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Trump Isn’t A Do-Nothing President

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In the whirlwind first weeks of President Trump’s administration, it often seemed as though he was trying to enact his entire agenda within his first 100 days in office. On Day 1, he moved to undo parts of the Affordable Care Act. Within his first week, he instituted a federal hiring freeze; issued orders on abortion, immigration and manufacturing; and took the first steps toward building his signature border wall. And on the one-week anniversary of his swearing in, he issued the first iteration of his ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries.

In retrospect, the travel ban looks like the high-water mark for the “shock and awe” phase of Trump’s presidency. The ban, of course, was quickly blocked by the courts, and from there his momentum stalled. In recent weeks, the narrative has reversed to the point that some pundits are suggesting Trump is already a failure — that Trump, as Josh Barro of Business Insider put it this week, is heading for a “do-nothing presidency.”

That may be wishful thinking on the part of Barro and other Trump critics, however. Yes, Trump has encountered a string of setbacks, perhaps most notably the embarrassing defeat of his effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. And yes, many key elements of his agenda — tax reform, infrastructure spending, a rethinking of U.S. trade policy — are still stuck at the starting gate, or in some cases seem to have been abandoned altogether. But Trump has found plenty of other ways to make his influence felt, often by reversing policies put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The most obvious accomplishment — the one that even Trump’s sharpest critics acknowledge — is the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The vote was a key political win for a president in dire need of one. But its real significance is in the longer term. Gorsuch restored (and perhaps deepened, if he proves to have influence with Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom he once clerked) the court’s conservative majority. And at only 49, he could serve for decades. It’s too soon to say what effect the new justice could have on abortion or other contentious issues, but it’s safe to assume that Gorsuch’s confirmation will help ensure that Trump’s impact is felt long after he leaves office.

Outside of Gorsuch, Trump’s influence is subtler, but no less real. Take immigration: Courts may have blocked Trump’s travel ban, but they haven’t intervened to stop him from stepping up immigration enforcement and increasing deportations — including of immigrants who had been granted protected status by the Obama administration. Or look at law enforcement, where Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have said they will pull back on the investigations of law-enforcement agencies that were a major part of Obama’s police-reform efforts. Sessions also announced he would end a Justice Department commission working to improve standards for forensic evidence.

Then there is regulation. Trump (with help from the Republican-controlled Congress) has delayed, suspended or reversed dozens of Obama-era rules on banking, data privacy, firearm purchases and other issues. And he has ordered a “one in, two out” policy in which agencies must repeal two rules for every new one they create. (It isn’t clear how that policy will be implemented.) Some of the most significant rule changes are at the Environmental Protection Agency, where Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have moved to halt new fuel-economy standards and block new rules on coal-fired power plants, among other changes. Some scientists warn that these steps could put out of reach the greenhouse gas emissions cuts that the U.S. agreed to in Paris in 2015.

In some cases, Trump doesn’t need to do anything to have an impact. Republicans may have failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but Trump has thrown into disarray one of the key features of the ACA: the health insurance marketplaces that collectively insure more than 12 million Americans who don’t get coverage through their employers. Some insurers were backing away from the marketplaces even before Trump took office, but uncertainty over the future of the law is threatening to spark an outright exodus. There are steps Trump could take to shore up the marketplace system, but so far he hasn’t taken them — and he has hinted that he will let the marketplaces collapse through inaction.

Taking all these things together, it appears that Trump may not yet have done much to secure his own legacy, but he is making significant progress toward undoing Obama’s. In the long term, for Trump’s presidency to be a success, he will need to begin making policies and passing legislation, steps he has so far been slow to take. But don’t mistake the lack of clear early-term victories for inaction — the consequences of Trump’s first 100 days, good or ill, will be felt for years.

Immigration: Back to square one

Some of Trump’s first actions in office were two executive orders meant to crack down on illegal immigration by implementing tougher enforcement not just at the border but also within the country. This week The Washington Post reported that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had arrested 21,362 unauthorized immigrants across the country since Trump took office, a 32.6 percent increase from the previous year. (The data runs through mid-March.) At first glance these numbers might seem consistent with Trump’s promise to get “the bad ones” out of the country. But the Post also noted that of those arrested roughly a quarter, or 5,441, had no criminal record. That’s more than double the number of noncriminal arrests of undocumented immigrants during the same period in 2016. (Many of those arrested eventually will be deported, but because that process can be slow, changed enforcement patterns show up more quickly in arrest data.)

Look back a bit further, however, and the recent increase in enforcement looks less dramatic. The pace of arrests is running well behind the 29,238 made during the same period in 2014; that year, there were 7,483 noncriminal arrests through mid-March, which represented a similar share of the total as this year’s numbers.

