‘I alone can fix it,’ Trump said, but has he?
Donald Trump has broken with many political traditions. Unwilling to acknowledge his own fallibility or limitations, or the constraints of checks and balances, he declared, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
More than halfway through his term as president, that claim invites an assessment of his performance. Here is a scorecard, limited for now to domestic policy:
1) Promise: “Nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” Trump promised to build the wall along the entire 2,000-mile length of the border; he later said that with mountains and rivers forming natural barriers, his wall would only have to cover about 1,000 miles.
Performance: By the end of 2018, about 40 miles of replacement barriers had been built or begun on Trump’s watch; construction was expected to start on an additional 61 miles in 2019. President Trump had not asked Congress to fully fund his “beautiful” border wall. Mexico had not agreed to pay for new or replacement barriers or any wall construction at all.
2) Promise: Trump pledged to “deploy all legal means” to address the “crisis” at the border — and stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.
Performance: Trump inherited the lowest rate of illegal immigration at the southern border in more than two decades. In the last 18 months, however, the traffic has increased dramatically (with 99,000 individuals apprehended in April 2019 alone).
3) Promise: As a candidate, Trump called “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.” He promised to “immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism.”
Performance: After courts blocked his executive order temporarily suspending immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and the U.S. refugee program, President Trump (on his third try) got a green light from five Supreme Court justices to restrict the entry of nationals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela, a policy that covers less than 12 percent of the world’s Muslim population (and does not include Saudi Arabia, the home of the 9/11 terrorists).
4) Promise: In his first month in office, President Trump pledged to repeal and replace the “disaster known as Obamacare.” He said “it will be done essentially simultaneously… most likely on the same day or same week, but probably the same day. Could be the same hour.”
Performance: Despite Republican majority control of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in 2017 and 2018, Congress did not repeal the Affordable Care Act. President Trump has not presented a proposal to replace it.
5) Promise: During the 2016 campaign, Trump vowed to eliminate the national debt in eight years.
Performance: Under the budget plan he released in 2019 (under the title “Promises Kept”), the 2020 deficit (due in no small measure to the Trump tax cuts and military spending) is projected at $1.1 trillion and the federal government would not begin paying down the debt for 15 years. Even according to the Administration’s rosy revenue scenario, annual deficits would continue beyond 2035, adding to a total that has now reached $22 trillion.
6) Promise: President Trump declared that the 2017 tax reform package constituted a “massive tax cut for working families,” and promised “we will soon follow up with another 10 percent tax cut for the middle class” — “The rich will not be gaining at all from this plan,” he insisted.
Performance: Economists agree the vast majority of the tax cuts benefitted the rich and corporations, and — contrary to claims at the time — the corporations did not, for the most part, drive their savings into raising salaries for workers. Only between 4 and 14 percent of corporations used their tax savings to increase workers’ base salaries; the majority funneled the windfall to shareholders. In 2027, when tax cuts for individuals (but not corporations) expire, 83 percent of the cuts will go to the top 1 percent. An October 2018 Gallup poll revealed that 64 percent of Americans had noticed no boost to their paychecks. President Trump has not proposed a middle-class tax cut.
7) Promise: If elected, Trump boasted, he would surround himself “only with the best and most serious people… We want top-of-the line professionals.”
Performance: Midway through his term, an unprecedented number of Cabinet members and senior staff have left the Administration. Many others (including, for example, Ronny Jackson, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Herman Cain and Stephen Moore, his choices for the Fed) have withdrawn as criticism of their character and qualifications — by Republicans as well as Democrats — made it unlikely they would be confirmed. Trump has overruled the recommendations of members of his own Administration and granted security clearances to Jared Kushner and dozens of others.
Most revealing, perhaps, is President Trump’s assessment of his own appointees. The president described Attorney General Jeff Sessions as “very weak,” “scared stiff,” “missing in action,” “Mr. Magoo.” He derided Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross as “past his prime.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “didn’t have the mental capacity needed. He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell.” Trump asked “What has [Secretary of Defense James Mattis] done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan?” Trump indicated he is “not even a little bit happy” with his selection of Jerome Powell as Chairman of the Fed. He claimed he was “never a big fan” of White House lawyer Don McGahn, who he accused of lying in testimony to Robert Mueller. Other targets of Trump’s ire include National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Chief Economic Adviser Gary Cohn, and Chief White House Strategist Stephen Bannon.
8) Promise: “Pay to play. Collusion. Cover-ups. And now bribery? So CROOKED. I will #DrainTheSwamp.”
Performance: Following revelations of unethical behavior, Scott Pruitt, Chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price resigned. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has pled guilty to lying to the FBI, and been accused of failing to register as a lobbyist for a foreign country. Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney, has pled guilty to violating campaign finance laws and making false statements to Congress. The president has declined to fire Senior Advisor Kellyanne Conway for violating the Hatch Act. Dozens of Administration officials seem to be “in bed” with the corporations they are supposed to regulate. President Trump faces possible legal action for violating campaign finance laws and the emoluments clause of the Constitution.
Faced with criticism, President Trump tends to double down. “The one that matters is me,” he told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. That said, he also blames everyone but himself for failures to implement his policies.
He alone, it appears, cannot fix it.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.
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