President Trump’s first 100 days in office have been full of paradoxes. Trump has dominated nearly every news cycle yet can point to relatively few concrete accomplishments. He has tried to make good on some of his most radical campaign promises while letting others fall by the wayside with hardly a backward glance. He has laid bare both the power of the presidency and the limits of that power, sometimes within the same tweetstorm.
What to make of these bewildering 14 weeks? History tells us that it is too soon to judge Trump’s presidency. But it isn’t too soon to start looking for clues as to what the next 1,362 days have in store. Here are 10 lessons from Trump’s first 100 days:
1. Trump isn’t a “normal Republican” … but he isn’t a populist, either.
Trump campaigned as a populist (in rhetoric if not always in policy). He railed against undocumented immigrants, “job-killing trade deals” and “elites” of all stripes. He promised to bring back jobs, avoid foreign entanglements and to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
Trump hasn’t exactly governed as a populist, however. He repeatedly turned to Goldman Sachs and its alumni network for top advisers. He made nice with China, rolled back financial regulations and just this week proposed a huge tax cut for businesses and the wealthy. His health care bill would have reduced insurance subsidies for many of his rural supporters.
Yet Trump also hasn’t become a “normal Republican,” as some pundits thought (or perhaps hoped) he might once in office. He has broken with Republicans’ free-trade orthodoxy by slapping tariffs on Canadian lumber imports and (briefly) threatening to pull out of NAFTA. He wants to limit legal as well as illegal immigration, worrying big businesses that depend on immigrant labor. And his tax plan would blow a multitrillion-dollar hole in the federal budget.
2. Trump is doing what he said he’d do … except when he isn’t.
The early narrative of Trump’s presidency was that he was “doing what he said he’d do.” That is, no one should have been surprised when he took steps to dismantle the Affordable Care Act on Day 1 of his administration, or when he cracked down on illegal immigration or when he tried to ban travel from some Muslim-majority countries. He had said on the campaign trail, repeatedly, that he would do all of those things.
The lesson of Trump’s first 20 days, then (give or take), was that we should forgo the admonition to “take Trump seriously but not literally” — that he didn’t really mean the things he said during the campaign. But since then, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that we shouldn’t expect him to fulfill all his promises, either. Or, in some cases, even to try.
Trump, for example, pledged during the campaign to label China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office. He didn’t, and now he has abandoned that promise altogether. Trump campaigned on a promise to avoid foreign entanglements and (in 2013) warned then-President Barack Obama not to attack Syria; less than three months into his presidency, he launched missile strikes on Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons. And Trump said repeatedly during the campaign that he would protect Medicaid from cuts; the Republican health care overhaul that Trump backed would have cut billions from the program.
3. Obama’s legacy is vulnerable (and so is Trump’s).
Trump may not have passed many bills or enacted many policies in his first 100 days, but he has managed to dismantle many of his predecessor’s policies. Trump, with help from the Republican-controlled Congress, has reversed, suspended or delayed dozens of rules put in place by Obama, including on core issues such as financial regulation and the environment. And while Republicans have thus far been unable to repeal Obama’s signature health law, Trump and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price have managed to undermine key parts of it. At particular risk are the health insurance marketplaces established under the law, which are at risk of collapsing if Trump and Congress don’t provide subsidies promised under the law.
Such reversals highlight the inherent impermanence of policies enacted through executive action, as many of Obama’s were, particularly after Democrats lost control of the House in the 2010 election and the Senate in 2014’s. But if Obama’s legacy is at risk, then so will be Trump’s. Trump has so far leaned almost exclusively on executive actions to enact his agenda — actions that can be undone by the next president.
4. Watch what Trump does, not what he says (or tweets).
On Jan. 26, less than a week into Trump’s term, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the president was considering imposing a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports to pay for his promised border wall. The media immediately entered full-fledged freakout mode. But within hours, Spicer walked back the comment, and the border tax hasn’t been heard from since.
The episode introduced what has become a pattern in the early months of the Trump administration: Trump, or often an aide, floats a surprising or outrageous policy idea, which is then quickly abandoned. Trump was reportedly considering an executive order weakening protections for LGBT individuals; he never signed it. The Department of Homeland Security was preparing to use the National Guard to round up undocumented immigrants; the White House quickly distanced itself from the proposal. Just this Wednesday, anonymous White House aides indicated Trump was on the verge of signing an executive order to withdraw the U.S. from NAFTA. By 11:30 that night, the idea was dead.
In other cases, of course, Trump really did follow through (or try to follow through) on rumored policies, most notably in the case of the failed travel ban. But in other cases, Trump’s policies have run almost directly counter to administration rhetoric — he has, for example, filled many positions in his administration with former lobbyists despite his promise to “drain the swamp” in D.C. Either way, the best guide for Trump’s policy is to focus on his actions, not his (or his aides’) words.
5. Trump really means it on immigration.
If there is one policy area in which Trump has been consistent, it is immigration. Sure, there have been a handful of inconsistencies and reversals — he has wavered on when and how Mexico will supposedly pay for the border wall, and the rumored “deportation force” never materialized — but unlike in foreign policy or trade, Trump has never backed away from his hard-line stance on immigration. The administration has announced plans to hire thousands more border guards and enforcement officers, to withhold federal funding from “sanctuary cities,” to create a new office to draw attention to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants (it launched this week) and to expand the number of immigrants who can be deported through an expedited process. He has also taken steps to limit legal immigration, putting new restrictions on the use of temporary H1-B work visas and proposing a (still vague) merit-based approach to immigration.