2017 Trump 5.4k 15.9k 21.3k
2016 Obama 2.2 13.8 16.1
2015 Obama 2.3 15.6 18.0
2014 Obama 7.4 21.7 29.2
Immigration arrests from Jan. 20 to March 13, by year

Source: Immigration Customs and Enforcement

In the final two years of Obama’s term, however, both arrests and deportations dropped sharply. That was no accident: In November 2014, then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a memorandum setting out new priorities for immigration enforcement. Under the new policy, the administration said it would focus on deporting noncitizens who were considered national security threats, who were convicted felons or gang members, or who were apprehended immediately at the border. In fiscal year 2016, 83.7 percent of people deported fell into one of those groups.

Trump’s orders reset these priorities. ICE agents no longer exempt any categories of unauthorized immigrants from enforcement, and the general rhetoric from the Trump administration surrounding who is considered a “criminal” has become broader. “It is fair to say that the definition of criminal has not changed, but where on the spectrum of criminality we operate has changed,” said Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Drug policy: Will opioid use be treated as a crime or a health problem?

Promising to end the opioid crisis was a frequent refrain of Trump’s campaign, and the issue was one of the few for which he laid out policy approaches. He would close the borders so drugs couldn’t get across and instate tough sentences for dealers while simultaneously improving treatment options for people with addiction. He has begun to follow through on the latter, with his health and human services secretary’s announcement of $485 million in grants that states can use for addiction treatment. (The funding came from a bipartisan bill signed by Obama.) He also tasked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who has supported treating drug addiction as a public health problem rather than only a criminal one — with leading a commission on the opioid crisis.

Targeting the supply of drugs once they are in the U.S. is a more complicated matter, however. Is a person with an addiction to prescription pain pills a criminal if he or she sells a handful of pills to a friend or a person in need of treatment? A recent analysis in Florida by the libertarian publication Reason found that local law-enforcement agencies have made a habit of convincing pain patients to sell pills and then doling out long prison sentences. Of the estimated 2,300 people serving time in Florida for trafficking opioids (overwhelmingly oxycodone or hydrocodone) under laws meant to target large-scale traffickers, 63 percent are in prison for the first time. Many worked as confidential informants in exchange for reduced sentences, helping to expand the web of people in jail for relatively minor drug offenses.

Tough approaches to minor drug crimes are hardly isolated to Florida. One Ohio city is charging people who overdose with misdemeanors. An analysis from The New York Times found that nationally, prison admissions from counties with fewer than 100,00 people have risen, even though crime has fallen in those same places, largely because of drug-related crimes.

Under Trump, Sessions has supported using criminal prosecution as a primary tool for reducing drug-related crimes, as well as tough sentencing laws. He recently hired Steven H. Cook, one of the most vocal supporters of policies from the 1980s and ’90s that filled state prisons with people serving long, mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. The Obama administration had begun moving away from these strict approaches, which disproportionately penalized-African Americans, and granted clemency to hundreds of people serving prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses. Trump’s administration appears to be bringing that old model back.

With the opioid crisis in front of us, many politicians have pushed for a public health approach to drug-related crimes. But so far under Trump, such crimes are still often being treated with jail time.

Environmental policy: Honest work

The Trump administration has faced lots of criticism for its steps to roll back open data and its proposed cuts to environmental and scientific programs. So it might seem like the scientific community would embrace a Republican-backed effort to promote transparency in decisionmaking at the EPA. But the HONEST Act, as it is known, is getting a chilly reception from many scientists who say the bill is really a stealth effort to undermine the EPA’s ability to protect the environment.

The act, which passed the House at the end of March, sure sounds good on paper. It would require the EPA to base its decisions on scientific research that is publicly available for independent analysis. But the biggest issues are tied to that “publicly available” part. Most of the academic journals that edit, coordinate the peer-review of, and publish scientific research exist to make money. So they charge for access, making most scientific papers not exactly publicly available by many standards. The HONEST Act goes even further, requiring that raw data behind a published research paper also be publicly available in order for the EPA to use it. There are hundreds of open data repositories online, but using them is not yet the norm — and definitely wasn’t common just a few years ago. A 2016 review found that for all the research published before 2010, just over 2,200 data sets had been uploaded to the five most-respected generalist repositories. There are 2.5 million research papers published every year. Even the 77,000 data sets published by those five repositories in 2015 don’t come close to keeping pace.

There are some good reasons why scientists should be making their data publicly available — and, increasingly, they’re doing so. But making data, especially old data, public is expensive, time-consuming work that requires workers to convert data, servers to store it and funding to pay commercial publishers for rights. Then there is the cost of making sure that the data stays secure and anonymous.

Officially, the EPA says implementing the HONEST Act would require only “minimal funding.” But according to an internal EPA estimate that was leaked to the public radio program Marketplace, the bill would cost $250 million a year — a big deal for an agency that has proposed to cut or freeze funding to damn near every program it operates. Pruitt’s office appears to have gotten around that hurdle by assuming that the agency will simply not use any research that doesn’t already meet the open-data standard, which according to the leaked document could reduce the research the EPA is allowed to reference by as much as 95 percent. No wonder scientists are nervous.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Kathryn Casteel is a former FiveThirtyEight staffer who wrote about economics and policy issues.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.