Trump Hitting His Stride After First Year in Office
Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House got off to a rocky start. That should not have been a surprise. The man who ran for president by promising voters that he would drain the swamp in Washington should have expected to receive a hostile reception from the denizens of that swamp who depend upon it for their wealth and power.
It was also predictable that Trump’s experienced White House team would encounter trouble trying to implement his policy through a bureaucracy whose members were openly hostile to Trump’s agenda.
Trump experienced great success by inventing a new way to campaign for president. He deliberately broke many of the established rules and defied the conventions of political correctness.
Given that record, there was no reason to expect Trump to act more conventionally after moving into the White House. As a result, the new president had to endure a steep and painful learning curve before he gained an understanding of the many practical differences between running for office and governing.
The problems started almost immediately, when the Trump White House proved unable to execute his poorly conceived foreign travel ban. His press secretary started out by alienating the White House press corps, and never recovered from it. The poorly organized West Wing bureaucracy made rookie mistakes, such as issuing a poorly worded statement to commemorate the Holocaust, which alienated some of Trump’s Jewish supporters.
These initial difficulties gave Trump’s opponents, still reeling from the shock of his November victory, the confidence of knowing that his initiatives could be stymied, at least temporarily, by emotional public demonstrations, court challenges presented to carefully selected liberal judges and caustic comments condemning the president’s style and personality as much as his policies.
The mainstream media, which deeply resented Trump’s success at manipulating it during the campaign, was happy to support the effort to demonize the new president by portraying him as a lying, egotistical bigot who could not be trusted to wield the power of the presidency.
“THE RESISTANCE” HAS OBSCURED TRUMP’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS
The initial successes of the “resistance” movement convinced Democrat leaders that it would be more effective for them to refuse to deal with Trump altogether rather than try to reach compromises and political accommodations with him. Their strategy was to try to paralyze his presidency through the generation of controversy while searching for any excuse that might force him from office prematurely.
Democrats and their friends in the media quickly latched on to unproven allegations that Trump’s campaign colluded in a Russian conspiracy to undermine the presidential election. When that failed to gain traction, it was followed by allegations that Trump had tried to obstruct justice by firing James Comey as director of the FBI in an effort to derail the Russian investigation.
The highly partisan coverage of that sensational story overwhelmed the normal media news coverage of the diverse issues with which any presidential administration must concern itself. As a result, the American public is largely ignorant of many of Trump’s less sensational but still important accomplishments during his first year as president.
Because of his initial difficulties adjusting to the realities of the Oval Office, many of Trump’s opponents believed his presidency was doomed to self-destruct. They hoped that either the FBI’s investigation into charges that his campaign colluded with the Russians would generate sufficient evidence to impeach Trump, or his outrageous tactics would alienate congressional Republicans to the point that they would be unwilling to help him to govern.
Initially, the “take no prisoners” tactics adopted by Trump’s opponents seemed to be working, at least on the domestic policy level. The hostile media harped on the rough edges of Trump’s boisterous style, the criticism of his populist policies by leading members of the political elite from both parties, and petty inaccuracies found by relentless media fact-checkers monitoring Trump’s provocative tweets. Predictably, in the face of constant criticism, Trump’s popularity in the national polls plummeted, but his critics were slow to recognize other signs that Trump’s presidency was stabilizing.
TRUMP LEARNED FROM HIS MISTAKES
Gradually, the Trump White House learned from its initial mistakes and began to operate more effectively. It took several months and some dramatic shuffling of White House personnel before the right team was put in place. That included a new chief of staff, who demanded the authority to bring military discipline to the often chaotic White House operations, and a more likable and even tempered press secretary. Eventually the frequent media stories about the divisions and chaos in the Trump West Wing gradually subsided.
Trump and his administration have learned a lot about how to govern effectively in the year since he took office in January. The recent tax cut bill is undoubtedly one of his greatest achievements as president, and its passage is one indication of just how much his presidential leadership skills have improved during that time.
A MIXED BUT IMPROVING REPORT CARD
The report card on Trump’s first year in office presents a mixed picture. But that report card is much more positive today than it would have been just six months ago.
