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25 September 2017 22:24 (South Africa)
World

US: Trump’s long slog to his first Hundred Days

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump makes remarks before signing an Executive Order on Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC, USA 27 April 27 2017. EPA/Olivier Douliery / POOL

American President Donald Trump has had a rather bumpy first “Hundred Days” in office. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look, as well as a glimpse of some of the challenges that lie ahead.

Two centuries ago, after escaping from his exile on the small Mediterranean island of Elba, Napoleon Bonaparte had marched northwards towards Paris (and then to his final, climactic battle of his career at Waterloo). This journey became known as “The Hundred Days”. It was to be redemption and glory; but the initial excitement, as the old veterans rallied to his flag, was followed by a final disaster in the mud of a Belgian farm.

Flash forward over a century later and in the midst of the Great Depression, the newly elected American president, Franklin Roosevelt, similarly termed his first months in office as “The Hundred Days”. His administration pushed Congress into passing a whole slew of legislation to inaugurate new programmes and social and economic experiments – indeed, they pushed for anything that might possibly work to drag the traumatised nation out of the slough of despair.

This way of measuring success has now firmly stuck in the popular mind and attached itself securely – limpet-like – to any discussion of presidential performance. And, with the help of its increasingly metronomic mention by the media, the first three months and a week are now a standard measure of whether or not a new presidential administration can find its footing, set a pace and dig in for the heavy lifting of legislation or dramatic decisions – or quickly be consigned to the metaphorical rubbish tip of presidential activity.

Donald Trump, of course, has spent enormous energy decrying the importance of the hundred days’ measuring stick for judging his success. But, even as he has been downplaying that metaphor, he and his administration have gone into overdrive, attempting to score some wins that he can plausibly claim as momentous, world-shattering events, and issuing statements giving metrics designed to prove that his hundred days have been “yuger” than any of his predecessors, bigly. In fact, in an e-mail sent to his supporters over the weekend, Trump’s people had written: 

During the first 100 days, President Trump has done more to improve America and to stop the Government from interfering (in) our daily lives during than any other President in history. Together, anything is possible! Despite historic Democrat obstructionism, President Trump and Congress have passed more legislation in the first 100 days than any President since Truman by enacting 28 laws.

Taking Bold Action In The First 100 Days: In his first 100 days, President Trump has taken bold action to restore prosperity, keep Americans safe and secure, and hold government accountable. At a historic pace, this President has enacted more legislation and signed more executive orders than any other president in over a half century. With a focus on rebuilding the military, ending illegal immigration, and restoring confidence in our economy, the President is keeping his promises to the American people.

The Most Significant Tax Reform Legislation Since 1986:
President Trump has made tax reform a priority, and we have a Republican Congress that wants to get it done. President Trump is going to cut taxes for businesses to make them competitive and cut taxes for the American people – especially lower and middle-income families. The President is going to seize this opportunity by leading the most significant tax refor
m legislation since 1986 – and one of the biggest tax cuts in American history.” [All boldface type in the original e-mail]

Other observers, of course, have been a tad less effusive about the successes of Donald J Trump’s first 100 days as president. And some have gone so far as to point to the Trump administration’s first three months and a week in office as having been something just a wee bit short of a toxic dog’s breakfast.

Right off the bat, Trump’s lackadaisical pace of actually nominating people for the literally hundreds of senior positions that manage every cabinet department and many major independent governmental agency means the jobs that keep an administration’s wheels moving in sync – preventing own goals or embarrassing, messy stuff-ups – have all been left vacant or are temporarily and uneasily occupied by career civil servants, place-holding until someone is finally appointed. And with some cabinet secretaries – such as State’s Rex Tillerson – they actually seem to be holding off pushing for any appointees at all until after they totally reconfigure and restructure their entire departments. And that is something that may take years, what with the way outside interest groups, lobbyists, and congressional committee members and staffers take special interest in such plans. And all of this chaos comes along even without considering the very real implications on budgets or programme direction.

Accordingly, no points at all can be awarded to the Trump administration for this kind of systemic lassitude. And his excuse that Congress has been dilatory in vetting and confirming such appointees holds no water for two reasons: first, Congress is controlled by Trump’s own political party, and second, the Senate can not confirm nominees who haven’t even been nominated in the first place.

Of course, in judging how well he has been doing, we now also have Donald Trump’s rather flip admissions that he has been shocked to learn how complicated and complex something like the nation’s healthcare system is when he tried to encourage passage of an ill-advised “repeal and replace” measure. Then, too, there has been his even more astonishing pronouncement the other day that this new job of his is so much harder than he had ever imagined it would be while he was still campaigning to win it. And, truth be told, he even ‘fessed up that he had had more fun when he had just been a garden variety, smarmy tabloid news story, reality show prop, real estate promoter/developer, and serial bankruptcy filer.

