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Donald Trump’s massive missed opportunity

His first 100 days may have been his best chance to transform America.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

On the morning of November 9, 2016, the possibilities seemed endless.

Donald Trump had won the presidency. The Republican Party controlled both houses of Congress. The world, it appeared, was their oyster. Eight years of President Obama’s legacy were about to be erased, and long-sought GOP policy priorities were about to become the law of the land.

And Trump didn’t want to stop there. He had run on a promise to transform American politics, rejecting much of the conventional wisdom from both establishment Democrats and establishment Republicans. His racialized, nationalistic, economically populist-inflected platform made quite a change for the GOP, and, if actually implemented, it could fundamentally reshape political coalitions.

“We’re going to build an entirely new political movement,” incoming White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told journalist Michael Wolff shortly after the election. “If we deliver, we’ll get 60 percent of the white vote, and 40 percent of the black and Hispanic vote and we'll govern for 50 years.”

Nearly 100 days into Trump’s presidency, he hasn’t come anywhere close to fulfilling these grand ambitions.

“Presidents are most likely to leave their legacy in their first year or so. And so far, Trump hasn’t,” says George Edwards, a Texas A&M political scientist and an expert on the presidency. “He’s accomplished much less than I thought he would.”

Indeed, the Trump administration’s governing agenda currently lies in tatters, marked by two dramatic failures on his “Muslim ban” and health reform. Going forward, Republicans will face serious obstacles on any effort to enact tax reform, infrastructure, or Trump’s border wall, making it unclear whether Trump will win any major legislative accomplishments, particularly given his historic unpopularity for a new president.

Meanwhile, on both foreign and economic policy, Trump has largely abandoned his ideological heresies during the campaign, embracing the Republican establishment’s views on NATO, foreign intervention, enforcing a chemical weapons taboo in Syria, China’s currency, the general shape of the global trading system, and giving top bankers key government positions.

What has he achieved? He’s gotten a Supreme Court justice confirmed, he’s killed some last-minute Obama administration regulations, and he’s toughened policy toward unauthorized immigrants. He can achieve more, though it will take longer, through executive action, the administrative state, and the president’s foreign policy powers.

It is clear that Donald Trump’s presidency won’t be inconsequential. And given his status as commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military, the Trump presidency could still be immensely destructive.

But so far, Trump’s administration has not been transformative. His few successes have been ones that any Republican could have been expected to achieve. A president’s popularity tends to decline from where it starts, so he already may have missed his best chance to accomplish anything greater. Here is a look back at how things went off the rails.

I. The transition: a marriage without a honeymoon

After Trump won the election, he didn’t want to leave the campaign behind — for good and ill.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty

The historical pattern is clear — after the presidential election, the honeymoon begins. Though the campaign may be hard-fought and nasty, most voters start off ready to give the new president-elect the benefit of the doubt. His own party is eager to deliver him major successes, and even the opposition is more willing to cooperate on at least some matters early on.

None of this happened for Donald Trump. In retrospect, his lack of a honeymoon was perhaps the single most important factor shaping the early days of his presidency.

While we’ve come to take it for granted that Trump is controversial and unpopular, this is dramatically outside the historical norm. His unusual unpopularity is crucial context for the massive protests against him and his stalled legislative agenda.

The starting point, naturally, was that Trump ended the campaign remarkably unpopular, losing the popular vote and barely edging out another tremendously unpopular candidate in the Electoral College. This situation was not at all normal. If you look at Gallup’s historical numbers, every major party nominee since 1964 had ended the campaign with positive net favorability numbers — except Trump and Hillary Clinton.

It’s difficult to remember now, but there were a few brief moments after the election when Trump tried to strike a markedly different tone. “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all of Americans. And this is so important to me,” he promised during his victory speech. In the following days, he lavishly praised President Obama and incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. On November 11, Politico Playbook claimed that “the new narrative among top GOP leadership aides in Capitol” was that “Trump might just govern like a middle-of-the-road, moderate New York Republican.” The authors continued: “What if he fooled us all?”

But it soon became clear that Trump had fooled no one. Rather than continuing to try to take the high road and unify the country, the president-elect proved willing to publicly lash out at anyone who got on his nerves.

Trump started off in a hole, and after making only a few fitful efforts to climb out of it, he proceeded to dig himself deeper. In just the first month after his victory, he tweeted insults at protesters, Democrats, the Green Party, the New York Times, CNN, the cast and producers of the musical Hamilton, and the “biased, not funny” Saturday Night Live. He also falsely claimed that he “won the popular vote” once “the millions of people who voted illegally” are subtracted. By January, he was calling Schumer a “clown” and trashing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s TV ratings. In his impulsivity and insecurity, President-elect Trump wasn’t discernibly different from candidate Trump.

