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Shortly before 4 p.m. on Tuesday, President Trump walked up to a set of microphones in the lobby of Trump Tower to talk to reporters about what was once meant to be one of the signature issues of his administration: infrastructure.
Armed with a visual aid — a huge flow chart that purportedly shows the federal highway permitting process — and flanked by senior aides and Cabinet members, Trump explained how a thicket of environmental reviews and other regulations slow infrastructure projects, and he announced a new executive order intended to streamline the process. “This overregulated permitting process is a massive, self-inflicted wound on our country,” Trump said.
Then, of course, everything went off the rails. Trump spent most of the impromptu Q&A that followed the infrastructure announcement defending his response to last weekend’s deadly white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, and arguing that the right-wing protesters — some of whom chanted Nazi slogans and carried Nazi flags — included some “very fine people.” It was, one might say, a “massive, self-inflicted wound” on Trump’s presidency.
There is, perhaps, no better encapsulation of Trump’s first seven months in office than a press conference about the economy being derailed by a defense of — or at the very least equivocation about — white supremacists. Trump’s comments, and the near-universal condemnation they drew, have been much-discussed this week. But it’s also worth noting what wasn’t discussed as a result: the infrastructure plan that, in an alternate universe, could have been a lynchpin of a populist — and popular — Trump agenda.
Increasing infrastructure spending was one of the few policy areas where Trump and Hillary Clinton were in agreement during last year’s campaign. Economists mostly endorsed the idea too; repairing the nation’s roads and bridges could create jobs immediately while also boosting the country’s long-term productivity. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which a newly inaugurated Trump scored an early bipartisan win by daring Democrats to vote against a plan that would directly benefit their states and districts (and that their presidential candidate had broadly supported).
Instead, Trump chose to prioritize a divisive fight over health care, and he has seen his agenda repeatedly pushed from the headlines by distractions, mostly of his own making. His first days in office were dominated not by talk of policy proposals or Cabinet appointments but by a fight over how many people attended his inauguration. An early press conference announcing his new nominee for labor secretary devolved into an attack on the news media. A March speech meant to make the case for health care reform instead turned into a tirade against the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. This week wasn’t even the first time that a Trump-induced controversy has distracted from infrastructure, specifically: The White House’s planned “Infrastructure Week” in June turned into a running joke on Twitter when the headlines were instead dominated by fired former FBI Director James Comey’s congressional testimony.
Twitter jokes aside, it’s hard to assess exactly how damaging the various scandals and distractions have been to Trump’s policy agenda. It’s possible that a more popular, savvier president would have been able to round up the one additional Senate vote necessary to pass a repeal of Obamacare, but it’s far from certain; the repeal effort was undermined, as much as anything, by internal divisions within the Republican Party. Tax reform, similarly, would be hard to get done under any president — that’s why it hasn’t happened in three decades. And for all Trump’s failures on Capitol Hill, his administration retains the power to make major policy changes in immigration, criminal justice, business regulation and other areas. As we’ve noted before, it’s a mistake to label Trump a “do-nothing” president.
But it would also be a mistake to think that the controversies and distractions — and Trump’s historic unpopularity — are having no effect on the president’s ability to govern. For one thing, they effectively guarantee that Democrats will be united in their opposition to all but the most trivial administration proposals. It’s notable that Democrats from red-leaning states, such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, have voted with Trump far less often than would be expected based on how handily Trump won their states in 2016. In a narrowly divided Senate, losing those votes can be the difference between a narrow win and a painful loss. Democrats have also held up Trump’s nominees for key administration posts, which could make it harder for him to enact his policies through executive action. And then, of course, there is 2018: Historical patterns suggest Trump’s unpopularity could imperil Republicans’ congressional majority in next year’s midterm election.
Trump’s challenges will likely only grow following his Charlottesville comments. Numerous Republicans denounced Trump’s “blame on both sides” equivocation (though some have been more direct than others), and business leaders abandoned him in droves. Trump was forced to disband two advisory councils on Wednesday after their members — including the CEOs of some of the country’s biggest companies — organized a mass resignation. The councils were largely symbolic, but they were powerful symbols: Trump, the businessman-turned-president, rallying titans of industry to fix the American economy. This week, they instead became symbols of Trump’s mismanagement, lack of focus and increasing isolation. If Trump wants to get anything done, he’ll have to find a way to get out of his own way.