While his job approval level in national polls remains at historically low levels, most of Trump’s voter base remains fiercely loyal him. Trump and his supporters expect his poll numbers to rise substantially, especially among working class voters, if the tax cut bill is as successful as they expect it to be at creating new jobs and raising wage levels. A major question is whether those economic improvements will become visible to voters in time to make a difference at the polls, enabling Republicans to maintain their majorities in the Senate and House in the November midterm election.
A SURPRISINGLY STRONG AND EFFECTIVE FOREIGN POLICY
Surprisingly, for someone with no prior foreign policy or military experience, Trump initially gained more success and respect abroad than he did at home. He conveyed an image of strength as well as a determination to implement his “America First” trade and national security policies upon which he had campaigned for president. Some U.S. allies were initially appalled at the sharp contrast to the passive foreign policy Obama had followed, but they soon learned that unlike Obama, Trump could be relied upon to stand by his commitments.
Trump’s first foreign policy test was Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. When Assad had done the same thing in 2013, he defied a statement by Obama that using chemical weapons would “cross a red line,” implying a U.S. military response.
A SHARP CONTRAST TO OBAMA’S POLICIES
Obama dithered for too long before taking action, and ultimately reneged on his threat to launch a retaliatory missile strike on Assad’s chemical weapons. Instead, Obama agreed to a Russian proposal for international monitoring of the removal Syria’s chemical weapons.
Predictably, the Syrians cheated on the agreement, and Obama let them get away with it. For U.S. allies in the Middle East and around the world, it was a sign that Obama could not be trusted to keep U.S. commitments.
Trump’s decisive response to Assad, launching Tomahawk cruise missiles to destroy the main Syrian chemical weapons base, sent the opposite message.
Trump has remained highly critical of the Iran nuclear deal. Reversing Obama’s policies, Trump has stepped up U.S. pressure against attempts by Iran to further expand its influence through the support of terrorism and armed rebellions against friends of the United States and established governments in the Middle East and around the world.
Trump has responded strongly to every new provocation by North Korea.
Trump’s initial foreign visit, first to Saudi Arabia and then to Israel, was highly successful. He made it clear that America was ready to support its friends in the region, while at the same time demanded that its allies in Europe meet their treaty obligations.
Trump did meet resistance to his America First foreign trade policies, which rejected Obama’s internationalist approach. Trump also refused to accept the demands on the U.S. economy made by the unfair and unrealistic Paris global warming agreement.
Meanwhile, Trump unleashed the full might of the U.S. military to defeat ISIS on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria and achieved quick and decisive results.
TRUMP HAS BEEN VERY GOOD TO ISRAEL AND RELIGIOUS FAMILIES
Unlike his predecessor, Trump has also kept his campaign promise of unconditional support for Israel. His formal recognition of Yerushalayim’s status as Israel’s capital was delayed until just a few weeks ago, but despite widespread diplomatic protests against the move, Trump has not back away from it.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.S. ambassador to the UN, has stood up and fought effectively against the unfair treatment of Israel at the UN in sharp contrast to Obama, who, at the end of his administration, stabbed Israel in the back at the UN Security Council. Trump has also been far more tolerant and sympathetic to Israel’s rights in the West Bank than any previous U.S. president.
Trump has also pursued domestic policies that are friendly to the interests of all religious families. Betsy DeVos, his controversial Secretary of Education, has worked tirelessly in support of making government vouchers and tax credits available to help parents pay tuition to yeshivos and other private schools in order to increase the educational options available to their children.
Trump’s newly passed tax cut bill includes a provision, originally introduced by Senator Ted Cruz, that will allow parents to use the proceeds of Section 529 tax advantaged savings accounts which were originally intended to help pay for college tuition to be applied to K-12 yeshiva tuition as well.
Trump’s recent decision to commute the prison sentence of Shalom Rubashkin is yet another reason for Jews who may have once doubted Trump’s good intentions to accept him as friend.
LEARNING TO WORK WITH REPUBLICANS IN CONGRESS
Trump’s most difficult task during his first year was to learn how to manage his sometimes prickly relationship with Republican and Democrat leaders in Congress. He passed his first major congressional test in April, with the confirmation of his nominee, Neil Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court seat which had belonged to the most respected conservative jurist of our era, the late Justice Anton Scalia.