Then there is the fact, acknowledged by even many of his supporters and enthusiasts, that the Trump team came into office with virtually no one at his side who had the requisite experience from any prior administration in running a White House, in order to cope with the multitude of tasks co-ordinating policy and making the public statements that clarify and make policy coherent to the government, the nation, and the rest of the world.

As The New York Times editorialieed the other day,

Governing, so far, has turned out to be more than Mr. Trump can manage. He didn’t know very much coming into the job of president, including how little he knew, and the extent of his own ignorance has come as a continual surprise to him. ‘Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated,’ he famously marvelled the first time he was preparing to fail at passing legislation. He expressed the same wonder of discovery at the complexity of North Korea.

In private life, Mr. Trump was accustomed to negotiations based on the simple reality that everyone involved shared the same objective: profit. He has struggled to bargain with legislators, who want to satisfy many constituencies and have conflicting notions of the national interest. In that sense, legislative deals require far more art than commercial ones, and for that reason, Mr. Trump has found himself in over his head. This week, after congressional Democrats called his bluff, threatening a government shutdown rather than acceding to his bluster, he slunk away from a demand that Congress start paying for his wasteful border wall — you know, the one Mexico has refused to pay for. ‘I thought it would be easier,’ Mr. Trump admitted about his job to Reuters this week.”

Moreover, the nature of the people brought into Trump’s White House to support him created competing, conflicting, and overlapping circles of influence and presumed power while vying for the ear of the president – a situation that is only now beginning to be resolved somewhat. As a result, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, frequently seems in conflict with Senior Counsellor Steve Bannon and his acolytes over any number of questions, while his economic advisers and cabinet officials also seem to be having it out over trade and tax policy proposals. And, most troublingly to many observers, the question of who speaks for the administration seemingly goes unresolved. In a major crisis point, various officials will say one thing – say, about US dealings with North Korea – and then the president suddenly offers an entirely different point of view to the world.

As a result of all this confusion and inexperience, a list of presidential campaign promises made on the campaign trail is now evaporating into thin air – or are even turning into their opposite, sometimes without notice. (The White House medical unit must be treating a rash of whiplash cases as a result.) Along the way, this newish president has now begun to discover that he can issue all the presidential proclamations and executive orders and stage as many media events as he wants to, but the courts will get to have their say too. 

And Congress may not easily or automatically accede to his wishes, even with a Republican majority in both houses. Part of the “problem”, of course, is that American legislators are not bound hand and foot to their party’s positions because each of them feels that they have been elected to represent their district or state (or, perhaps, because they feel the impact of lobbyists, special interest groups, or influential donors) and thus a president must convince them. This kind of behaviour is simply outside the Trump realm of experience – building of coalitions and support bases rather than his more usual business style of bludgeoning opponents into supporting him.

Right at the very beginning of his administration, judges in federal courts halted not one but two of his Muslim and refugee bans on entry into the US. And then, his “repeal and replace” measure to deal with the Affordable Care Act was pulled from consideration by Republican congressional leadership once it became apparent groups of more moderate Republicans as well as the ultra-conservative “Freedom Caucus” refused to go along with the measure. And this was not even counting opposition from most Democrats determined to save one of former President Obama’s signature accomplishments.

A new effort of this “repeal and replace” strategy may well founder too as the president and Republican leadership are pushing the new replacement measure more in keeping with the Freedom Caucus’ desires even as it strips out provisions of the current law that have gained growing popular support such as protection of new health insurance coverage even for pre-existing conditions. The constant mutability of this new proposal has done little to calm the fears of some legislators and many constituents that this new measure will toss newly insured citizens under a bus – and make congressmen who support it vulnerable in the 2018 mid-term election.

And so, what have been the actual achievements of the Trump administration so far? Well, for one, there was the successful nomination and confirmation of his nominee for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, although the vacancy only existed because Republicans refused to countenance Barack Obama’s nomination of a more liberal federal judge in the final year of his presidency to succeed the late Antonin Scalia.

There have also been a number of executive orders to relax consumer protection regulations in the financial sector and anti-pollution regulations dealing with mine waste, emission controls designed to combat climate change, go-aheads for pipelines such as the Keystone XL project to take the products from fracking fields in Canada to refineries in Louisiana, and similar questions. He has also announced withdrawal of support for the TransPacific Partnership (although the treaty had not yet been forwarded to the Senate). Along the way, enhanced arrests over immigration violations apparently are leading to a decrease in the number of border violators being apprehended; and Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched against a Syrian airfield following the use of poison gas agents against civilians when Trump saw the effects on all-news television broadcasts. Then, of course, there has been Trump’s reversal on his opposition to the continued existence of the Export-Import Bank (a small US Government agency that backstops exports abroad with financial guarantees), and then there has been that astonishing volte-face towards China.