Environmental policy: Still getting sued
During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly railed against the Environmental Protection Agency, saying it was an example of regulatory overreach by the federal government. One of the surest signs of that overreach, according to Trump’s EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, is how often the EPA had been sued under President Barack Obama. “The previous administration … did not respect rule of law,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. “So when you do that, what happens? You get sued.”
Those comments might suggest that Trump’s EPA was being sued less often than Obama’s, but that isn’t what has happened so far. Between Feb. 17, when Pruitt took office, and Aug. 2, the organization has been sued 50 times, according to records available through the federal electronic court records search. In contrast, the EPA was sued 57 times during roughly the same period in 2016,1 under then-EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. And during the first year of the Obama administration, Lisa Jackson’s EPA incurred far fewer lawsuits — just 30 between February and July of 2009.
The lawsuits being filed against Pruitt’s EPA have a lot to do with the rule of law, though now it’s often Democratic attorneys general and environmental advocacy groups filing them, instead of Republican attorneys general and energy companies. For instance, a lawsuit filed earlier this month by several environmental groups accused the agency of providing loopholes that would allow companies to circumvent laws governing the control of toxic chemicals. Meanwhile, the State of California sued the agency on Aug. 11 for failing to provide records that the state’s attorney general requested as part of an investigation into Pruitt’s alleged conflicts of interest.
“Administrator Pruitt and the Trump administration are not above the law,” wrote California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a public statement not all that dissimilar from the ones Pruitt used to make when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general. Now, as EPA administrator, Pruitt is forced to take the same sort of rhetorical challenges he once dished out.
Health care: Costs and benefits
The Trump administration on Wednesday said that it would go ahead with a key payment to companies that participate in the insurance marketplaces set up under the Affordable Care Act. Under normal circumstances, these “cost-sharing reductions” would be deep in the weeds of health care policy, but this week’s announcement drew “breaking news!”-style tweets and coverage because Trump has threatened to withhold the payments — a step that experts warn could send the insurance marketplaces into a tailspin. That threat has not passed, however: Trump’s decision drew quick condemnation from conservatives, and he’s only been agreeing to make the payments on a month-to-month basis since he took office.
Cost-sharing reductions are discounts insurers are required to give to some of the lowest income enrollees on the marketplaces; at issue are the government reimbursements to insurers for these discounts. The government payments have a complicated — and ongoing — legal history. They were written into the ACA, but Congress refused to appropriate the funds to pay them. Obama paid them anyway, sparking a lawsuit by the House of Representatives against the executive branch. A federal court ruled with Congress last year, though it allowed the payments to continue while the White House appealed the decision. That suit is still wending its way through the courts.
If Trump follows through on his threats to stop making them, the impact on the insurance marketplaces could be substantial. The Congressional Budget Office’s weighed in this week with a report finding that ending the cost-sharing payments would cause short-term chaos: Insurance premiums would rise by more than 20 percent for the majority of people who currently buy insurance on the ACA marketplaces, and many insurers would flee. Those findings follow previous work by the Kaiser Family Foundation that reached similar conclusions.
The long-term consequences of ending the payments, however, are a little bit different. Under the ACA, lower-income people also qualify for subsidies to help them pay for insurance on the marketplaces. Those subsidies are based on premiums, so when premiums rise — as the CBO says they would if the cost-sharing payments end — so do subsidies. As a result, the CBO doesn’t think many people would actually lose insurance if the cost-sharing payments ended, because the government would pay the majority of the price difference. The increase in subsidies would, however, increase the federal deficit by $194 billion from 2017 through 2026, according to the agency’s estimates. For complex reasons tied to the structure of ACA subsidies, ending cost-sharing payments could also result in people having more coverage choices in the long-term.2
But a lot of things could change in the long-term, and likely will; the GOP has signaled it plans to keep pushing to repeal and replace parts of the ACA. What is more certain is that cutting the payments would cause chaos in the immediate aftermath, and the Trump administration would be left to deal with it.