Gorsuch’s confirmation in the face of Democrat opposition was due to two factors. The first was Gorsuch’s outstanding credentials. He was widely recognized as one of the nation’s leading conservative jurists, and a worthy custodian of Scalia’s judicial heritage.
The second was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to exercise the so-called nuclear option. To overcome the united Democrat opposition to Gorsuch, he changed the rules of the Senate so that the Democrat minority could no longer use a filibuster to block Gorsuch’s confirmation vote.
Conservatives have been quite satisfied with Gorsuch’s judicial performance since he took his seat on the Supreme Court bench. They are also pleased with the list of conservative jurists Trump has published from which he has promised to choose his next nominees to fill Supreme Court vacancies as they become available.
VICTORY IN THE FEDERAL COURTS
Another related legislative victory for Trump this year is the confirmation of 19 conservative judges to sit on the benches of lower federal courts across the country. Many are young enough to remain at their posts for decades to come. Trump has placed the names of more than 50 other conservative judges in the Senate confirmation pipeline to fill open seats on the federal bench.
Thanks to McConnell’s efforts during the last years of the Obama administration, Trump inherited a large backlog of open judicial seats. Trump’s conservative nominees to fill them have been opposed by most Senate Democrats. However, because McConnell’s Democrat predecessor as majority leader, Harry Reid, eliminated the use of the filibuster against lower level judicial confirmations, Senate Democrats have not been able to stop confirmation of Trump’s picks by the thin but united Republican Senate majority.
THE REPUBLICANS DEFEATED THEMSELVES ON OBAMACARE REPEAL
However, Trump failed to meet his next major congressional goal, securing passage of a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. Even though Republican candidates had been promising for years to do away with Obamacare, they were not able to reach a consensus on how to replace it.
On this issue, the Democrat strategy of determined resistance to Trump’s policies proved to be most effective, but they got a lot of help from Republicans who couldn’t agree among themselves on what they wanted.
The Trump administration wasted months of precious legislative time on an ultimately unsuccessful effort to fashion an Obamacare replacement bill that could pass both House and Senate with only the support of thin Republican majorities. It was the single most embarrassing failure for Trump and the Republicans during his first year in office.
The delay also meant that Trump did not have enough time to present many of the other elements of his agenda before the onset of the 2018 midterm election season made it impossible to introduce controversial new legislation.
Given that limitation, Trump and Republicans leaders wisely chose to focus their efforts for the remainder of 2017 on the issue on which they were most united, passing a meaningful tax cut and reform package.
A MAJOR REPUBLICAN ACCOMPLISHMENT ON TAXES
McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan moved with surprising speed to draft and pass a long overdue deep tax cut for corporations and small businesses, combining it with a more modest tax relief package for most, but not all, middle income taxpayers. While party leaders hammered out the details, Trump served quite effectively as the main cheerleader for the tax cutting effort.
In the face of determined Democrat opposition, Ryan, McConnell and Republicans in the House and Senate worked effectively together to write, debate and pass the measure in just two months. This enabled Trump to keep his promise to sign the tax cut bill into law before the year-end congressional recess.
Several Republican senators who were once critical of the way that Trump treated them, such as Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins, say he has learned from his mistakes. They were happy to work with Trump on the tax bill because all Republicans feared having to face their voters at the year’s end without a major legislative accomplishment, even if they weren’t up for re-election in November.
REPUBLICANS PICK TAX WINNERS AND LOSERS
The tax cut measure Trump has signed is expected to be more effective at stimulating the growth of the business economy and generating jobs than at providing meaningful tax relief for most taxpayers. Because of tight budget and deficit constraints on the bill, its writers were forced to choose winners and losers.
By putting a $10,000 cap on state and local tax deductions, GOP leaders chose to sacrifice the interests of homeowners in high tax states such as New York, California and New Jersey, which usually vote Democrat.
