WASHINGTON – At least from a ratings standpoint, America’s 45th presidency without a doubt has had a successful first season, tremendous even.
Donald Trump made himself the center of attention like no previous chief executive, turning his every public appearance into must-watch television. He picked fights with fellow world leaders in phone calls, in speeches and on Twitter. He hinted about the size of his genitalia in a threat about nuclear weapons. He made falsehoods a defining feature of his White House, averaging nearly a half-dozen each day and racking up more than 2,000 as president. He has, repeatedly, made his own ignorance, his mental fitness and his bigot-friendly racial views a focus of national conversation.
The former reality TV host who improbably became the leader of the free world has unquestionably earned superlatives, although likely not the ones he and his fans had hoped: On the anniversary of his inauguration, Trump is the least-liked president in modern history, at this point in his term. Strong majorities of Americans find him dishonest, uninformed and temperamentally unfit for the job. Abroad, the United States’ standing has plummeted in the past year, to the point where China is seen as a better world leader.
To Trump’s critics, none of this is the least bit surprising.
“He has not changed from the horrible human being that he’s always been,” said Kendal Unruh, a longtime Republican activist who was drummed out of her local party in Colorado for leading the effort to strip the nomination from Trump at the 2016 GOP convention. “And now the whole world can see him for who he is.”
Trump and his White House, of course, disagree with assessments like Unruh’s. As he has from nearly the day he took office last January, Trump claims that his presidency has accomplished more than any previous one. “I don’t think any administration has ever done ― has done what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished in its first year, which isn’t quite finished yet,” he said at a recent Cabinet meeting after first telling reporters: “Welcome back to the studio.”
A closer look at Trump’s list of claimed “historic” accomplishments, though, shows that virtually all of the major ones are generic Republican Party objectives that any GOP president would have approved. What’s more, they were almost entirely the work of a Republican Congress led by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and which had been waiting years for a Republican president to come along.
Those federal judges Trump brags about, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch? With few exceptions, they are products of the Federalist Society, the conservative group to which Trump outsourced the choosing of judicial nominees in 2016, combined with McConnell’s readiness to ram those names through his Senate despite Democratic objections.
Cutting regulations? While Trump has started the process for rolling back environmental and safety regulations on industries, he has taken credit for slashing hundreds of other regulations that were cut under President Barack Obama or were blocked from being implemented thanks to legislation the GOP Congress started preparing before Trump even took office.
And the tax cuts, the only significant legislation to pass under Trump’s watch? While Trump’s White House participated in crafting the measure, the heart of the bill – a massive and permanent cut to the nation’s corporate tax rate – has been a GOP priority for many years, and was an important part of the platforms of the other Republican presidential candidates in 2016. Trump didn’t even mention tax cuts in his infamous campaign announcement speech in 2015.
“This came out of Mitch McConnell’s and Paul Ryan’s world, not Donald Trump’s. They just needed him to sign it. That’s all,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant and vocal Trump critic. “Donald Trump couldn’t name five tangible things in this tax law.”
Republican congressional leaders have not been shy about where they believe the bulk of the credit for these achievements should go.
“This has been a year of extraordinary accomplishment by any objective standard,” McConnell said at his year-end news conference, specifically mentioning judges he had confirmed and the tax cuts – but not mentioning Trump by name during his six-minute opening statement. “I think we’ve made a difference for the country in beginning to move it right of center, which was the opportunity presented to us by the American people.”
The Best Presidency Ever – Just Ask Trump
Low-key statements like McConnell’s, though, have tended to get buried in the blizzard of claims Trump has made nearly from his first day in office about how successful he has been.
“There has never been a presidency that’s done so much in such a short period of time,” Trump proclaimed in a White House news conference 27 days after taking office.
Trump boasts about having vanquished the terrorist group ISIS, even though “his generals” essentially continued the offensive in Syria and Iraq started by the military under Obama several years ago. He brags about the the economy and the number of jobs he has created, even though the economy has followed roughly the same trajectory it was on under Obama (the number of jobs added in 2017 was actually lower than the number created in 2016). Trump even claimed credit for the lack of any fatal commercial airline accidents worldwide last year – a circumstance he had nothing to do with.
Longtime Trump friend Chris Ruddy, CEO of the Newsmax website, said Trump continues his tendency to “overstate” his accomplishments, probably from his background as a television entertainer. “I think it’s a theatrical and rhetorical flourish,” he said.
Whatever the reason, the unsubstantiated boasts, combined with daily falsehoods large and small, have undermined not just his own credibility, but that of the party he now leads.
Republicans learned this firsthand after passing their tax cuts. Majorities of Americans said in polls that their own households would not receive a tax cut, and were more likely to see their taxes go up – even though, in truth, the vast majority of households will see at least a temporary reduction.
“I personally think he should be more focused on accuracy,” Ruddy added. “Because I think it would be better for him in the long run.”
But given all of Trump’s actual promises during the campaign, accuracy might be even worse for him.
Trump did pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, as he promised, and the Paris climate accord. He has also implemented a watered-down version of his promised “extreme vetting” of travelers from a group of mostly-Muslim countries.
