To paraphrase former San Francisco Mayor and former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in a recent San Francisco Chronicle column, “From now on, everything President Donald Trump does in office will be to win the 2020 Presidential election.” Too true, because for Trump, winning the job is more important than doing the job.
We can speculate on the coming campaign. We also can examine his personal style and approach to the Presidency. These are topics for another time. However, we can take a clear-eyed look at the job President Trump has done thus far. The view is not pretty.
His style of foreign policy has been consistent, with two basic approaches. Both have proven counterproductive.
The first approach has been to unilaterally withdraw from treaties with other countries negotiated by his predecessors. Trump has done so in the belief that such withdrawals, followed by the implementation of sanctions, will result in the other countries returning to the negotiating table to strike a better – for the United States – deal.
Thus far, this approach has failed. In withdrawing from Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty with 11 countries, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (reached in partnership with five other countries and the European Union) with Iran, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and The Paris Agreement on Combat Change, he has failed to improve the United States’ lot. Sanctions on Iran and Russia have failed to bring either back to the bargaining table. Indeed, both now are actively breaking the terms of their respective treaties, making the world less safe. The only success he can claim is a new agreement with Canada and Mexico after his withdrawal from the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and that result of brinksmanship promises only minimal benefits – an increase in gross national product of 0.35 percent and an increase in employment of 0.12 percent, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission - to the United States economy.
President Trump’s second approach to foreign policy has been crisis-centric. Here is the short version. Create, promote or exacerbate a situation. Threaten an attack, ban, tariffs or some other action. Take action - or not. Gain some small concessions – or not. Declare victory.
Examples of this approach include highlighting the threat of Middle-East terrorism and then signing an Executive Order banning immigration from six mostly Muslim countries; addressing illegal immigration into the United States from Central American countries by cutting off U.S. aid to those countries (causing more desperate people to make the trip), falsely claiming many of those illegal immigrants were dangerous gang members and criminals, attempting to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and threatening to close the U.S.-Mexican border; and claiming China is taking unfair trade advantage and slapping a 25 percent tariff on many Chinese goods, making them more expensive for U.S. consumers (China has retaliated with additional commensurate tariffs on many U.S. goods, including beef fruit, vegetables – with the biggest impact on soybeans – and alcoholic beverages).
In one on-going element of U.S. foreign engagement that predates the Trump Administration, the U.S.-led coalition wrested control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), though fighting goes on. The President’s claim in late February that ISIS has been defeated is belied by continued fighting in the region, and the continued presence of nearly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria and 5,200 more in Iraq.
The main achievement of President Trump’s style of foreign policy has been to make the United States a country that cannot be trusted. We no longer honor agreements made with other countries unless it suits us. Our word is no longer our bond. As a result of his actions, the United States is now regarded an inept partner by our allies and a dishonest one by our adversaries.
Then there is Trump’s domestic program, though “program” is a misnomer; there are lots of actions, but little clear agenda. It also has two basic approaches, which have produced decidedly mixed results for the majority of U.S. citizens.
The first approach has been – under the guise of eliminating unnecessary regulation – to remove via Rulemaking or Executive Order nearly all of his predecessor’s actions, many of which were enacted to benefit the environment. Whether ending enforcement of the rule that limited hydrofluorocarbons (very potent greenhouse gases), lifting the summertime ban on smog producing E15 (15% ethanol) gasoline, repealing net neutrality rules, rescinding water pollution regulations for fracking on federal lands, loosening off-shore oil drilling safety regulations, lifting a freeze on new coal leases on public lands, revoking flood standards for federal infrastructure projects, revoking a rule that prevented coal companies from dumping mining waste in local streams, overturning the ban on use of lead ammunition and lead fishing weights on federal lands, or revoking an Executive Order that had a goal of cutting the Federal Government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40% in 10 years, most of these changes - detailed by The New York Times - benefit “big business” and harm U.S. citizens.
Trump’s other domestic approach has been to help big companies and rich individuals at the expense of everyone else. Per Bloomberg, his tax reform legislation cuts taxes on the richest taxpayers by twice the percentage it does for middle income taxpayers and eight times the percentage it does for low income taxpayers, while helping generate a potentially huge federal deficit. According to The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization (as reported by CBS News), the Trump tax reform allowed at least 60 businesses – among them Amazon, Chevron, and Netflix – to pay no tax whatsoever on $79 billion in U.S. pretax income in 2018, and receive $4.7 billion in corporate tax rebates.
In addition to tax reform, Trump’s other legislative successes have been virtually non-existent. Passage of the First Step Act of 2018, which provides criminal justice reform and reduces sentences for certain drug offenses has been the only significant accomplishment. Nothing on comprehensive border security. Nothing on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Nothing on aging infrastructure modernization. Nothing – despite lots of ballyhoo – on reducing prescription drug prices. So much for Trump’s famed art of the deal. More like Trump’s art of presenting – via House and Senate leadership – unrealistic legislation, showing no flexibility on the details and then blaming Democrats when they – quite rightly – aren’t willing to go along.
Other domestic achievements in office total exactly one; nomination and confirmation of Bret Cavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
All in all, President Trump’s record during his term in office has been lackluster at best and disastrous at worst. But elections aren’t necessarily won or lost on Presidential performance – or the lack thereof. There will be plenty more to consider regarding Donald Trump and whether he deserves a second term as President before November 2, 2020 arrives.