Before prescribing a path for improvement, we begin with a final report card for The Donald’s first 100 days as a student at Presidents University, 1600 Penn. Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20500.
100-Day Report Card: Donald J. Trump (Pres. Class of 2020)
Overall Grade: B
Donald is a quick presidential study, and has done remarkably well in his first 100 days. In contrast to several immediately preceding occupants, Donald has shown a willingness to learn from policy mistakes, has staffed his cabinet with a goodly number of superb choices, and calls out his enemies with a refreshing bluntness for an age in which pabulum often — please excuse pun — trumps plain speaking. Donald has already shown transactional skills — the “art of the deal” that some of his professors regard as a minus, evincing lack of principle. But “principled to a fault” is a flaw such critics have put aside; when a policy is not working, a rapid switch can cut losses and thus be a positive step.
But Donald has not made sufficient progress in overall presidential deportment to merit a gentleman’s grade. In particular, while his attention-getting tweets have lessened, he still at times forgets the University’s student tweeting admonition: Tweet not in distemper; better temper thy tweets.
Donald’s excess tweeting causes him at times to lose focus, and gives his enemies license to ignore some of the good steps he has taken. Also, his tweet-bombing members of his own party ignores the Eleventh Commandment proclaimed by summa cum laude graduate Ronald Reagan (B.B.A. Pres. Admin. 1984; M.B.A. Pres. Admin. 1988): “Thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” Such advice does not preclude policy criticism, but warns against personal attacks that inevitably will undermine political support for — and thus desire to take risks for, a GOP president. Chastise friends — and adversaries who might be persuaded to switch sides from time to time — in private; reserve your public scorn for hard-core opposition.
Nat’l Security: A-
Trump sent three unmistakable “new sheriff in town” signs in April: (1) he bombed a Syrian airbase from which chemical weapons had been supplied for an attack on Syrian rebels; (2) his military dropped a monster conventional bomb on an ISIS lair in Afghanistan; (3) he warned North Korea that if it tested an ICBM headed in the direction of the U.S. the missile would be shot down. He also approached China to engage them in increasing economic pressure on the North, putting aside his complaint about Chinese manipulation of its currency for trade advantage. Trump openly stated that he was trading one aim for another of greater import. This, if successful, would be a huge triumph for the president’s transactional approach to issues. Lending urgency to Trump’s new Nork policy is that on April 29 the Norks tested a ballistic missile using a trajectory typical of an “EMP” attack. An EMP strike (a series of powerful, rapid electromagnetic pulses) could disable large parts of the electric grid; the Norks appear closer to this capability, which is far more effective than a small ICBM attack, and far easier to carry out. Trump must also build a case for forcing Iran to drop its program, a huge task that requires convincing reluctant allies to impose crippling sanctions. Meanwhile, Iran is preparing to launch two satellites, which can be used to test ICBM technologies.
As for Russia, its public displeasure at Trump’s Syrian strike put paid to the assertion that Trump and SecState Rex Tillerson would be patsies for Putin. In the Mideast Trump backed Israel strongly, and called upon Palestinians to end incitement of violence against Jews and propagandizing in the schools. His May 3 meeting with Palestine Authority President Abbas — actually after the 100-day mark — was a joke: Abbas claimed the PA teaches kids a “culture of peace”; Trump warned that incitement must stop, but also said that he views Abbas as “a willing partner for peace.” Which Trump shows up, eventually, re Abbas will have to wait.
A huge surprise has been the strong pro-Israel stance taken by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, openly criticizing not only Russia, but also Iran and North Korea. Moreover she chastised the UN for singling out Israel more than any other nation.
It is fitting that on the 100-day mark President Trump and Congress reached a $1 trillion budget deal funding the government for the remainder of Barack Obama’s last fiscal year. This latest budgetary monstrosity teaches lessons for the new administration and its allies in Congress. Yes: the GOP stand-down amounts to “He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day!” But tactical retreat has been a staple of political (and military) strategy since the first hominid walked erect. What ultimately matters is whether tactical retreat morphs into strategic surrender.
The tax bill timeline runs more like 200 days (to start of August Congressional recess) than 100 days. Ronald Reagan signed his landmark 1981 tax bill in early August, while vacationing at his beloved Rancho Cielo. A tax bill along Trump lines would be a major cut in taxes, not covered by static revenue projections that presume no economic boost from tax cuts. But despite America’s economic travails it remains prosperous at levels undreamed of a century ago.