NEW YORK HOMEOWNERS HIT HARD
The deductions homeowners in those areas will lose due to the $10,000 cap will be substantial. For example, the typical New York household which itemizes deductions claims an average of $17,500 in state income and property taxes, only $10,000 of which will be deductible under the new law. Typical homeowners in California pay an average of $14,000 in such taxes, while in Chicago, the average annual state and local tax bill in $12,000.
The more expensive the neighborhood, the more homeowners will have to pay in non-deductible property taxes. For example, the owner of a home in the top third of New York metropolitan neighborhoods will pay on average more than $23,000 in state and local taxes. Only 43% of that amount will be deductible from the homeowner’s federal taxable income.
REPUBLICANS TAKING A BIG POLITICAL GAMBLE
Republican leaders are gambling that the business and job growth generated by the tax bill will enable enough House GOP members from those areas to win re-election to maintain the slim Republican House majority in the midterm election. Democrats, on the other hand, are optimistic about regaining control.
Only time will tell. The 2018 midterm election will be viewed as a national referendum reflecting the judgement of voters on whether the tax cut bill was a success or a failure.
In response to Democrat criticisms of the tax cut bill, some GOP conservatives say that if it does succeed in paying for itself by increasing economic growth, they would support another tax bill to make the temporary personal tax rate cuts in the current bill permanent and perhaps lower them even further.
There are several other tax reforms which Trump and the Republicans originally promised which were missing from the final version of the bill. They include the controversial carried interest deduction, which is used by wealthy hedge fund managers to lower their taxes, as well as the complete elimination of the inheritance tax and the alternate minimum tax, both of which were reduced, but not eliminated in the version of the bill that Trump signed into law.
UNFINISHED LEGISLATIVE BUSINESS
Other pieces of unfinished legislative business which Trump hopes that Congress will take up when it returns to Washington in January include a major spending bill to repair and upgrade the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Trump campaigned on the promise to spend up to a trillion dollars on construction projects across the nation, which many Democrats have expressed a willingness to support.
When Republican efforts to pass a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare collapsed in the Senate this past summer, Trump promised to make a new effort to kill the program next year. However, with the GOP majority in the Senate now reduced to 51-49 as a result of the outcome of the special election in Alabama, such an initiative has become much more unlikely.
WILL DEMOCRATS DEAL WITH TRUMP ON IMMIGRATION?
Trump has also challenged Congress to make another attempt to reach a bipartisan agreement to reform immigration law. Its most immediate goal will be to protect the so-called “dreamers,” illegal immigrants who were brought to this country years ago as small children.
In 2012, President Obama signed an executive order initiating a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to protect the dreamers from deportation. However, many legal experts and most Republicans believe that Obama’s approach to protecting the dreamers was unconstitutional because it violates current federal law. Trump has given Congress a March deadline to pass new legislation to protect the dreamers before the protections from deportation in DACA come to an end.
Trump has made it clear to Democrat leader that he wants specific changes in the immigration law in return for his willingness support deportation protection for the DACA dreamers. These include new measures to strengthen the U.S. border with Mexico against infiltration by illegal aliens, including the construction of a wall. He also wants an end to “chain migration,” the immigration policy which permits the entry of any member of the extended family of anyone who is permanently living legally in the United States. Trump also wants to stop the practice of granting “diversity visas” to residents of foreign countries, allowing them to enter the U.S. solely on the basis of having won a lottery.
Because of the March deadline for the expiration of DACA, the immigration issue is likely to be an early test of whether Democrats will be willing to reach a compromise with Trump on an issue which is of great importance to one of their core constituencies during an election year.
Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters say that his strong anti-immigration rhetoric alone has made possible another achievement, a sharp reduction in the rate of illegal aliens crossing the border with Mexico, even before construction has begun on Trump’s proposed border wall.
POPULAR ROLLBACKS OF EXPENSIVE REGULATIONS
The Trump administration has enjoyed success in another area of economic policy, the rollback of unnecessary federal regulations, which are a major cost and impediment to American business activity.
Soon after taking office, Trump signed an executive order requiring that for every new regulation imposed by a federal department, two old regulations must be eliminated. According to the business community the positive results from that Trump policy have already been dramatic. It has eliminated many costly environmental regulations as well as restrictions on the development of American energy resources. But the process of regulation rollback has been slowed by objections and lawsuits brought by liberals and conservationists.