“It was the incapacity for magnanimity in victory,” says political consultant Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. “This is someone who continued to campaign after the campaign ended, when he needed to become president of all the American people — including those he deeply offended, terrorized, and stigmatized during the course of the campaign.” Rather than attempting outreach to his critics, though, Trump kept attacking them.

“Usually a new president in this period is doing lots of noncontroversial things,” says Casey Dominguez, a professor at the University of San Diego who’s studied the presidential honeymoon. “They’re moving their family to the White House. They’re appointing somebody qualified to an important job. So the public is hearing fairly neutral things about the administration.” But Trump is constitutionally unable to shy away from controversy. And his net favorability, though it improved by a few points, never ended up making it into positive territory.

With so much negativity and nastiness coming from the president-elect, and so little effort from him to build bridges to Democrats or to reach out to the majority of the electorate that didn’t vote for him, it’s no surprise he didn’t get a real honeymoon. Instead, the day after he was sworn in, millions of Americans took the streets to protest against him, in what may have been the largest demonstrations in American history. And Senate Democrats soon fell under immense pressure from their base not to vote to confirm even Trump’s most uncontroversial nominees. Due to Trump’s own rhetoric and actions, the liberal base had come to believe that his presidency was deeply dangerous and must be resisted at all costs.

Still, the question of what Trump would actually do once in office seemed up in the air. During the transition, he’d heavily emphasized PR stunts related to jobs, like his deal with the HVAC company Carrier to keep about 1,000 jobs in Indiana. And Bannon, of course, had publicly mused about a major infrastructure program. This was a possible governing agenda that had the potential to be quite popular indeed — and one that struck fear into the hearts of Democrats.

The reality of what unfolded would be quite different.

II. The Muslim ban: Trumpism’s dark heart

Protesters against Trump’s immigration and travel order at San Francisco International Airport, on his 10th day in office.
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty

When President Donald Trump signed his immigration and travel executive order on the afternoon of Friday, January 27, there was no indication that he was aware this could define the beginning of his presidency. The staging — the order was at the tail end of a week of actions on other topics, and got second billing at a Pentagon event — certainly didn’t suggest as such. “That’s big stuff,” Trump said as he signed it. It did not seem that he had any idea what he had unleashed.

The so-called “Muslim ban” has been the most total and complete failure of Donald Trump’s administration so far. It has been a fiasco and a disgrace on every level — politically, procedurally, legally, and morally. There is nothing good that can be said about it.

So how did it happen?

The ban was birthed in bigotry back in December 2015, as part of a crude plot to gain Trump political advantage in the Republican primary from the San Bernardino attack. The candidate read out a statement calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” In doing so, he showed his willingness to flout political norms, and his talent for appealing to Americans’ basest instincts with a crude proposal — if you don’t want terror, don’t let the Muslims in.

Criticism poured in from all fronts. This was not, it seemed, something that was acceptable in the American system. Tax rates and health policy and even abortion were up for debate in American politics, but not outright religious discrimination. Republican after Republican, from Speaker Paul Ryan to Trump’s eventual running mate Mike Pence, lined up to condemn the proposal as violating American values.

Once Trump had won the nomination and was heading for the general election, he concluded that it was time to walk things back — a little. Beginning in June, he changed his language to focus on “extreme vetting” of people from countries with “a proven history of terrorism,” rather than on anyone of the Muslim faith. This sounded less controversial and seemed more legally defensible, and it proved not to be a deal breaker for Republican leaders. When the Trump campaign released a “100 day plan” in October, it included a promise to “suspend immigration from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur” on his first day in office.

Still, once he won the election, Trump certainly didn’t have to follow through on this promise. All presidents abandon some campaign trail promises that would be too disruptive, costly, or divisive to actually implement. Furthermore, the promise of “extreme vetting” was vague enough that any number of policies could have met that standard. The US, it should be noted, already had an intense vetting process for legal immigrants and especially refugees. Trump could simply have toughened the existing process marginally and claimed his promise had been kept — choosing style over substance, as he has done on so many other issues.

But he chose to do the opposite. “He decided,” says Dominguez, “to try to fulfill one of his most controversial campaign promises in the most controversial way possible.”

