President Donald Trump is getting rave reviews from the DC press for his speech to Congress, and early polls look positive for him too.
But giving a scripted speech with relatively normal rhetoric that strikes an inspiring tone is among the easiest things a president can possibly do. Now comes the hard part.
The headline policy news of the speech related to Congress’s first big legislative agenda item of the year: Obamacare. With deep uncertainty about whether a repeal-and-replace bill can in fact pass the House — and a tough set of deadlines from a packed legislative calendar looming — Republicans were hopeful for Trump to do something, anything, to jump-start the process.
And while we’re still lacking a full Trump plan for reform, and though he neglected to fully endorse the House GOP leaders’ still-in-development proposal, he did lay out five key “principles” that he said “should guide the Congress.” Those principles were vague on some controversial points of health policy and silent on others, but they still included the greatest level of detail that Trump’s given since the election.
Vox’s Sarah Kliff has a fuller explainer on those principles, but the most interesting one for the near-term legislative fight is Trump’s endorsement of “tax credits and expanded health savings accounts” to help people purchase coverage. This is the primary mechanism of House GOP leaders’ reform plan for the individual markets, a plan which has been under fire from the right of late. So Trump’s approval here could be valuable.
But S.V. Dáte wrote for the Huffington Post that even while remaining vague on details, “Trump in many ways boxed in his Capitol Hill party mates” with his promises. He is continuing to maintain that there will be no losers from his health reform plan, saying that coverage will be cheaper, more people will have access to it, and it will provide better care. When it comes to actual legislation, though, tough trade-offs will have to be made on all of these topics — and Trump provided no help in figuring those out.
Beyond the speech: what Trump’s actually doing
Environment: Trump signed an executive order calling on the EPA to start the process of rolling back President Barack Obama’s 2015 “Waters of the United States rule.” The rule itself was meant to settle the complicated question of “which streams and wetlands fall under federal clean water protections,” but farmers and ranchers argued it was too broad, Vox’s Brad Plumer writes.
However, the process of actually getting rid of the rule and replacing it will likely take years and could well end up before the Supreme Court. So while he’s set the process in motion, we still don’t know where exactly it will end up. This is the case for many of Trump’s early environmental moves, because the specifics of what he can do are hemmed in by a complex regulatory framework and existing law. Trump can do a lot to reshape environmental regulations, but it will take a lot of time.
Race and policing: Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that his Justice Department would “try to pull back on” civil rights lawsuits against local police departments. President Obama’s Justice Department had investigated nearly two dozen police departments, and as Vox’s German Lopez writes, some turned up deeply troubling practices.
But Sessions told state attorneys general that investigations like these “diminish” police departments’ “effectiveness,” per NBC’s Pete Williams. Given Trump’s constant defense of law enforcement during the campaign and Session’s own history, this is no surprise — but it still marks quite a change from the late Obama years. (Emily Bazelon has a lengthy new piece about the Trump/Sessions Department of Justice in the New York Times magazine.)
Staffing the government (or not): There’s been a lot of chatter about Trump’s recent slowness in making nominations — Rebecca Ballhaus of the Wall Street Journal recently wrote that over 500 key Senate-confirmed positions lack a nominee, and according to Congress.gov, Trump hasn’t submitted any nominations in the past three weeks. Only three Cabinet departments have a nominated deputy so far, and one of those is rumored to be considered withdrawing. The president himself brought up these reports on Fox & Friends Tuesday morning, and he had a surprising response: “A lot of those jobs I don’t wanna appoint, they’re unnecessary to have,” he said.
If Trump’s explanation were actually true, it would be a remarkable level of political malpractice. Presidential appointments are one of the main ways — perhaps the most important way — presidents actually run the government. Someone is going to be running things, and it’s either the president’s picks or the permanent bureaucracy.
Still, there appear to be two more plausible explanations for Trump’s sub-Cabinet slowness: First, there’s more vetting after some early nominations had to be withdrawn, and second, there are behind-the-scenes clashes about whether Cabinet secretaries can hire subordinates who criticized Trump during the campaign.
What Trump’s considering doing (or trying to do)
Immigration: The Trump administration has been prepping a do-over of its intensely controversial immigration and refugee order (which has been blocked in court), and was set to announce the new order Wednesday.
But oddly for a policy measure that the administration maintains is crucial for national security, the signing will now be delayed later in the week for political messaging reasons. "We want the EO to have its own 'moment,'" an administration official tells CNN’s Jeremy Diamond. (Meaning, they like the good press Trump got from the speech and don’t want to step on it.)
As for what will be in the new order, the Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler reports that it is “likely to apply only to future visa applicants from targeted countries,” not to existing visa holders — which threatened to prevent people already living in the United States, including permanent residents (green card holders) — from being allowed to return home after traveling abroad. Iraq also may be dropped from that list of seven majority-Muslim countries whose residents won’t be permitted to travel to the US.
Military operations: The Daily Beast’s Kimberly Dozier reports that “the White House is considering delegating more authority to the Pentagon to greenlight anti-terrorist operations” outside declared war zones (meaning in countries like Somalia, Libya, or Yemen). The backstory here seems to lie in the botched Yemen raid that marred Trump’s first month in office.
After the raid went badly — many civilians (including an 8-year old American-born girl) were killed, as was Navy SEAL Ryan Owens — anonymous leakers tried to put the blame on Trump. They did so by leaking that the president approved the operation in a rather casual-sounding environment (a dinner that included son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon as well as his defense secretary and the joint chiefs of staff chair).
Though of course the buck stops with the president, trashing Trump for bad operational planning seemed a bit of a stretch. As Vox’s Jenn Williams pointed out, if military planners presented a new president a badly flawed plan and asked him to approve it, they deserve the lion’s share of the blame.
Still, as Dozier writes, handing over carte blanche to the military poses its own problems. President Obama used the review process to assess whether he thought too many civilians would be put at risk in various proposed missions, or whether they might lead to a situation escalating out of control.
Budget: Trump hasn’t released his budget yet, but he is discussing top-line budget numbers with agencies, including (reportedly) a 30 percent cut to the State Department and a 24 percent cut to the EPA. Republicans in Congress are throwing cold water on those ideas already. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said the State cuts were “dead on arrival,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) affirmed they couldn’t pass the Senate. And when asked about the EPA cuts, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) responded that there’s "not that much in the EPA [budget] for crying out loud," per George Cahlink and Geof Koss of E&E News.
Trump and the fourth estate
President Trump had lunch with a bunch of news anchors on Tuesday, and despite the president’s stated distaste for anonymous sourcing, several of them came away with stories quoting a “senior administration official” who sounded a whole lot like Trump (and who, multiple outlets quickly confirmed, was in fact Trump).
For example, the report that Trump all of a sudden wanted Congress to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill emerged from that lunch, as did a CNN story that Trump believes North Korea is the “greatest immediate threat” to the US, because he thinks Kim Jong Un “may be crazy” but isn’t sure whether he might instead be “smart and strategic.”
Meanwhile, Sean Spicer’s war with leaks continued. When he briefed Republican congressional aides on what Trump would say in the speech, someone sent over a recording of what he said to Politico’s Josh Dawsey.