KENOSHA, Wisconsin – On Day 89 of his presidency, Donald Trump set down his felt-tipped pen and did what he’s done most and best so far in his new job: held up a piece of paper he had just signed for news cameras to record for posterity.
More than four dozen times since taking office, Trump has invited the media he regularly attacks to show off his distinctive cursive on a presidential document ― a document that, the vast majority of the time, has been completely unnecessary to accomplish the stated goal.
Previous presidents have signed executive orders and memoranda. None appeared to be compelled to hold them up and show off their penmanship.
“It’s show and tell,” Duke University historian William Chafe said. “It’s basically trying to create the impression of decisiveness.”
In Chafe’s view, it’s actually a misimpression, given the lack of a single significant piece of legislation to pass under Trump’s watch, including the 10 he specifically promised he would shepherd through Congress in his first 100 days.
“The executive orders are the only substantive things that he’s accomplished,” Chafe said, adding that even those have not been particularly substantial. All but a handful of the objectives described in the directives did not even need a formal presidential authorization for the agency heads to pursue them.
In Kenosha, for example, as employees at the Snap-on tools headquarters applauded, Trump signed his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, which he claimed would “help protect workers and students, like those of you in the audience today.”
Except the actual language of the order affects purchasing by federal agencies he controls and asks his own departments to look for ways to tighten some work visa rules. So why issue an executive order ― a tool that historically has reinterpreted laws or rules to achieve a desired goal ― when a simple email or phone call might have done the job?
“An executive order is a signal to every single worker in the federal government, including career workers, lifelong workers, every one across the federal government, that this is an order from the president of the United States, memorialized in writing,” a senior administration official said on condition of anonymity on the Air Force One flight from Wisconsin back to Washington, D.C. “There is no higher statement of executive direction than the form of an executive order.”
Two days later, Trump signed an official memorandum before the cameras, asking his Commerce Department to look into whether steel imports were unfairly undercutting the U.S. steel industry. Why the formal memo, rather than just asking Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to look into it?
“He has issued this memorandum to stress that he would like us to make this a real priority and to expedite it,” said Ross, who acknowledged that he had already started the review the previous day, before the memo was issued.
And the very next morning, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin conceded that Trump’s executive order that afternoon to study the tax code also wasn’t really necessary, despite the televised signing and passing out of pens. “I think the purpose of the orders is to make clear what the president and the administration’s priorities are, and to signify the importance of these issues to the American people,” Mnuchin said.
Chafe and other critics remain unimpressed, and argue that the rash of meaningless signing ceremonies is simply more evidence of a White House that cannot figure out a way to get what it wants ― and maybe cannot even figure out what exactly it does want ― and so settles on PR stunts.
“This administration is still operating under chaos and capriciousness,” Chafe said of Trump. “He’s erratic. He’s all over the place.”
Promises For 100 Days
Trump had been in office for just a few weeks when he began bragging that he was already accomplishing more than any previous president.
“There has never been a presidency that’s done so much in such a short period of time,” Trump proclaimed in a Feb. 16 White House news conference.
As the days slipped past and it became clear the only bills reaching his desk were feel-good measures such as the one encouraging women to pursue science careers or measures using the Congressional Review Act to undo agency rules passed in the final days of the Obama administration, Trump’s White House began recalibrating its message.
Early this month, Trump’s legislative affairs director, Marc Short, asked reporters “to consider” making the CRAs a bigger deal in their news coverage. “I think if you take into [account] in totality what we’ve been trying to do on the regulatory front, it is a news story. And so I do think it’s an accomplishment,” he said.
The White House began bragging about the increase in the stock market, decreases in illegal border crossings from Mexico and strong job growth numbers ― and attributed them all to Trump’s election.
Eventually, Trump, even as he continued to boast about how great he was doing, began diminishing the whole 100-day concept. “I think the 100 days is, you know, it’s an artificial barrier. It’s not very meaningful,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press last week.
Measuring a president by accomplishments in the first 100 days only came into vogue with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrat who entered office at the nadir of the Great Depression. Roosevelt jammed through a significant chuck of his New Deal initiatives in those first months, and that yardstick has stuck ever since.
It is not necessarily fair, particularly to presidents who take office in times of relative peace and prosperity, said University of Texas historian H.W. Brands. Roosevelt in 1933 and Barack Obama in 2009 had to act quickly or risk seeing the nation fall even deeper into economic peril.
Trump, in contrast, took office following 75 straight months of job growth, a 4.7 percent unemployment rate and the wind down of massive, post-Sept. 11 troop deployments.
“He didn’t face a crisis, he didn’t face those emergencies,” Brands said. “But he’s bringing it on himself. ... If the tax code isn’t changed in six months or two years, the world’s not going to end.”
Trump, nevertheless, has claimed he had to act quickly because he inherited “a mess” from his predecessor. That, in fact, was a central theme of his campaign: that the country was a disaster that only he could fix. And on Oct. 22, just weeks before the election, Trump traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and issued a series of promises, some that he would do on his first day in office and the rest that he would accomplish in his first 100.
Based on the list Trump himself created, his track record has been abysmal. Trump actually participated in inaugural activities his first day in office, and spent much of the second day complaining about the media coverage of the first day.
In the coming days and weeks, though, Trump did follow through on some of the 18 actions he said he would start pursuing on Day One, signing orders to deport more undocumented immigrants, to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and to require that each new regulation be accompanied by the repeal of two existing regulations. He also appointed a Supreme Court justice off the list he had previously made public, as he had promised.