At some point, Trump’s transition team decided that the “ban” would be part a flurry of early executive orders the president would issue shortly after he was sworn in. This strategy, dubbed “shock and awe,” was pushed by Attorney General-designate Jeff Sessions, according to the Washington Post. Once Trump was sworn in, it was spearheaded by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. And the person actually writing many of the orders, including this travel and immigration order, would be Stephen Miller, a 31-year old former Sessions aide and close Bannon ally who was to become the top policy staffer in the White House.

Whether due to presidential inattention or design, the fact that the “ban” ended up being designed by Bannon, Sessions, and Miller — the most hardline anti-immigration voices among Trump’s team — proved to be immensely consequential. All three broke from the bipartisan consensus among political elites with their harsh criticism of even legal immigration, which Bannon once called “the beating heart of this problem” in the US. So when this trio suddenly had the power to reshape US immigration policy with a stroke of a presidential pen, they very much intended to use it.

The order they drew up, with hardly any consultation from the agencies that would implement it or the lawyers who’d be tasked with defending it, was remarkably extreme in both substance and execution. It blocked everyone from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days. It banned all refugee admissions for 120 days, and all Syrian refugee admissions indefinitely. Most shockingly of all, it applied even to people from those countries who had already been approved for US green cards, and it would go into effect immediately after it was signed — throwing airports all over the country into chaos and leading to the sudden detention of hundreds of people and many others being turned away from flights or sent back out of the US after landing there. “Big stuff” indeed.

The “Muslim ban” was so controversial during the campaign that any action on it would have led to a backlash. But in choosing such an extreme version of the ban, and in executing it in such a seemingly careless and haphazard way — the order, Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes memorably wrote, was “malevolence tempered by incompetence” — Trump ensured this backlash would be supercharged.

To lots of liberals and even many conservatives, it felt like something deeply disturbing, bigoted, and un-American was going on. Large, spontaneous protests mobilized at international airports all over the country, and condemnations from politicians gradually poured in. By Saturday night, a federal judge in New York had already blocked part of the order, and it only took a few more days for the courts to halt all its controversial elements.

Amazingly, with Trump’s presidency barely a week old, he had managed to mobilize the opposition party, the judiciary, and even many members of his own party against him. And even when the administration revised the “ban” to try to improve its chances in court, a judge blocked it again, writing that “a reasonable, objective observer” would conclude it “was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion.”

The order remains tied up in court, and the administration could eventually emerge victorious. But any victory at this point would be a Pyrrhic one. The ugly controversy over the order already dominated Trump’s first month in office, overshadowing everything else he tried to do and poisoning his attempts at outreach. It ended, likely forever, any hopes that the Trump presidency would be less controversial than the Trump campaign.

Just what, exactly, Trump and aides like Bannon were thinking here remains unclear. Likely some combination of anti-immigrant fervor, simple arrogance, and the desire to prove that Trump was “keeping his promises” played a role. But if they truly believed the political system would simply stomach such an extreme measure and allow Trump to move on with the rest of his agenda, they were delusional. This disgrace proved to be the defining moment of the beginning of his term.

III. The health care bill: damned if they do, damned if they don’t

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty

President Donald Trump could have begun his legislative agenda with a tax cut bill. This would have been controversial and complex, but Republicans generally agree that taxes should be cut, and tax cuts are generally a popular giveaway to voters or business interests (rather than a painful attempt to take away benefits).

The new president could also have kicked things off by focusing on infrastructure, a topic he repeatedly touted on the campaign trail. Republicans may have blanched at a big bill funding construction of roads and bridges, but many Democrats would have been tempted to back it. And the issue polls astonishingly well — one Quinnipiac poll found that 90 percent of Americans supported the idea.

But he did neither. Instead, Trump chose to make the American Health Care Act — a hideously unpopular bill that violated many of his own campaign promises and would cause a whole lot of pain to a whole lot of voters should it ever be enacted — his top priority. And even after the House pulled the bill in March due to lack of support, Trump concluded he wasn’t yet ready to move on, and demanded work continue on it.

In doing so, this allegedly masterful dealmaker ended up in a no-win situation.

If the bill fails, Trump looks like a loser (as he did when the House canceled its vote last month). And yet if the bill somehow still passes and gets signed into law in anything like its current form, he could be causing even greater problems for himself and his party among the electorate in the long run.

