A hearing convened at 10 am on Thursday on Capitol Hill, on the subject of one of the great crises in America today. President Donald Trump almost certainly missed it, because he was glued to coverage of a different hearing: the testimony in the Senate Intelligence Committee of James Comey, the man Trump fired as FBI director.
The opening remarks that Trump really needed to hear came not from Comey, but from Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH), the chair of the congressional Joint Economic Committee, who presided over the hearing on Economic Aspects of the Opioid Crisis. “Drug abuse has become rampant in America and may be the worst the country has experienced,” Tiberi said. “It is devastating families and degrading communities, and undermining parts of the economy.”
Trump did not tweet about that hearing. More importantly, he has not done anything substantive to stem the surge of heroin and other overdoses across the country, not even in the rural areas that powered him to the Republican nomination and helped him win the White House.
This is an accepted fact of Washington life today, but it shouldn’t be, and it doesn’t have to be. Trump is distracting himself with scandal response and steadfastly refusing to dive deep into policy. His failure to deliver even somewhat detailed plans to solve problems — let alone actually solve them — is as much a cloud over his presidency as any FBI investigation.
That failure is hurting millions of Americans who voted for Trump, and millions of others who did not. There is still time for Trump to correct it. America’s leaders need to start pushing him on his policy failures as hard as they’re pushing him on Russia.
Trump’s campaign wrote checks his presidency hasn’t tried to cash
It’s easy to forget just how much of Trump’s campaign appeal was voters’ sincere belief that he could solve big problems. He was going to restore millions of lost factory jobs, revive economic growth, and replenish the depleting vibrancy of distressed cities and small towns. He was going to “rescue kids from failing schools” and “build the roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, and the railways of tomorrow.”
He was going to get better, cheaper health care for everyone in the country.
So far, he is at zero for all of that. It is early, yes, and even the most effective presidents need time to pass their agendas through Congress. But the social and economic ills Trump so effectively railed against as a candidate have not improved since his inauguration. There is little evidence he is working hard on any of them. A president who took office with few concrete policy proposals in his quiver has taken what appears to be very little time to formulate any new ones.
Instead, Trump has mired himself in scandal, retreated into combative rhetoric, and refused to flesh out policy details.
As Derek Thompson wrote in the Atlantic, in the midst of what was nominally, at the White House, “Infrastructure Week”:
The secret of the Trump infrastructure plan is: There is no infrastructure plan. Just like there is no White House tax plan. Just like there was no White House health care plan. More than 120 days into Trump’s term in a unified Republican government, Trump’s policy accomplishments have been more in the subtraction category (e.g., stripping away environmental regulations) than addition. The president has signed no major legislation and left significant portions of federal agencies unstaffed, as U.S. courts have blocked what would be his most significant policy achievement, the legally dubious immigration ban.
The simplest summary of White House economic policy to date is four words long: There is no policy.
America still has big problems that demand presidential attention
Opioids are perhaps the most tangibly tragic of the issues Trump channeled during the campaign but has shortchanged in office. The crisis is worsening. The New York Times reported this week that fatal drug overdoses surged by nearly 20 percent in the US past year, claiming the lives of 65,000 Americans.
Lisa Sacco, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service, told the Joint Economic Committee hearing on the subject Thursday that in recent years “the reported availability of heroin has increased substantially” in the United States. Mike DeWine, the Ohio attorney general and a former US senator, said his state is facing “the worst public health crisis in our lifetime, leading the nation in opioid overdose deaths.”
Angus Deaton, the Princeton economist who, with his colleague Anne Case, has documented a near-unprecedented rise in so-called “deaths of despair” for middle-aged white Americans, said opioids have become “an accelerant” to midlife mortality — “a set of drugs that added fuel to the fire.”
The news has not been encouraging in other areas Trump targeted, either.
The Labor Department reported last week that the manufacturing sector shed 1,000 jobs in May. Trump pledged to add millions of factory jobs; since February, his first full month in office, manufacturing employment is up by just 21,000 jobs, or roughly 0.2 percent. Economic growth is on track to (hopefully) clock in around 2 percent for the year, well short of the rapid acceleration Trump boasted he would engineer.
One way to help speed up growth could be reforming the tax code, to reduce incentives for corporations to invest in legal tax evasion and increase the attractiveness of hiring workers and making capital improvements in America. Trump’s first stab at such a plan was a single sheet, less detailed than his skeletal campaign proposal. This week, 22 CEOs of major US companies, via the Business Roundtable, sent the president a letter imploring him to kick his effort into gear.
“Now is the time to shift from listening to action,” they wrote. “We urge you to undertake this effort with the highest priority and move forward with pro-growth legislation that will put America on a path of accelerated economic growth with higher wages and greater employment opportunities for all Americans.”
There’s nothing stopping Trump from changing course — except himself
For now, though, it appears Trump’s highest priority are the scandals and grudges he has allowed to consume the White House: the leaks, the investigations, the angry tweets.
“Increasingly it appears Mr. Trump lacks the focus or self-discipline to do the basic work required of a president,” Karl Rove — yes, that Karl Rove — wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week. “His chronic impulsiveness is apparently unstoppable and clearly self-defeating.”
Near the end of Thursday’s heavily watched hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked Comey about passages in the written testimony he submitted to the committee, on the subject of the “cloud” Trump saw hanging over his administration from the FBI’s Russia investigation, and his requests that Comey “lift the cloud.”
“I think what he meant by the cloud,” Comey replied, “and again, I could be wrong, but what I think he meant by the cloud was the entire investigation is — is taking up oxygen and making it hard for me to focus on the things I want to focus on.”
Trump, Comey said, was hopeful that the cloud could be lifted if Comey would only declare the president was not the subject of an FBI investigation. That was almost certainly wrong earlier this year, when Trump broached the subject with Comey. It’s definitely wrong now. The Russia cloud isn’t going away any time soon.
But Trump could still take steps to lift the other cloud, the one of policy inaction. There is still time to detail his plans. There is still time to shower attention on opioids, or infrastructure, or the tax code. There is still time to demand the Senate pass a health bill that would help millions more Americans get coverage, not kick millions of them off it, as the Congressional Budget Office projects the current Republican plan would do.
There is still time to solve the problems, the ones that haunt people across the country but don’t get live network coverage in the middle of a work day. Nothing — not the FBI, not a special counsel, not James Comey himself — is stopping Trump from at least giving that a serious try.