Health Care: Incomplete
Health care reform, as it entails complex transitional issues — making sure that there are enough quick winners to offset the inevitable quick losers that emerge in any major policy reversal — may require a 300-day (to the holidays) timeline. The May 4 vote passing a House bill — the American Health Care Act — (after the 100-days) at least eliminates one embarrassment — inability to pass a bill — but what happens in the Senate is a tale yet untold. House Republican Conference chair Cathy McMorris Rogers explains why coverage of pre-existing conditions is essential if Obamacare is to be replaced; she cites Maine’s successful implementation of a state-run high-risk pool. (Strictly speaking, covering pre-existing conditions is not health insurance, as insurance covers future contingencies; it is a new health-care government program. Neither is covering routine health expenditures insurance, for the same reason. But for voters such conceptual distinctions are, of course, academic.) The House bill would eliminate 12 taxes levied by Obamacare. A the heart of health care issues is, Kevin Williamson notes, the unavoidable fact of scarcity; voters can choose to ration by government, market (or, I would add, even lottery), but ration we must, because the demand for health care always will exceed the supply.
Immigration reform is already underway, despite malicious meddling — deliberately sidestepping judicial precedents giving the president near-plenary authority to shape immigration policy — from Ninth Circuit judges. But border crossings, which skyrocketed in the 11 weeks between Trump’s stunning November victory and his January inauguration, are down over 70 percent since Trump took over. Another issue is “sanctuary cities” — here is a map showing where they are — where judges and mayors refuse to implement federal law. Trump might look at Texas, which passed a law requiring the state to cooperate with federal requests, as a model. If red states do this, illegals will flock to blue states in search of sanctuary. Then blue states might reconsider their position.
Law and Justice: A-
Except for the huge immigration rollout botch, which made judicial intervention easier, there has been a sea change. Getting Judge Neil Gorsuch confirmed was alone a huge win; but the win was compounded by the disastrous miscalculation by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, He bet Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, traditionalist to the core, would blink rather than exercise the nuclear option to bypass the Democratic filibuster. Had Schumer allowed Gorsuch to get a floor vote, he’d have gone into a second nomination with a cloak of bipartisan comity. Now the GOP can exercise the nuclear option whenever needed. A-G Jefferson Sessions is off to a good start, but must get help from more subordinate political appointees if he is to really clean up the mess left by Obama A-Gs Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. He must beware of Obama holdovers.
The 3 ‘E’s (Energy, Environment, Education): A-
In just 100 days, Trump has via executive orders and announced plans moved to undo Obama-era restrictions on energy development (Keystone XL Pipeline, pushing to open more government land to development and offshore drilling); rolled back myriad onerous environmental regulations, and proposed a deep cut in the EPA’s budget; pushed school choice and charter schools.
First are gratuitous insults, such as refusing to shake German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hand at the end of their White House meeting. Then are avoidable obsequies — stating that he’d be “honored” to meet, under appropriate circumstances, with Kim Jong Idiot; carelessly sandbagging the pro-U.S. candidate in the South Korean election, by repudiating a U.S. commitment to pay $1 billion toward deployment of a missile defense system. The latter gaffe was walked back a few days later, but the anti-U.S. candidate’s campaign got a boost from Trump’s unguided missile loquacity. Such outbursts stand in the way of Trump’s attaining full presidential stature.
Political Incorrectness: A+
News media types may protest and hate the “fake news” label. But this is the logical consequence of open partisanship towards opponents of the president. With 90+ percent unfavorable coverage Trump has considerable license to assail his media tormentors. Consider the hawkish carbon emissions stance taken by the NY Times. For 2018 the NYT is offering a 25-day global tour by chartered private jet to 50 people at $135,000 each. Look towards Europe, where media dishonesty helps people refuse to see the growing menace posed by hostile immigrant populations, and do not think it can’t happen here. P.C. disarms people from seeing even what is open and obvious. Trump — most of the time — stands athwart the advance of P.C.
Donald’s choice of team members has been mostly exemplary. His cabinet contains myriad high-quality appointees. Perhaps the rising superstar of the first 100 days has been Nikki Haley at the UN: posed, well informed, and taking no prisoners. Now it is up to her boss at 1600 to follow through. Rex Tillerson is central casting for top diplomat; steadfast James Mattis at the Pentagon and national security adviser H. R. McMaster, who put Norks on notice, showed they know how to manage military operations and warned North Korea; the troops in the field are exultant at battlefield authority granted them. The era of White House micromanagement is over.
