The new year started off with a political bang because of a frenetic burst of activity from the executive branch. A dishy book that touched off the final breakup between the president and his onetime strategist Steve Bannon dominated the headlines for much of the week, but a lot of actual policymaking happened too.
From the environment to drug policy to relations with Pakistan, a range of executive agencies kicked off the year with dramatic — generally risky, unpopular, or both — new initiatives that show an increasingly comfortable team eager to make a substantive mark even amid a chaotic environment.
Trump broke ties with Steve Bannon
A new book by Michael Wolff is full of gossipy (and perhaps false) anecdotes confirming the general impression of dysfunction and disorganization in the early months of the Trump White House. It also quotes former chief strategist Steve Bannon as calling Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting with purported Kremlin emissary Natalia Veselnitskaya “treasonous” and suggests Trump and his family are vulnerable to money laundering charges from special counsel Robert Mueller. In response, Trump released a furious statement saying Bannon had “lost his mind” and accused him of a whole range of other misdeeds.
- There is no “Bannon wing”: Bannon had functioned as a kind of spokesperson for Trumpy tendencies in conservative politics even after leaving the White House, but amid his feud with Trump, even commenters at Bannon’s own website sided with the president.
- Comfort to the GOP establishment: Bannon’s falling-out with the White House was greeted with celebration by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who believes (probably rightly) that this will be devastating to Bannon’s effort to recruit a slate of anti-McConnell primary challengers to establishment-friendly GOP Senate candidates.
- What’s next? Rebekah Mercer, the billionaire hedge fund heiress whose lavish financial support has been critical to Bannon’s curious brand of “populism,” is reportedly done with him after this, which could mean we soon won’t be hearing from Bannon anymore.
Trump opened up huge areas to offshore drilling
Thursday afternoon, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced sweeping plans to open up new territory for offshore drilling basically throughout America’s coastal waters, angering environmental groups and coastal legislators from both parties.
- Bipartisan blowback: Florida’s Republican governor blasted the plan, as did Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC), among other coastal Republicans. Most Democrats, of course, are also opposed.
- Big money at stake: Zinke says the proposal could bring in as much as $15 billion in new federal revenue from drilling fees.
- What’s next? The proposal would not open any actual drilling until 2019 and needs to go through various review phases, including a public comment period, and analysts expect there to be considerable litigation before anything actually happens.
Trump is cracking down on marijuana
Reversing a Trump campaign pledge to leave marijuana policy up to the states, longtime marijuana hawk Jeff Sessions withdrew a 2013 Obama Justice Department memo that in most cases took a live-and-let-live approach to state marijuana legalization initiatives. Now, US attorneys’ offices will be free to crack down on legal pot in Colorado and other states that have gone legal.
- What’s changing? Marijuana has been illegal under federal law this whole time, which prevents marijuana businesses from claiming federal tax breaks and complicates their access to banking. But under the policy adopted in Obama’s second term, federal law enforcement ceased the practice — common during the Bush administration and Obama’s first term — of doing raids and arrests in states that had legalized either medical or recreational marijuana.
- Pot is popular: A Gallup poll released Wednesday showed that 64 percent of Americans (including 51 percent of Republicans) now favor marijuana legalization — a huge increase from six or seven years ago, when legalization was a minority position.
- What’s next? It’s somewhat unclear. Formally speaking, the new memo pushes discretion down to US attorneys, who could, in effect, continue with Obama’s approach after all. But Sessions seems to be doing this because he wants to see a crackdown, in which case he’ll probably start pushing for one.
Trump is cutting off aid to Pakistan
It attracted less attention than the president’s bellicose tweets about North Korea, but early this week Trump also expressed displeasure with Pakistan, which he said on New Year’s Day has “given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools,” despite “more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years.” It seemed at the time like just one of those random presidential tweets that the rest of the government ignores, but on Thursday the administration announced an actual freeze in aid, which it said could be reversed only if Pakistan actually changed its approach.
- The issue: Pakistan has long been seen as playing a double game in Afghanistan, accepting US aid money and nominally cooperating with the American war there while also playing footsie with the Taliban as a hedge against a future time when the US will lose interest in the region.
- Trump’s gamble: The Bush and Obama administration both went through various rounds of engagement and coercion with different Pakistani leaders, and Trump is now taking a calculated risk that cutting assistance to Pakistan will serve as a stick that brings that country’s leaders back to the bargaining table as supplicants.
- The risk: The move could backfire in any number of ways, including most obviously that the Pakistanis may conclude this all goes to show that it would be foolish to count on an enduring alliance with the US and they need to reach a clear accommodation with the Taliban.