But Trump failed to follow through on other items from that list of Day One actions. He did not propose a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on Congress. Not only did he fail to label China a currency manipulator, as he promised he would, but he later came out and specifically said that China is not one. Most famously, his promises to “cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities” and to “suspend immigration from terror-prone regions” are tied up in the courts, thanks to poorly drafted language and Trump’s own inflammatory statements about Muslims during the campaign.
And among the 10 pieces of legislation Trump promised to fight to pass “within the first 100 days of my administration,” he is zero for 10.
The End the Offshoring Act, the Clean Up Corruption in Washington Act, the Affordable Childcare and Eldercare Act ― not one enjoys much of an existence outside of Trump’s October press release. Even his signature campaign promise, to build a “great wall” along the southern border with Mexico, has now been effectively put off until at least October.
“If his presidency were to end tomorrow, he wouldn’t get a mention at all. Nothing has happened.”
The only one of those 10 bills that has moved in either chamber ― repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act ― had to be pulled from the House floor just before a scheduled vote last month because of a lack of Republican support, although a revamped version could soon be up for consideration.
“If his presidency were to end tomorrow, he wouldn’t get a mention at all,” Brands said. “Nothing has happened.”
Trump has even failed to follow through on the very first promise he made in that October Gettysburg speech, which came not long after a series of women went public with accusations of Trump’s inappropriate sexual conduct toward them.
“Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign,” Trump said. “Total fabrications. The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.”
In fact, Trump does not appear to have sued even one of those women.
A Consistent Track Record
To Trump’s many critics, both Democratic and Republican, none of this comes as a surprise.
His decades as a publicity-hungry businessman are littered with enterprises he plunged into with impulsive, poorly researched decisions that later failed, sometimes spectacularly ― everything from his Trump Shuttle airline to his branded Trump Steaks.
In the early 1990s, Trump’s entire business empire was on the verge of collapse. His Atlantic City casinos were bleeding money, and because he had personally guaranteed nearly $1 billion in business loans, their failure would have meant personal bankruptcy for him, too.
Fortunately for Trump, his lenders risked financial ruin themselves if he went down, so they continued to work with him to keep him solvent. Over a period of years, though, his empire shrank as banks forced him to hand over ever-larger portions of his holdings and made him give up extravagances like his 281-foot yacht. They even restricted him to an allowance.
Unable to borrow money for construction projects, Trump shifted his business model toward licensing his name to hotels and condominiums that he didn’t own ― a marketing scheme that became far more successful thanks to the adaptation of his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, into a hit television series.
Trump’s track record did not suggest a brilliant and savvy businessman, but that’s what he played on “The Apprentice,” talking tough and making shrewd decisions in every episode.
“He thinks he’s the best businessman of all time. He thinks he’s the most attractive man to women of all time. He’s a fabulist. None of this is real.”
It was an image that burned into the American popular consciousness over a dozen years, and one that tens of millions of dollars of negative advertising featuring Trump’s actual business record could not undo in the months leading up to last November’s election.
“He thinks he’s the best businessman of all time. He thinks he’s the most attractive man to women of all time,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican political consultant and longtime Trump critic. “He’s a fabulist. None of this is real. ... This is also because he’s fundamentally an unserious person. He’ll say whatever it takes to get the sucker to sign on the dotted line.”
Never Afraid To Brag
Unsurprisingly, Trump brought the habit of claiming phenomenal success, regardless of the actual facts of the case, with him into the White House.
But with no obvious foils to blame as he had during the presidential campaign, Trump’s own character traits underlying his inability to get things done have become more obvious to more observers: His profound ignorance of both domestic and world affairs, an inability or unwillingness to focus, and an eagerness to lash out at perceived threats.
His short attention span and lack of interest in details became clear even to Republican House members during the initial attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act last month. Trump did not appear to know how that law or his proposed replacement actually worked, and seemed more interested in passing something ― anything ― that he could call a victory.
His defenders, who say his lack of knowledge is understandable, given his lack of previous political office, argue that Trump will be held to a different standard by voters judging his performance now, just as they did heading into the 2016 election.
Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said that, in any case, the voting public’s verdict about Trump will not be determined in the first 100 days. Rather, their views about whether their individual lives and the lives of their families and friends are improved or made more difficult will decide how Republicans fare in the 2018 midterm elections and whether Trump can win a second term two years later.
Be that as it may, the Trump White House this week pulled out all the stops in touting its 100 Day successes ― a new page on the White House website, daily recitations by his press shop of his accomplishments, and a flurry of televised signings of presidential pieces of paper.
Among them are orders and memos asking for studies about agriculture, federal education policy and national monuments. All could have been accomplished without a formal presidential declaration.
The White House also staged a closed-door briefing with members of Congress about North Korea (members said afterward they did not learn anything new and wondered what the point of it was), released a single page of bullet points of a “tax reform” proposal (it was so vague that it was impossible to determine how any given taxpayer’s bill would be affected), and floated the idea of an order to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico (pulling out of NAFTA could require congressional approval, which he isn’t likely to get).
Fleischer said he agrees the presidential orders have been mainly stagecraft. “Legally speaking, there isn’t a big difference between an executive order and a president telling his agencies to do something,” he said. “But, no harm done in packaging it.”
Of course, if Trump’s press team gets truly desperate for accomplishments, they can reach back to a campaign promise he made when announcing his candidacy in June 2015, following his now-famous ride down the Trump Tower escalator.
Right after criticizing the Obama administration’s deal to suspend Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for sanctions relief ― ironically, a deal the Trump administration last week acknowledged Iran is living up to ― Trump laid into Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, for crashing his bicycle.
“Goes into a bicycle race at 72 years old, and falls and breaks his leg. I won’t be doing that,” Trump said. “And I promise I will never be in a bicycle race. That I can tell you.”
Trump has not, at least thus far in his presidency, participated in a single bicycle race.