President Donald Trump’s promotion of the baseless conspiracy theory that millions of unauthorized immigrants voted in the 2016 election got a whole lot of headlines on Tuesday, and deserved to.
While the controversy was churning, Trump’s administration was making several other moves, with policy implications, that deserve a lot of attention too:
- They signaled their approval of two big oil pipeline projects.
- They froze Environmental Protection Agency grants and contracts.
- They revealed a Supreme Court decision is soon approaching (and a report indicated they’re down to three finalists).
- And they got a CIA director confirmed and a Federal Communications Commission chair named, and reportedly are hiring a controversial new White House staffer.
Here, then, is a rundown of the biggest policy news from the new Trump administration on Tuesday.
Trump wants to make pipelines great again
The policy headline for Trump’s second full working day as president was that he signed a series of executive orders related to the environment, pipelines, and manufacturing — though they’re mainly symbolic for the time being.
One new order essentially served as a high-profile signal of approval for the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, which has been protested by the Standing Rock Sioux and other activists, who argue it could endanger a reservation’s water supplies and pose risks to the tribe’s sacred sites.
The existing state of play on DAPL was that in response to an Obama administration order for the Army Corps of Engineers to reexamine the pipeline’s environmental impact, the Army Corps concluded that the pipeline builders needed to “explore alternate routes.” This essentially blocked construction for the time being, and kick-started a lengthy review of the pipeline’s potential environmental impact.
But Trump’s new executive order tells the Army Corps to “take all actions necessary and appropriate” to review and approve the pipeline “to the extent permitted by law and as warranted.” Now, this executive order doesn’t change anything on the surface, since the ball is still in the Army Corps’ court now — it could either keep moving forward with its new environmental review or ditch it. However, as Brad Plumer explains, the pipeline’s prospects look good, since its fate will eventually be determined by an assistant Army secretary that Trump will appoint.
Second, Trump signed an executive order relating to another stalled pipeline project: Keystone XL. This one is simpler — Trump invited TransCanada, which planned to build the pipeline but had its application rejected by President Obama, to submit a new application. The president also ordered the State Department to reach a decision on any new TransCanada application in 60 days or less.
Finally, in a series of other executive orders, he told various departments or staffers to come up with a series of plans — to make sure pipeline construction uses US steel, to streamline federal permitting requirements for manufacturers, and to speed up environmental reviews for “high-priority infrastructure projects.” Now, it’s easy to tell people to come up with plans — the hard part is hammering out the details and making them happen, and that’s still ahead for the Trump administration on all these fronts. But the Washington Post’s Darryl Fears has more on just what they might be able to do.
And that’s not all for the environment — the Huffington Post and ProPublica reported Tuesday that the new administration had frozen EPA grants and contracts. It’s unclear whether this freeze is just temporary or whether it applies to existing contracts as well as new ones, but ProPublica’s Andrew Revkin and Jesse Eisinger write that it could threaten “to disrupt core operations ranging from toxic cleanups to water quality testing.”
Trump plans to name a Supreme Court nominee next week — and he’s reportedly down to three contenders
Trump told reporters Tuesday that he’s planning to announce his replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia next week. This will be one of the most consequential decisions the president makes in his first year and perhaps even in his entire administration — since Supreme Court appointments are for life, Trump’s choice could continue shaping US law for decades after his presidency comes to an end.
And according to a new report by Politico’s Eliana Johnson and Shane Goldmacher, Trump has narrowed his shortlist to just three people: Neil Gorsuch, Thomas Hardiman, and Bill Pryor. All of them are appellate court judges, all are on the younger side (between 49 and 54 years old), and all appear to be staunch conservatives. Each has his own idiosyncrasies, however — Vox’s Dylan Matthews and Dara Lind ran down their respective records.
Since Trump will likely be replacing Scalia, a conservative, with another conservative, this appointment probably won’t send the Court into uncharted territory. Instead, it will likely restore the status quo of a five-justice conservative majority, with Anthony Kennedy and John Roberts as swing votes, that existed for most of Obama’s presidency.
However, the appointment will make a massive difference compared with how American law might have shifted if Hillary Clinton had won the election (or if Obama had managed to get Merrick Garland confirmed), since that could have handed the majority on the Court to liberals for the first time in decades.
Now, under current rules, Supreme Court nominations still require 60 votes to beat a filibuster in the Senate — meaning eight Democrats would have to be won over to Trump’s choice, which seems extremely unlikely given the nominees he’s considering. But no one expects that status quo to last. If Trump’s nominee is blocked, Senate Republicans will likely push through a rules change allowing the confirmation of Supreme Court nominees with a simple majority.
Trump’s policy people: a CIA confirmation, an FCC chair, and a new controversial White House aide
Meanwhile, on Monday night Trump won Senate confirmation of his nominee for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo. As Vox’s Jennifer Williams wrote, Pompeo put some Democrats’ minds at ease during his confirmation hearing by testifying that he would “absolutely not” reinstate “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding that were used by the agency in the Bush administration and later banned, even if the president ordered him to. And on Tuesday night, Nikki Haley, Trump’s pick for UN Ambassador, easily won confirmation too.
Trump also sidestepped another confirmation fight Monday by designating a sitting FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, as the chair who will lead the agency, rather than giving the job to a new nominee of his own who would need Senate approval. Pai became chair immediately, and Republican appointees now have a 2-1 majority on the commission (there are two seats vacant). As Timothy Lee writes, Pai has been a vocal critic of Obama’s regulations protecting network neutrality, and his appointment suggests the Trump administration intends to roll back those rules — though the process will take some time.
Finally, a new White House appointment is raising some eyebrows. Breitbart writer Julia Hahn will reportedly work under White House chief strategist Steve Bannon (who, of course, ran the site before moving over to Trump’s campaign). It might seem unsurprising that Bannon would hire an old employee of his, but Hahn particularly distinguished herself with extremely critical coverage of House Speaker Paul Ryan for allegedly being too pro-immigration, as Vox’s Tara Golshan writes.
Of course, Bannon himself reportedly used to refer to Ryan as “the enemy,” and Breitbart was known for its advancement of a narrative that unauthorized immigrants are prone to criminality, so this can’t be too much of a surprise. Still, since President Trump has to work with the speaker, this appointment seems a bit provocative and is raising eyebrows among Ryan’s allies, according to the Washington Post’s Robert Costa.
Some more quick policy tidbits
- The Cassidy-Collins plan for replacing Obamacare, which would let states keep the existing system if they want, is the talk of the health wonk community. Sarah Kliff has more here.
- Trump’s team has compiled a list of “Emergency & National Security Projects” for its infrastructure plan — McClatchy’s Kansas City Star and the News Tribune have posted it here.
- Tom Price, Trump’s nominee for health and human services secretary, conspicuously failed to promise during his confirmation hearing that no one would lose coverage due to Trump’s Obamacare orders, as Politico reports.
- Meanwhile, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget nominee, Mick Mulvaney, pledged that, if confirmed, he would make the case for entitlement cuts to Trump, even though the president has said he opposes them. "My job ... is to be completely and brutally honest with him,” Mulvaney said, according to the Washington Post.
- The House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban women from receiving any federal financial assistance for abortion. It will almost certainly be blocked in the Senate, but read more about it from Emily Crockett here.
- And Trump appears to be preparing to sign some major executive orders on immigration, per the New York Times. We’ll be covering that in-depth on Vox when we know more details.