Biden finds a few Trump moves he’ll keep
President Biden is aggressively rolling back the agenda of his predecessor, Donald Trump. But that doesn’t mean a few things won’t survive.
Biden is keeping the U.S. Space Force, which was established under Trump, as well as the Artemis spaceflight program.
He’s not rolling back the new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, which was signed into law by Trump early last year and replaced a trade pact that Biden supported as a U.S. senator.
Biden administration officials have also offered accolades for the Abraham Accords, a deal brokered by the previous administration that normalized relations between Israel and other countries in the Middle East.
Biden has looked to swiftly undo Trump’s executive record on everything from immigration to climate, signing executive actions to rejoin the Paris climate deal, stop construction on the Keystone XL pipeline, rescind the so-called Mexico City policy, reverse plans to leave the World Health Organization and boost refugee admissions.
Biden has also pledged to partially rollback the tax cuts passed under Trump, though he has not taken concrete steps yet to do so.
Most of Trump’s moves were politically polarizing and the former president saw minimal legislative wins during his time in office. Still, a few of Trump’s accomplishments earned bipartisan support, including the passage of the First Step Act, which reduced sentences for drug offenses and enabled an earlier release for some serving time.
Biden expressed regret for supporting the 1994 crime bill on the campaign trail, calling it “a big mistake” and pledging to deliver criminal justice reform of his own.
Ames Grawert, senior council for the Brennan Center for Justice, called it an area ripe for expansion by Biden.
“We saw a First Step Act but there was never a second,” he said.
But Grawert said there may be few other similarities between the two administrations on the criminal justice front, noting that the Biden administration almost immediately sought to reverse policies from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions allowing private prisons and encouraging seeking maximum penalties.
Trump also granted pardons and clemency more liberally than some of his predecessors, frequently circumventing the recommendation process at the Department of Justice and relying on lobbying from celebrities and other outside officials.
Grawert said Biden should explore ways to improve the process to offer relief to deserving individuals.
“We have to figure out how to make the federal clemency process work better so you don’t have to rely on Kim Kardashian. We need to find those people better even when they don’t have celebrity advocates,” he said.
The White House explicitly committed to keeping the Space Force last week, after press secretary Jen Psaki raised eyebrows by dismissing a question about the service. Trump signed legislation to establish the Space Force as the sixth military branch at the end of 2019. The concept is rooted in a bipartisan proposal made by House lawmakers in 2017, but Trump’s effort to market it as a major accomplishment embroiled the service in controversy.
Biden is also expected to take advantage of new labor enforcement tools under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which was solidified early last year after months of negotiations and represents another rare bipartisan legislative accomplishment of the previous president.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of continuity there,” said Edward Alden, an expert on economic competitiveness and trade at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The USMCA was a big bipartisan success.”
Still, Biden’s overall approach to economic and foreign policy issues is already drawing sharp contrast with Trump. Biden has emphasized the importance of alliances and partnerships in dealing with issues from confronting China to addressing climate change to defeating the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are moving from America First trade policy to a trade policy that is going to be built much more in consultation with allies,” said Alden. “There is going to be a lot more effort to work with allies more closely on economic and trade policy. You could not have a sharper departure from the Trump approach.”
Biden has, like Trump, embraced the idea of a tough stance toward China but the new administration has laid out an approach that will focus on competition and move away from Trump’s more confrontational tactics. The new administration is undertaking a sweeping review of Trump-era economic and foreign policy decisions, including reviewing the “phase one” trade deal negotiated between the U.S. and China and the remaining tariffs that are in place on Chinese goods.
Some believe Biden will keep the tariffs in place for the time being and use them as a bargaining chip to extract a concession out of China, but ultimately lift them. Alden said that Biden would be more likely to move quickly to undo Trump’s tariffs on European goods.
“I think the most striking thing is how deliberate and patient they are being on the China trade front,” said Alden. “They are moving very slowly and deliberately to review options on China trade, not moving quickly to undo the Trump record.”
Still, in some cases the Biden White House may look to build upon some of Trump’s actions when it comes to foreign policy.
The Abraham Accords reestablished diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, and the Biden administration has suggested it is looking to build on them.
“Then-candidate Biden made no bones about coming out and saying, ‘I think this is a good thing. I think this is a positive thing.’ And he’s said consistently over the course of the last several months, that he would like to carry forward this initiative,” Biden National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said last month.
Dennis Ross, a veteran diplomat who served on President Obama’s National Security Council, said that while Biden officials have supported the agreements, it remains to be seen whether the new administration will take an active or passive role in trying to build on them.
“My hope is that it will be an active effort to build on them,” said Ross, who argued that future agreements would be more likely to succeed with consistent American engagement.
But the overall message from Biden on engaging with other countries has been a reversal from the Trump era. Biden has sought to assure the global community of his commitment to alliances and signal that decisions will be made in consultation with partners and not impulsively.
“What you’re seeing is a kind of effort to show steadiness across the board,” said Ross.