere. “You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it,” he told reporters last year.
5. INSTITUTIONAL ATTACK
Americans’ faith in institutions already had been on a long slide. That trend has accelerated in the past year in the wake of Trump’s repeated attacks on the judiciary, the news media and even parts of the administration he heads, including the Justice Department and the FBI.
This month, one of Trump’s personal lawyers filed a defamation lawsuit against BuzzFeed news for publishing a salacious dossier, much of it unsubstantiated, related to the Russia investigation. Another Trump lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the publisher withdraw a critical new book by Michael Wolff,Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake likened the president’s anti-press rhetoric — calling the news media “the enemy of the American people” — to Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
In the past, he said a judge born in the United States of Mexican heritage couldn’t be fair in considering a case involving him. He fired the FBI director, James Comey, and he’s called the continuing investigation into Russian meddling “a hoax” and “a scam.” Now there’s concern he might try to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, a step that could provoke a constitutional crisis.
That sense of turmoil has undercut what typically would be the calming effect of a robust economy, with healthy growth, a record-setting stock market and low unemployment. But while Americans feel increasingly optimistic about the economy — a CBS news poll released Sunday found by 2-1 Americans said the economy was doing well — most are pessimistic about the course of the country.
The only institution that a majority of those surveyed said they had “a lot of confidence” in was the military. Just 26% expressed a lot of confidence in the FBI, 15% in the courts, 14% in the media — — and 5% in the U.S. political system itself. Six in 10 expressed “not much confidence” in that.
Trump not only has named Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, reinforcing the high court’s conservative ranks. An additional six of the president’s nominees have been confirmed to sit on federal District Courts and 12 to federal Appeals Courts. No president has put more appellate judges in place during his first year.
There was an opening for Trump to leave a quick stamp on the courts because Senate Republicans had slow-walked President Obama’s judicial nominations for the last two years of his tenure, including refusing to hold a vote on Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court seat that Gorsuch now fills. More than 100 federal judgeships were vacant when Trump was sworn in. What’s more, a rules change by Senate Democrats in 2013 has made it easier to confirm lower-court judges. Their nominations can no longer be filibustered, which means Republicans need to muster only a majority vote to put them on the bench.
The court appointments matter because judges often have the last word on the most controversial issues the country faces, from abortion rights to immigration laws to bank regulation. And unlike presidents, judges serve for life.