Much of this is due to the years of disingenuous and contradictory rhetoric among Republican politicians about just what is wrong with the Affordable Care Act and what should be done to fix it. It was politically convenient for many GOP members of Congress to trash insurance offered through Obamacare as too costly or not generous enough. But in reality, the party’s ideas on health care generally focused on cutting back government spending on health care for the poor and sick — meaning that if they were implemented, voters across the country would be hit in their pocketbooks.

Still, it’s odd that Trump would let himself end up in this mess, because during the campaign he seemed well aware how politically toxic the politics of benefit cuts could be. Though he did declare Obamacare a “disaster” and echo the standard GOP pledge to “repeal and replace” it, he also repeatedly promised that, unlike other Republicans, he wouldn’t cut Medicare or Medicaid. He said he wouldn’t let people “die on the streets.” And during the transition, he promised to provide “insurance for everybody,” even people who “can’t pay for it.”

But all this clashed with the policy priorities of the Republican Party and particularly House Speaker Paul Ryan. The speaker’s main interest has long been in slashing government spending — particularly on entitlement programs like Medicaid — and cutting taxes. And once he had unified Republican control of Congress for the first time in a decade, he wanted to act quickly to enact what he could from that agenda that agenda.

Strangely, and crucially, Trump agreed during the transition to let Ryan set the legislative agenda and put health care first, rather than taking a stand for his own priorities or recognizing that Ryan could lead him into dangerous political territory.

According to the New York Times’s Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, Trump “approved the agenda putting health care first late last year, almost in passing, in meetings with Mr. Ryan, Vice President Mike Pence and Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff.” There were reasons related to Senate rules and procedure for moving on health care before taxes, as I explored at more length here, but it certainly wasn’t the only option. Even more ominously, despite Trump’s occasional promises to release his own health care plan, he never followed through — which meant he’d be yoked to whatever Ryan cooked up.

Ryan cooked up quite a dish. The American Health Care Act cut $880 billion from Medicaid and was projected to result in 24 million people losing insurance by 2026, per the Congressional Budget Office. Plus, it would have had particularly devastating effects on older, poorer Americans who had to buy insurance on the individual marketplaces — CBO projected a 64-year-old making $26,500 would see her premiums rise by 750 percent.

Polls showed that the bill was incredibly unpopular. Yet despite some early caution from Trump, politics and the desire to score a big legislative “win” seem to have eventually driven him to get behind what he hoped would be a parade. Despite the president’s seeming inability to describe what Ryan’s bill even did, he declared his support for the AHCA, called on the House to pass it, and lobbied wavering Republicans.

In March, the effort failed in the House, as Freedom Caucus conservatives opposed the bill for not doing enough to repeal Obamacare and moderates opposed it because it imperiled many of their constituents’ insurance. But since then, annoyed at coverage of his failure, Trump has been attempting to revive the measure, and this week’s effort has won the Freedom Caucus’s support — by letting states charge sick customers higher premiums. Still, immense challenges remain in both the House and the Senate at coming to an agreement. And again, the real risk for Trump in the end may be that this bill actually passes, and goes into effect.

At the heart of this all was Trump’s own failure to recognize just how misleading the Republican rhetoric about Obamacare had been — and just how difficult and risky it would be to put any of their plans into practice. Even an operator so skilled in the art of the grift didn’t realize just how deep the GOP con on health reform went.

IV. Foreign policy and economics: revenge of the elites

Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin, two Goldman Sachs alums, got the top two economic policymaking jobs in the Trump administration
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

Beyond the high-profile failures of the Muslim ban and the first attempt at the health care bill, the bigger picture of the Trump administration’s economic and foreign policy is that the president barely even tried to enact his most transformational or controversial campaign promises on those fronts.

During the campaign, Trump suggested he wasn’t all that committed to the NATO alliance, railed against a global trading system he claimed was disastrous for the US, promised to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day of the presidency, voiced serious doubts about interventionist military policy, and overall seemed to suggest that the US should be less involved in events beyond its shores.

But 100 days into his presidency, he hasn’t followed through on any of that. Instead he’s for the most part reaffirmed the status quo, with marginal movement toward the right that, once again, could have been expected from any Republican president.

Trump has fully committed to NATO. He’s delivered almost nothing on his trade agenda (though he’s made some attempts to change that narrative in the past week). He’s said he won’t in fact declare China a currency manipulator. And he launched a missile strike on Syria to enforce an international norm against chemical weapons use.

It’s a Washington cliché that “personnel is policy,” but perhaps never has it been more true than for Donald Trump’s administration. Since the president himself had no experience in politics and shows little knowledge of issues beyond the broadest talking points, his appointees have had a great deal of sway in shaping what actually is decided.

