Trump bends ways of Washington in Year One
Washington — In his first year in office, President Donald Trump has frequently bent Washington to his will, shattering long-standing norms, plunging politics to a new level of corrosiveness and wielding his executive power to start rolling back his predecessor’s policies on the environment, education and America’s role around the world.
But at times, Trump’s Washington can also look strikingly similar to the era before presidential directives were delivered by tweet.
Hyperpartisanship and legislative gridlock still reigns. Many of the same issues that bedeviled previous presidents now sit unresolved on Trump’s desk, including North Korea’s nuclear threats and the fate of millions of people living in the U.S. illegally. And rather than draining the “swamp” — Trump’s term for Washington’s medley of lobbyists, special interest groups and high-dollar donors — several of the president’s allies are diving in to share in the riches.
“If you stop and look back at his first year, it’s been two tales,” said Sara Fagen, who served as White House political director for President George W. Bush.
That paradox positions Trump on the anniversary of his inauguration as both a transformational figure and a temporary captain of a ship too large to turn quickly. He commands Washington and the world’s attention, but has struggled to use his bully pulpit to win support for his policies or bolster his standing with Americans, who overwhelmingly disapprove of his time in office. He’s waged unprecedented battles with his own party’s congressional leaders and the courts, but expressed deep frustration to friends and advisers about the way both branches of government can curtail a presidency that he believed would hold more unilateral power.
“There are some basic institutions and a basic culture in Washington that no one person can change,” said Charlie Black, a longtime Republican operative.
White House officials and other Trump advisers say the president has succeeded during his first year in office in challenging the status quo in Washington, from pulling out of a sweeping Asia-Pacific trade pact that had support in both parties to declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel over the objections of national security advisers and overseas allies. Trump allies blame setbacks over the past 12 months not on the president, but on lawmakers — including Republicans — who aren’t yet willing to follow his lead.
“As the president used to say on the trail, politicians are all talk, no action,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser. “He’s inherited a Republican Party that doesn’t know how to govern.”
Trump’s most glaring struggle to reshape the capital has come in his dealings with Congress, an institution that remains as polarized as it was the day he took office. Despite having Republican control of both chambers, Trump signed just one major piece of legislation during his first year in office — a sweeping tax overhaul that passed in December on GOP votes alone. In the opening weeks of 2018, lawmakers are grinding through a process that became all too familiar during the Obama administration: a struggle just to keep the government funded. A midnight Friday deadline loomed, with no concrete plan for avoiding a shutdown in sight.
Lawmakers in both parties have blamed at least some of the past year’s legislative struggles on Trump’s frequent inability to articulate a clear vision of his priorities and the gaps that often seem to exist between the president and his advisers. In the midst of the shutdown negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said lawmakers were still trying to “figure out what (Trump) is for.”
Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., said in an interview: “It certainly creates a great deal of confusion here on the Hill as to who’s speaking for whom, and what really are the intentions of this administration.”
The president’s second year in office seems unlikely to generate much more legislative action. GOP congressional aides say they expect the White House to roll out a blueprint for an infrastructure plan in the coming weeks, but caution that passage of a plan seems unlikely in a midterm election year, where control of both the House and the Senate are up for grabs. White House officials have weighed tackling welfare reform or pursuing a new bid to overhaul the nation’s health care law, but there’s been minimal progress on both.
Despite Trump’s struggles with Congress, his administration has forged ahead with implementing policies that affect millions of Americans. He’s reversed dozens of rules imposed by the Obama administration on everything from fracking to offshore drilling to coal mining. At the Environmental Protection Agency, Administrator Scott Pruitt has worked to methodically roll back clean air and water regulations drafted under the Obama administration. Chief among those is the planned rollback of the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s signature effort to limit planet-warming carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has gutted or frozen Obama’s civil rights regulations on LGBT issues and campus sexual assault. Just two weeks after taking office, DeVos, together with the Justice Department, rescinded guidance that instructed schools to allow transgender students to use public school restrooms that matched their gender identity. She then moved to change Obama’s regulations on how universities investigate sexual assault on campuses by allowing schools to require higher standards of evidence when handling complaints, which critics say is bad for the victims.
The State Department is also undergoing wholesale transformation. Dozens of “special envoys” and other senior roles have been eliminated outright, including representatives on climate change, cybersecurity and the Iran deal. Thousands of workers are being eliminated over time as part of across-the-board budget cuts. Under Trump, the U.S. has approved the Keystone XL pipeline, started withdrawing from the Paris climate deal, de-emphasized human rights in engagements with foreign leaders and backed away from efforts to secure better relations with Cuba and Iran.
“I won’t call it a 180, but we had to make some pretty significant shifts,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told The Associated Press this month. “And those were huge decisions for this president to make.”