WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office have been a mix of signature setbacks and some successes, plus more turmoil than calm emanating from the West Wing of the White House and more division than a coming together in the country. The president and his advisers have been on a steep learning curve, and it has shown.
When Trump won his surprise victory in November, one big question was how he would govern. The answer, with some caveats, is that he has governed as he campaigned – unconventionally, unpredictably, in constant motion and unbowed in the face of criticism.
The presidency is an office that historically demands prudence and patience, two attributes not often used to describe the 45th president. The office also comes with constraints – the checks and balances created by the Founding Fathers, and the pressure to provide some semblance of continuity in foreign policy. It is not built for producing easily the kind of wholesale upheaval that Trump promised as a candidate, a fact that has frustrated him.
Extravagant campaign vows have run up against predictable obstacles. Trump has moved rapidly on many fronts, but the lack of a singular legislative accomplishment has gnawed at his advisers and makes efforts to create a more positive narrative challenging for the White House. That has left the president subject to criticism, and his advisers have been fighting back all week to make the case for higher-than-average grades.
Michael Leavitt, a former Utah governor who served as secretary of health and human services in George W. Bush’s administration, described the shakedown period for the president and his advisers as akin to asking successful athletes to play a different sport.
“They have a lot of intuition for sport generally, all the athletic skills, but they don’t know all the rules and are not grounded in the strategies of this new game,” he said in an interview. “They’re in a place where they’re expected to play immediately and they’re suffering some early defeats on the basis of the learning curve.”
A Republican who served in a senior position in a past administration said this of Trump’s first 100 days: “I would have expected more moderation, more discipline, more planning and fewer ad hoc announcements, all of which suited an outsider, disrupter campaign but which are pretty uncomfortable for governance. But he hasn’t changed that much, and the practical result of that hasn’t been that bad, somewhat surprisingly to me.”
First impressions of the Trump presidency have been difficult to erase. His inaugural address was starkly different in tone from that of other presidents, as he largely eschewed uplifting rhetoric and instead lambasted political elites and pledged to end what he called the American carnage of shuttered factories, stagnant wages and their effect on tens of millions of forgotten Americans.
He veered off course immediately after being sworn in, picking fights about the size of the crowd on the Mall on Inauguration Day and whether he was denied a popular-vote victory because 3 million to 5 million illegal immigrants had cast ballots. His claims were factually inaccurate, yet he persisted. He created an even bigger storm when, without evidence, he accused former president Barack Obama of ordering a wiretap of Trump Tower during the campaign.
His initial travel ban order was sloppily drafted, and that led to court decisions blocking its implementation. A second order, revised to address legal objections to the first, met the same fate in court. The bans are still in litigation. Meanwhile, a federal district judge this week blocked the administration’s initiative to cut off federal funding to “sanctuary” cities, prompting a rhetorical back of the hand from the president and a lacerating statement from White House press secretary Sean Spicer about unelected judges and city officials with “blood on their hands.”
The biggest void on the 100-day record has been the absence of a major legislative achievement, symbolized by the inability of the Republican-controlled House to pass legislation that would replace the Affordable Care Act. The first attempt crashed and burned. Negotiations have been ongoing since and could be successful, but perhaps not within the 100-day window.
Without the certainty of a health-care vote, the administration rushed to issue its tax plan, or at least the broad outlines of one. Administration officials could not answer basic questions about the effect of the plan, nor would anyone say how the proposed tax cuts would affect the president, who has not released his tax returns.
The announcement of an incomplete plan was one more sign of a disorderly decision-making process – and of the need for the president to restrain his impulse to make announcements before programs are ready.
Palace intrigue has been another story line that has plagued the White House. Trump constructed a flat organization with multiple power centers. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has struggled to gain control. The biggest clash has been one pitting anti-globalists such as chief strategist Stephen Bannon against defenders of Wall Street and big business, led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. The White House has operated as its own team of rivals, accompanied by a deluge of leaks to reporters about the infighting.
Hanging over everything during the first 100 days have been FBI and congressional investigations of what the Russian government did to interfere with the 2016 election and whether Trump advisers or associates were in collusion with the Russians along the way. Michael Flynn, who was forced out as national security adviser after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, appears in deep trouble over his actions, and his situation dogs the administration.
The 100-day marker is certainly an artificial measure of a president and White House officials are deeply frustrated by the criticisms of Trump’s 100-day record. Fighting against the critics, they say he can legitimately point to successes and to progress fulfilling campaign promises.
The shiniest ornament has been the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court seat of the late justice Antonin Scalia. The president was aided by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to trigger the “nuclear option,” which not only smoothed the path for Gorsuch but could do the same for any future Trump nominees, as long as the GOP holds the Senate.
Another success, one that drew bipartisan backing, was the decision to order cruise missile strikes on Syria in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons. Administration officials say this sent signals not only to President Bashar Assad but to other bad actors in the world, and to U.S. allies, that will pay dividends in the future, even as Trump develops a fuller set of strategies for dealing with problems including the Middle East, North Korea and Russia.
The president doesn’t have funding for his famous U.S.-Mexico border wall or anything approaching it, but other steps on immigration have begun to make a down payment on his campaign promises to get tough on undocumented immigrants. He has moved to carve away at regulations on business and to undo some environmental regulations ordered during the Obama administration. He quickly gave the go-ahead for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline. The Trump team soon will decide whether to pull out of the Paris accord on climate.
On trade, the president suddenly reversed course on the North American Free Trade Agreement by announcing Wednesday night that he will seek to renegotiate the treaty rather than withdraw from it, as had been planned. But he has moved in other ways to signal a change in tone and policy on trade, including the early decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership, last week’s “buy American” order, dust-ups with Canada on lumber, and orders to investigate whether steel and aluminum imports are damaging national security.
Trump’s approval rating in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll is historically low for a new president, at 42 percent, with 53 percent disapproving. His base is remaining steady, meanwhile. If his approval rating stays low, Trump could be a drag on Republican candidates in 2018, if history holds. But he defied conventional metrics for measuring politicians during his campaign and continues to play by other rules. Democrats should be cautious in drawing early conclusions, despite their energized base.
A White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid argued that Trump has not become more moderate in office, as some people have suggested. “I would just challenge you to show me the evidence of this supposed softening and moderation,” he said. He said, however, that the office has affected the president in less obvious ways. “I think it’s slowed down the decision process in weighing the fact that every one of these decisions are enormous,” he said.
That’s not always obvious to outsiders, although some say they detect signs of recent improvement, a settling of sorts inside the West Wing. “It feels like to me there’s at least a deeper appreciation for the complexity and seriousness of this task,” Leavitt said. “If you’ve only imagined it, you haven’t yet experienced it.” Others remain skeptical that the administration will ever be a truly orderly operation.
The key to future success, those with experience say, will be the degree to which the White House team develops a more harmonious and deliberative process for decision-making and that accepts the painstaking requirements of the legislative process. By those measures, Trump’s 100-day record is at best incomplete. The second 100 days will reveal what he and his advisers have learned from the first.