The direct practical impacts of Trump’s new policies aren’t yet clear. Deportations are up but are still below the level from earlier in Obama’s term. A federal judge this week blocked part of Trump’s order on sanctuary cities. And Trump has thus far left in place Obama’s protections for immigrants who came to the country illegally as children. But there is evidence that Trump’s actions are having an impact even before his policies are fully in place. The number of undocumented immigrants apprehended at the Mexican border — a rough proxy for the level of illegal immigration — is down sharply under Trump, a drop many experts attribute to Trump’s tough talk and to would-be immigrants’ fears that they would not be welcomed in the U.S. At the same time, there have been early reports that fewer foreigners are coming to the U.S. as tourists or students, trends that, if they continue, could be bad news for the U.S. economy.
6. Some political rules do still apply to Trump.
During the campaign, Trump often seemed to defy political gravity, surviving scandals that would have felled more traditional candidates. That Teflon reputation was always overblown — Trump did fall in the polls after controversies such as the “Access Hollywood” tape and his comments about a Mexican-American judge, though he eventually rebounded. As president, Trump has continued to make bizarre and sometimes false statements, and has continued to survive them. But that doesn’t mean there have been no consequences: Trump is deeply unpopular (though only modestly more so than when he took office), and his approval ratings took a particular hit after the high-profile failure of the Republican health care bill.
Trump is learning that he isn’t immune to other political realities, either. The health care bill was doomed by the same intra-Republican disputes that have plagued the party for years. Trump lost his first nominee for labor secretary and several lower-level appointees over ethical questions and conflict-of-interest issues. And persistent questions over his campaign’s relationship with Russia have brought down Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and have proven a constant distraction during the first 100 days.
7. Facts still matter (sometimes).
Trump’s habit of playing fast and loose with the facts didn’t hurt him in the election (at least not badly enough for him to lose), so maybe it’s unsurprising that he has continued the practice since taking office. Most famously, he tweeted that Obama had tapped his phone during the campaign, a claim for which no one has ever produced any supporting evidence. He has also claimed that the U.S. murder rate is at a 47-year high (it isn’t), that he has created 600,000 new jobs (he hasn’t) and, repeatedly, that millions of undocumented immigrants voted in November (there’s no evidence to support that claim). In one particularly peculiar incident, Trump said he was sending an aircraft carrier off the coast of Korea, when it was in fact moving in the opposite direction.
But while those misstatements and falsehoods have generally carried few consequences, there are signs that facts still matter in policy and politics. Perhaps the clearest example was the failure of Republican efforts to discredit the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office ahead of its report on the GOP health plan. Despite those efforts, the CBO’s report — which found the bill would leave millions more Americans without health insurance — helped kill the bill. His new tax plan could face a similar fate: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says the bill will pay for itself through economic growth, but it won’t be up to the White House to determine the plan’s cost, which will likely run into the trillions of dollars.1
8. Trump still isn’t into details.
As a candidate, Trump didn’t offer many detailed policy proposals. That hasn’t changed much as president. The tax plan he announced this week was actually less detailed than the one he offered during the campaign. Many of his executive orders have been little more than memos laying out broad principles and directing federal agencies to study ways to comply with them. And on the biggest piece of legislation his administration has tackled so far — the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act — Trump largely left the policymaking up to Congress.
Trump isn’t the first president to delegate most of the details. Ronald Reagan famously adopted a hands-off style. But Trump’s approach hasn’t always served him well. The health care bill, of course, ended in embarrassment. And the initial rollout of Trump’s travel ban was chaotic in part because the executive order failed to answer basic questions about how the new rules would work; that chaos arguably contributed to the ban’s subsequent legal troubles. (Reagan’s approach got him into trouble too, notably in the Iran-Contra scandal.)
9. There is no ‘Trump administration.’
Political reporters routinely write about the executive branch as if it is a single person — “the White House announced X” or “the administration believes Y.” That’s a conceit, of course; any presidential administration is full of thousands of strong-willed individuals who frequently disagree with one another. But it’s a conceit that contains a fair amount of truth. There may not be one opinion, but there generally is one policy, and a clear process for making it. Members of an administration may disagree, but once a decision is made, they typically fall in line behind it.
That does not appear to be how the Trump administration works. This month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley gave contradictory descriptions of the U.S.’s policy on regime change in Syria. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has called publicly for the U.S. to pull out of the Paris climate accords, a position other members of the administration do not seem to share. Trump’s various economic aides often seem at odds over the administration’s position on free trade.
10. Trump isn’t the only story, or at least he shouldn’t be.
A short, very incomplete list of things that have happened in the world since Trump took office: North Carolina repealed its controversial “bathroom bill” targeting transgender individuals; Arkansas executed two men in one night in a rush to carry out death sentences before the state’s stock of lethal injection drugs expires; the U.S. retail sector began to collapse; Turkey edged closer to dictatorship; Venezuela descended into chaos.
You’d be forgiven for missing many of those stories. Trump has dominated the media landscape like no other figure before him. Sports, entertainment, art — seemingly no corner of our culture is free from his presence. And to some extent, there is good reason for his ubiquity — Trump has broken with the norms and conventions of American politics in a way that demands attention beyond the usual spheres of news analyses and opinion columns.
Yet Trump is not the only story. He isn’t even the only political story, as Robert Bentley could attest. The relentless focus on Trump for the past 100 days has been understandable, but it is also unsustainable. At some point, there will need to be room for other stories as well.