Many, many more of his campaign promises, however, have not been kept.
Trump said he would “get tough” with China and label the country a “currency manipulator.” After a year, he has done no such thing. Trump said he would repeal Obamacare and replace it with better health care at a fraction of the cost. He has done neither. And repeatedly, day in and day out, Trump promised he would build a “great wall” along the nation’s southern border and, more importantly, would force Mexico to pay for it. While some wall samples are being built in California, Trump has made no attempt to force Mexico to pick up the bill. If a wall ends up getting built, it will be American taxpayers bearing the billions of dollars in costs.
And of the 10 major pieces of legislation Trump promised to get passed in his first 100 days, only one – tax cuts – actually did pass, although it happened in his 11th month. The End the Offshoring Act, the Clean Up Corruption in Washington Act, the Affordable Childcare and Eldercare Act ― not one of the other nine promised legislative accomplishments exists outside of Trump’s October 2016 press release.
Growing Into The Job. Or Not.
If Trump’s chaotic, even juvenile approach to the presidency has surprised Americans who only started paying attention to the 2016 presidential race in its final weeks, GOP leaders who had followed the primary as it unfolded in 2015 had a much better grasp of what they were facing.
“When I first saw him go down the escalator, I was aghast,” said one top Republican National Committee official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “When I saw him attack Megyn Kelly, I booed.”
Yet, despite his outlandish statements and behavior, most Republican Party leaders largely bought into the same myth that millions of his fans had accepted for years: That Trump was a shrewd and successful businessman and would employ those skills in the Oval Office. And like those fans, they came to that view from watching his long-running TV series, “The Apprentice,” and its spinoff, “Celebrity Apprentice.”
“They elected the character Donald Trump played on TV. They elected the character on ‘The Apprentice,’ who’s smart, who’s decisive, who’s a global business leader,” said GOP consultant Wilson. “He stumbles into this office. Of course he’s overmatched since Day One. You would not put this person in charge of a Waffle House, let alone the White House.”
While Trump has claimed over the years that he is both successful and smart, his decades-long record suggests quite the opposite.
Trump took over his father’s real estate business in 1974, when it was worth $200 million, a figure that inflates to over $1 billion in current dollars – meaning that the billionaire status he so frequently brags about actually came about thanks to his birth.
Over the years, amid the successes of his Trump Tower building in New York and various golf courses around the world, Trump’s business career has been littered with failures. There were branding flops like “Trump Steaks” and “Trump Vodka.” Outright fraud in the case of Trump University. But most consequential was the spectacular cratering of his New Jersey casinos, which brought him to the brink of personal bankruptcy.
The loss of creditworthiness following the casino failures limited the scope of Trump’s subsequent businesses. Instead of constructing and owning big, expensive buildings, Trump largely had to settle for renting out his name on other people’s buildings – a much less lucrative endeavor. In fact, one longtime friend said privately that Trump’s decision not to run for president in 2012 was based on a $15 million-a-year contract he had just been offered by NBC to renew his TV show. It was money he could not afford to turn down – a remarkable admission for a supposed multi-billionaire.
Of course, that Trump was not anywhere near as successful as he claimed was not a big secret. It had been the subject of numerous articles and books over the years. And thousands of publicly available lawsuits outlined the sorts of business practices Trump had used – from refusing to pay contractors what they were owed to aggressively trying to silence criticism.
Republican Party leaders, nevertheless, failed to perform even cursory research into Trump’s background when he began his presidential run in June 2015. Instead, they bought into his self-proclaimed wealth and believed his threats that he would run as a third-party candidate using his own money if Republicans were not nice to him, a view that informed several key decisions in the weeks and months that followed. When Trump during the first GOP debate refused to promise to back the eventual nominee, then-party Chairman Reince Priebus could have informed Trump that he would not be participating in the second debate. Instead, Priebus traveled to Trump Tower and begged Trump to sign a pledge to back the nominee, whoever that might be. In so doing, Priebus instantly gave Trump the high status within the party that he had previously lacked.
When Trump ultimately won the nomination, party leaders did their best to keep Trump’s statements to prepared speeches delivered off a Teleprompter, in the hopes of limiting off-script remarks that could hurt the chances of Republican congressional candidates.
Few, if any, thought Trump could actually win, and therefore gave little thought to running and staffing the government’s executive branch.
The Chaos Theory of Governing
As the transition began following Trump’s stunning victory, with the job of governing less than three months away, many GOP leaders assured each other that Trump would grow into the job, that the responsibilities of the office would weigh on him.
That largely has not happened.
“You can’t look at 70 years of history and say, oh, he’s going to be transformed when he gets a new job,” Unruh said. She added that many in her former party saw in Trump’s unformed political history an opportunity to mold a rubber stamp for whatever they wanted. “They truly thought they could control him like a puppet. The agenda has come to a screeching halt because of the chaos.”
That Trump failed to grow and learn in office is a disappointment for Republicans, but probably should have been expected. In fact, Trump described his approach to work three decades earlier, in his Art of the Deal bestseller that led to the TV shows. “I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure,” he wrote. “I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.”