On economics, for instance, Trump signaled he’d work with financial elites by appointing Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn as his National Economic Council director, and hedge funder (and Goldman Sachs alumnus) Steve Mnuchin as Treasury secretary. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are said to have been advocating for a pro-business, pro-stability approach to economics too.

Now, “nationalists” like Bannon and Peter Navarro (the most anti-trade White House official) got some key posts, but they mainly seem to have lost internal debates on economic policy so far. We’ve seen nothing even close to the dramatic overhaul of the US’s role in the global trading system that Trump promised on the campaign trail.

On foreign policy, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson was an outside-the-box choice for secretary of state, but he came with strong recommendations from GOP foreign policy veterans like Condoleezza Rice and Bob Gates. Retired Gen. James Mattis is well-liked and respected by both parties, and his appointment as secretary of defense was greeted with sighs of relief around Washington. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had little experience on foreign policy before being appointed United Nations ambassador, but her views seem to put her in the GOP’s hawkish mainstream.

The fly in the ointment was Michael Flynn as national security adviser — Flynn, a retired lieutenant general, had a penchant for anti-Muslim rhetoric and conspiracy theories — but he didn’t even last a month. Trump fired Flynn after word leaked that Flynn had lied to Vice President Pence about communications with the Russian ambassador during the transition. His replacement, H.R. McMaster, was another general whom the Washington foreign policy community generally believes to be capable, savvy, and reasonable. (Bannon, initially given a seat on the National Security Council by Trump, has since lost it.)

With these appointees in place, Trump so far hasn’t had a radically different foreign policy from that of his recent predecessors. “His aspirations for change in foreign policy seem to be evaporating,” says Edwards, the Texas A&M professor. Yes, he’s shot from the hip in calls with foreign leaders. He seems to be empowering the generals to make battlefield decisions more than President Obama did. And his strike in Syria was a change from Obama — but it was a change that much of the Washington foreign policy establishment long wanted and applauded.

Though Trump won the enthusiasm of many Republican voters by challenging the bipartisan elite consensus on economic and foreign policy, he all along was an elite himself. And now that he’s in office, he seems to have concluded — at least for the time being — that bankers, billionaires, and generals aren’t so bad after all.

V. What Trump has done and what he could still do

It’s important to note again that even though Trump has so far failed to enact transformational change, much of what he has done and can still do is consequential.

  • Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation (with the help of the nuclear option) gives conservatives the majority on the Supreme Court again, averting the potential disaster that the Scalia vacancy was for them and likely locking in a conservative vote there for decades. This is, however, something we would have expected from any Republican president (and Gorsuch is a completely conventional GOP nominee).
  • Trump has prioritized the deportation of unauthorized immigrants to a greater extent than his predecessors, changing federal policy and directing federal resources toward more crackdowns and deportations in a way that will change many lives. And despite some chatter that Trump is moderating, Sessions, one of the most hardline immigration hawks, remains in place at the Department of Justice, where he has a great deal of power.
  • In the war on terror, there are early signs that the Trump administration is more willing to approve strikes that risk many civilian casualties than the Obama administration was.
  • Trump has begun the process of dismantling President Obama’s climate regulations, though this is a complex and lengthy endeavor that will face many obstacles, including in court. Other environmental regulations are also in danger.

The bigger picture, though, is that in what is traditionally a honeymoon period where new presidents have greater leeway from the public and the political system, he has already managed to become historically unpopular, with nothing in the way of transformational achievement to show for it.

His administration’s future looks cloudy too. An FBI counterintelligence investigation into whether his campaign and associates coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election looms over everything. It could peter out, and result in nothing or only minor charges. Or it could overwhelm the agenda and crowd out Trump’s efforts to achieve much else.

Furthermore, there are early signs that the Democratic base is energized against Trump and that the party has a real shot at retaking the House of Representatives in 2018 — something that would give the opposition investigatory power that could be used against the administration, and would likely end any hopes of major legislative achievements for Trump. But that’s still a good way off, and much can happen before then.

It is difficult for a president of the United States to create. It is much easier for him to destroy. Trump now sits atop the world’s most powerful military. He has learned, with the Syria strike, that military action can be pleasing and popular. And presidents who are thwarted on domestic matters often look abroad to try to make their mark.

A world-changing response to a foreign crisis or a terror attack could make these first 100 days of President Trump — bizarre and chaotic as they have been — simply a footnote. So far, however, the world has gone on much as it was.