Hiring good people is only part of the task. Failing to fire the wrong people — think FBI director James Comey during the first 100 days — can offset the good hires. His long overdue firing at the 110-day mark for repeatedly stepping over the line (8:09) was apparently in the works for a while, but awaited confirmation (same link) of the new deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein. He authored a memo justifying Comey’s firing on the need to restore the reputation of the FBI. The new deputy A-G is highly regarded — he was confirmed 94-6 by the Senate — and need not recuse himself from the Russia probe, as A-G Sessions has done. At all costs Trump must avoid a special prosecutor. Such an appointee, under intense media pressure, would have to indict someone; failing finding any substantive law violation, there is always treating discrepancies in testimony as deliberate, and indicting for perjury. This is how Patrick Fitzgerald turned the Bush administration upside down for several years in the insane fake-news Plame Affair.
And there are too many holdovers in the “deep state” bureaucracy. Trump must press the Senate to push nominees through, but also must pick up the pace on nominating prospective appointees.
And Trump is learning to work with GOP members of Congress. He spent weeks selling the health care bill to House members. He now knows them, and they know him. His transactional skills played a telling role in winning passage. Said ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich of this change: “His mastery of the Congress is just beginning.”
Path for Improvement
Donald’s presidential prospects hinge upon: (1) avoiding a major war; (2) passing a budget on time with his priorities protected; (3) fostering economic growth; (4) migrating to market-based health care; (5) securing our borders. To accomplish these goals he must: (a) unite his party behind a winning strategy; (b) deploy operational assets to see that his policies are implemented by a hostile bureaucracy; (c) adopt a more consistent presidential comportment; (d) discredit hostile news media — and their eager allies in academia, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue — by circumventing their access filters and connecting directly with persuadable members of the voting public.
The crunch will come in September, when the first Trump-directed federal budget must be passed by year-end, or else a continuing resolution must be passed if operations to continue in full. Democrats will, on the fair evidence of it, never agree to a budget (8:15) with major Trump priorities funded. Trump can only get his programs through in two ways: (1) getting the Senate to use the nuclear option and eliminate the 60-vote cloture vote threshold for ending filibusters; or (2) shutting the government down.
Each course carries risks. Breaking another Senate precedent ensures that if Democrats recapture the Senate they will follow suit and then some. But only strong Republican persistence can overcome massive Democratic resistance (8:15). Or, more poetically, channeling the famous Johnny Mercer lyric:
When an irresistible force such as you
Meets an old immovable object like me
You can bet just as sure as you live
Something’s gotta give
Something’s gotta give
Something’s gotta give
Shutting down the government carries larger risks. The Democrats had hoped that this would happen last week. They know that they win at least 90 percent of such confrontations. This is because the public doesn’t realize that most government services are continued during “shutdowns.” Bureaucrats cheerfully use the “Washington monument ploy” — targeting popular programs for shutdown to infuriate the public. The press, for its part, always sides with the Democrats, regardless of which party controls the White House or Congress. So the Democratic position is treated as the correct, moderate one, to which the GOP is to move. So long as the Democrats win nearly all such debates they have every incentive to push for shutdown. And they can use the threat of a shutdown to extract concessions from the GOP negotiators. Which is exactly what they just did.
The GOP faces a stark reality. If the first Trump budget looks anything like the continuing resolution bill recently passed, voters will desert them. They will lose one, perhaps both houses of Congress in 2018. And the Trump programs will be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. His administration stalled, Trump may decide not to run come 2020.
Which makes September 30, 2017 Showtime.
Trump, as a businessman, surely knows the “bet the company rule”: Never bet the company. A government shutdown is just that, betting his entire administration. If Trump and the GOP are blamed, voter anger will make 2018, and even 2020, Democratic years. Given a 10 percent success rate on shutdowns the GOP must instead use the nuclear option in the Senate.
If McConnell balks on the nuclear option Trump will have to go the shutdown route. He must lay the foundation over the summer. As Charles Krauthammer recently noted, there is nothing talismanic about a 60-vote threshold for ending the filibuster, and to allow the Democrats to routinely block legislation will defeat the Trump agenda.
After Labor Day — Sept. 4 this year — he will have 26 days to make his case to the voters. He should: (1) insist that a budget pass, with his key priorities, by Sept. 30 — on time — or else he will shut the government down; (2) install in every cabinet department and key agency people with inside knowledge as to which programs must be preserved as essential or incurably popular; (3) establish via “message discipline” a clear administration voice to educate the public, without crosstalk that confounds the message.
Bottom Line: Student Trump is to date running ahead of realistic expectations, but must raise his game considerably to meet daunting challenges ahead.
Next Report Card: August Recess.
Grading Voter: John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and London Center for Policy Research, author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb, and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.