A measure of the effectiveness of Trump’s economic policies is the acceleration in the rate of GDP growth over the past two quarters, accompanied by continued strong job growth. Trump administration officials predict a further acceleration as the new tax cut bill takes hold in 2018.
TRUMP CAN’T SHAKE THE RUSSIA INVESTIGATION
One major area in which Trump has failed has been his efforts to force a rapid end to the investigation into the still unproven charges that his campaign colluded with the Russians. Trump has assigned some of blame for that on the early decision by his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to recuse himself from the FBI investigation. But the larger problem turned out to be Trump’s decision in May to fire James Comey as the director of the FBI.
Comey took his revenge on Trump by engineering the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, taking the investigation out of the hands of the FBI. As a practical matter, the Mueller investigation, and its underlying charge of Trump collusion with the Russians, is likely to continue as a threat to Trump’s presidency indefinitely, regardless of whether it finds any evidence of collusion. The only consolation is that the political danger to Trump from the investigation is likely to continue to recede as long Mueller is unable to find such evidence, and the motives of his investigators come under scrutiny.
Taking to heart his bitter experience after he fired Comey, Trump has backed off his prior threats to fire Sessions. Trump also vigorously denies the recurring rumors in the liberal media that he intends to fire Mueller at the first opportunity.
GROWING THE ECONOMY
Trump’s supporters claim he deserves credit for accelerated GDP and job growth, sharply reduced unemployment and a rise in consumer and business confidence. He has also introduced new policies to promote apprenticeships, small business loans for female entrepreneurs, and computer science education.
Trump kept his promises to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.
The president has opened talks to renegotiate the NAFTA free trade agreement, while negotiating on a one-to-one basis with individual corporate heads to urge them to open new plants and create new jobs in the United States.
Trump has opened vast new areas for domestic energy exploration and production. He has also approved construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. He killed Obama environmental regulations which would have put an end to the use of coal-fired plants to produce electricity in this country.
The Trump administration has stepped up its immigration law enforcement, increased the number of immigration judges to handle cases, ended the Obama-era “catch and release” policy and pressured sanctuary cities to turn over illegal aliens being held in their custody.
FIGHTING DRUGS AND CRIME
The government has stepped up its removal of criminal gang members in this country illegally, and is concentrating specifically on the arrest and trial of 4,000 members of the violent Central American MS-13 gang.
Trump has declared a National Public Health Emergency to fight the fast-growing abuse of opioids, and the designation of fentanyl as a controlled substance.
Trump has approved a variety of initiatives to help veterans and expand their access to care, and to correct other chronic problems in the VA health system and at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Trump has approved plans for a major expansion and modernization of the long neglected and underfunded U.S. military. He has also empowered U.S. military commanders to use their discretion to “seize the initiative and win” on battlefields where U.S. troops are in combat around the world, such as Afghanistan.
Trump has also stepped up U.S. sanctions on the rogue regime in Venezuela and reversed the concessions President Obama made to the Castro regime in Cuba.
A NOVEL IDEA: KEEPING PROMISES
Trump surprised many of his critics with his strong attempts to make good on popular campaign promises, such as moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim. At the same time, Tump has tried to restore confidence and respect for America in the eyes of its enemies and friends around the world while remaining true to his pledge to put the best interests America and its citizen first.
Many of these details have been lost or deliberately overlooked in the highly partisan news accounts about Trump’s accomplishments and failures. They have not received the attention they deserved from reporters obsessed with tailoring their stories to fit the preset narratives of their political agendas.
IMPRESSIVE RESULTS AFTER A ROCKY START
Trump, after a year in office, has a much broader record of effort and accomplishment than most people realize. It is a far from perfect record, but it has clearly been improving in recent months.
Given the storms of controversy that have surrounded Trump since the start of his presidency, his focus on his main goals has been remarkably consistent.
Trump’s first year in office has had its successes and failures, but even some of his longtime critics now admit that his persistence in trying to achieve his goals, despite the efforts of those who are determined to see him fail, is starting to show impressive results.