That business model, questionable even for actual businesses, wound up generating pure turmoil in the West Wing in the early months. Trump would take meetings with whomever on his staff happened to stroll into the Oval Office. His tendency to accept the advice of the last person he has listened to meant the White House frequently was sending out conflicting messages on policy positions. When Republicans in Congress tried to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, for example, they were often confronted by Trump’s own changing positions – confusion that was further compounded by his lack of knowledge or interest in the topic.
“The president likes to do things by trial and error,” said Ruddy, who said he predicted a “big adjustment period” after Trump took office. “He’s not a strategic planner.”
The arrival of retired Marine Gen. John Kelly as chief of staff last summer was supposed to bring order and structure to the White House, and in some measure it has. Oval Office visits are now strictly controlled, as are phone calls through the White House switchboard during business hours.
But Trump has responded to the reduced access by adopting a lighter work schedule – one that typically does not start until 11 a.m. and ends by 6 or 6:30 p.m. That has left plenty of time to watch cable television coverage about himself and then react to it in off-the-cuff remarks to the press and, more famously, brief statements he releases on Twitter.
From the start of Trump’s presidency, his staff and entire administration have had trouble dealing with Trump’s tendency to say untrue and inflammatory things generally, but particularly on Twitter, which Trump jealously defends as his sure-fire method of getting his “unfiltered” message out to his supporters.
Former press secretary Sean Spicer, after first ridiculing reporters who asked about the value of presidential tweets, soon was forced to concede that Trump’s tweets were, by definition, official statements of the president. Since then, press staff and others have frequently responded to particularly absurd missives with the all-purpose: “The tweet speaks for itself.”
Sometimes, though, Trump’s habit of typing out an idea without thinking it through has generated real consequences.
Trump’s claims that Obama wiretapped him at Trump Tower in 2016 has required his own Department of Justice lawyers to concede, in official federal court filings, that Trump’s assertions are at times completely baseless.
“The tweet simply does not reference FISA and does not state definitively that any such surveillance occurred,” DOJ lawyers recently wrote in a case responding to a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the claimed wiretapping.
Last week, Trump’s habit of watching the “Fox & Friends” morning program and basing policy positions on what he sees nearly derailed renewal of a key law enabling electronic surveillance of foreigners overseas.
The bill had bipartisan support, with only small factions of liberals and libertarians opposing it, as well as the backing of U.S. intelligence agencies – all of which are now under Trump’s control. Trump nevertheless started tweeting against it, requiring an emergency intervention by Kelly and House Speaker Ryan to explain the bill to him and persuade him to write a follow-up tweet reversing his opposition.
Later in the week, Trump gave an hour-long, televised performance hosting a meeting on the plight of some 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children. Democrats and Republicans backing a bill protecting their status were stunned a day later, when Trump called a much smaller meeting – not televised – where he reversed his earlier position while reportedly refusing to help immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti or those in Africa.
And this week, it was again Trump’s Twitter feed generating chaos, as he started Thursday morning by attacking a compromise to keep the government funded past a Friday night deadline. This time, it was deputy press secretary Raj Shah who had to undo the damage, releasing a statement that Trump does, in fact, support the spending bill.
With Trump’s first 365 days down with, at best, limited successes, Republicans confront a second year that is not merely challenging, but potentially devastating.
Midterm elections are just 10 months away, and the party faces the very real possibility of losing control of the House because of Trump’s unpopularity. State elections in New Jersey and in Virginia in November showed big energy among Democratic voters. A special state Senate election in Wisconsin this week in a solid GOP district was won by a Democrat.
“Very nervous,” is how a key RNC member described the consensus within the party, on condition of anonymity. “There’s not a whole lot that can be done. A lot of it depends on the national mood, and we don’t know what that’s going to be.”
In terms of a legislative record to run on, Republicans are unlikely to have much to add to the tax cuts from December. McConnell has already said he’s not inclined to make another run at Obamacare. The two issues most mentioned as congressional agenda items are infrastructure spending and immigration – neither of which appears terribly likely to pass at this moment.
Which means that the fortunes of congressional Republicans are in all probability tied to the president’s behavior in the coming months, with success riding on his ability to settle down and act more “presidential.” GOP leaders are not optimistic.
“We saw this during the campaign,” the RNC member said. “If you were thinking about it, you said: He’s 70 years old. He isn’t going to change. And he hasn’t changed.”
Friend and supporter Ruddy thinks Trump, for whatever reason, believes he must hold onto the 30 percent or so of Americans who fervently support him, no matter the cost.
“I think he’s sticking too closely to the Breitbart talking points. That’s fine with the base, but it’s not a broad governing strategy,” Ruddy said. “I think it may take the loss of the House, the Senate, or both, for him to reconsider the strategy.”
To Unruh, a rout for Republicans in November would start bringing about some rough justice. “They actually knew what Trump was about. They chose to ignore it,” she said of party leadership. “They took the whole party down with them.”