Despite his constantly repeated campaign pledges to label that nation a currency manipulator (and thus the automatic responses that would trigger) and to enact harsh trade countermeasures in response to what he charged were major export shenanigans, following a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the reality that Chinese co-operation is crucial for dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear development programmes, the administration’s rhetoric towards China took a 180-degree turn – virtually without warning. (There will be more on the fast-moving North Korean conundrum later this week.)

In the past several days, as both parties in Congress finally agreed to a temporary budget agreement (although final votes have not yet been held) that would keep the government’s ability to stay in business until the end of the current fiscal year, this deal put yet another campaign promise into the deep freeze. The measure does not include funding for that “very, very great wall” along the US-Mexico border Trump had pledged he would build.

Along the way, it has also become clear that despite the president’s braggadocio, and given Mexico’s insistence it will not pay for this gargantuan construction project, Congress has refused to ante up taxpayer funds for it either – although this new spending agreement does include some enhancements for hi-tech surveillance along the border. Democrats refuse to support it for a variety of reasons, not least a lack of serious justification of it being an effective measure; but many Republicans have declined to support it because its cost – now estimated at more than $20-billion – would blow a major hole in the federal budget.

Contemplating this presumed agreement, the Politico website noted on Monday that, “If, and it is a big ifCongress is able to clear the funding fight and House Republicans pass the healthcare bill, the Senate could get started on it. And then – and only then – Republicans could begin to discuss tax reform. But it’s always important to remember: in Trump’s Washington, things could be turned upside down quickly.” Despite his campaign pledge for swift enactment of a monumental tax reform package, the Trump administration only managed to issue a one-page talking points briefing paper on tax reform instead of an actual plan. Key features of the plan seem designed to make people very happy – if they are at the top of the income heap, or are corporations eager to decrease their corporate tax burdens.

The apparent plan is to slash the corporate tax rate to 15% from 35%, to cut the top personal income tax marginal rate of taxation to 35%, to repeal the inheritance tax and to temporarily slash the rate on overseas profits repatriated to the US. While the basic US corporate tax rate is higher than other developed economies, most businesses manage to lessen their tax burdens through a variety of deductions and other accounting measures, and the outline of the plan, at least according to many experts, would encourage people to convert their own earnings into corporate income to benefit from this proposed decline in corporate tax rates.

If one listens to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, passage of this tax plan would ensure 3% economic growth in the US in the future. This may be magical thinking, given the long-term trends in OECD nations globally. This seems to have more than a bit of similarity with the “Three Card Monte” trick that was the promise of supply side economics back in the Reagan administration. There never really are free lunches in economics, and all tax plans come with unintended consequences as well.

But, of course, the big enchilada of Trumpian reversals has been in the relationship with Russia. Coming into office, the Trump drumbeat had been to build a serious reset of relations with Russia and its leader, especially in order to confront non-state, Islamist terror such as IS in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. For Trump, just after Chinese currency machinations, IS was the biggest, baddest bad guy of all, and Russia could easily be drawn into a vast plan to calm the world by dealing with that terror group, just as long as a smart guy like The Donald did it, together with his great admirer, Vladimir Putin.

This strategic vision has now largely come a cropper, what with the ongoing controversy over Russian intervention in the 2016 US election. There is an increasing realisation on the part of many, even among some of those in the Trump administration, that there is some pretty heavy smoke (even if no roaring flames to be seen clearly, yet) regarding seriously over-the-top engagement by Trump operatives, relatives and friends with the Russians, and the consequent outrageously rosy views about a US-Russia rapprochement that were a part of that, even before the candidate had taken office.

One casualty of this reality testing, of course, was retired General Mike Flynn. He was the man who held the highly coveted position of National Security Adviser for a record-breaking short stint of just 24 days before his prevarications over dealings with Russia drove him out of office and into the arms of lawyers. The newest wrinkle for the Trumpians has been to blame Flynn’s mistakes on the Obama administration for allowing him to receive his routinely reauthorised security clearance when he headed the Defence Intelligence Agency. (Presumably the Trump transition team didn’t need to do its own routine vetting as part of recommending him for his short-lived appointment.)

Even less real have become some oft- and long-punted promises for a $1-billion infrastructure development plan as a cure for unemployment and a spike to economic growth. The healthcare debacle took up congressional oxygen for weeks – and now tax reform measures threaten to do the same for the future.

And almost every day, it seems, yet another example of the close overlap and sketchy ethics of Trump administration and Trump family enterprises comes into focus. What with the just-announced plans to invite “I am the law” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to Washington just as advertisements appear in Manila regarding yet another Trump real estate project franchise development, the debate about just how closely tied the president views his job and his personal fortunes will continue. Concurrently, the biggest question, though, will be if the Trump administration has learned anything from its failures and embarrassments since 20 January, as it turns to confront the remaining 1,359 days of his four-year term of office until 20 January 2021. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump make remarks before signing an Executive Order on Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC, USA 27 April 27 2017. EPA/Olivier Douliery / POOL

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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