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TrumpBeat: There Is No Pivot

Welcome to TrumpBeat, FiveThirtyEight’s new weekly feature looking at how developments in Washington affect people in the real world. We’re still experimenting with the format, so tell us what you think. Email us or drop a note in the comments.


Donald Trump’s campaign for president was notably light on policy details, which meant no one was sure what he’d do once he took office. Washington insiders debated whether he would govern as the populist bomb thrower he presented during the campaign or morph into a more conventional Republican, in policy if not in style. Some liberals allowed themselves to hope that Trump, with his New York background and his once-cozy relationship with the Clintons, would prove more progressive than he let on during the campaign. Even some supporters said they weren’t sure Trump meant many of his more extreme promises.

If there is one takeaway from Trump’s first full week in office, it is this: He meant it.

Hours after being sworn in as president last week, Trump signed an executive order that sought to weaken the Affordable Care Act. He followed that up this week with executive actions on abortion, immigration, trade and other issues. And there is probably more to come: Several news organizations this week reported on leaked drafts of executive orders on immigration and CIA “black site” prisons.

The practical implications of Trump’s actions aren’t yet clear. Many will face legal challenges and opposition from cities, states and advocacy groups. And in some cases, the executive orders themselves leave major questions unanswered. But taken together, Trump’s actions in his first week leave little doubt that he plans to take the same aggressive approach to governing that he did to campaigning.

Here are some of the major policy developments from the past week:

Immigration: The wall is just the beginning

Trump this week took steps to make good on his signature campaign promise: building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order pledging to use existing federal money to begin “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.” (Trump will need Congress to appropriate the billions of dollars necessary to construct the full, 1,300-mile wall.)

But while the wall drew the headlines, it may actually have been the least significant of Trump’s new immigration announcements. That’s because the problem the wall is designed to solve — mass illegal crossings at the Mexican border — is already much smaller than it was a decade ago. Indeed, more unauthorized Mexican workers have left the U.S. in recent years than have entered it: The total number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. has fallen by about a million people since 2007, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. A large and likely growing share of undocumented immigrants entered the country legally then overstayed their visas, and many of the people who do enter the country illegally are families or unaccompanied children from Central America seeking asylum, not people trying to sneak across the border undetected. A wall won’t do much to deter either group.

Much more significant were Trump’s moves to crack down on “sanctuary cities” and to bring back a controversial program called Secure Communities, which requires local law enforcement to share with federal immigration agents the fingerprints of anyone booked in a local jail, whether or not the person is charged with a crime. The two policies are intertwined: “Sanctuary cities” is the term for areas that have vowed to shield some undocumented immigrants from federal policies that could lead to deportation, in some cases by refusing to comply with the Secure Communities program.

Secure Communities was launched under President George W. Bush and was initially embraced by President Obama. But Obama canceled the program in 2014 in the face of waning willingness by local law enforcement to carry it out, and a growing number of federal court cases questioning its legality. On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order reviving Secure Communities and threatening to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities. An analysis by The Washington Post found that in the 10 sanctuary areas with the most money to lose — cities such as New York, San Francisco and Boston — potential cuts represent less than .05 percent of annual city budgets.

Health care: This could take a while

Repealing and replacing Obamacare could take longer than Republicans hoped. Two new Republican plans were revealed this week, and they couldn’t be more different. Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Susan Collins of Maine put forward a one-page document that was quickly dubbed “if you like your Obamacare, you can keep your Obamacare.” It would allow states to keep the Affordable Care Act intact, or to choose from two other options: Either receive 95 percent of the funds doled out from the ACA and give the money directly to patients in health savings accounts (there are various ways the money could be divvied up) or do nothing and lose all federal funding. It’s hard to envision many states picking door No. 2, but it’s even harder to imagine many Republican members of Congress supporting a plan that keeps the ACA intact.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s plan, on the other hand, would repeal the ACA completely and offer individuals a tax credit up to $5,000 for money placed in a health savings account, and allow everyone to take a tax deduction for their insurance, not just people who get insurance from their employer. Instead of requiring insurers to cover pre-existing health conditions, Paul’s bill would provide a two-year window when people could enroll; if they didn’t keep continuous coverage after that, they could risk paying more or being denied by insurers. It would also give states more flexibility in how they spend Medicaid funding. It’s a plan with more traditional conservative roots, but cutting back Medicaid and having no high-risk pool for people with pre-existing conditions is likely to rankle plenty of people.

Meanwhile, several GOP governors find themselves in the strange position of having to defend Medicaid expansion, the component of the ACA that broadened the federal health program for low income people.

Bottom-line: It’s not clear that the first week of Trump’s presidency got Republican lawmakers any closer to an ACA replacement bill.

The economy: Dealmaking as policy

Several of Trump’s week-one executive actions were related to the economy: He instituted a hiring freeze on the federal workforce, put a hold on all pending regulations and pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a formality since it was already clear Congress wouldn’t ratify it). But perhaps the more significant move was an event that might under a different president have been a mere photo-op: Trump’s Monday breakfast meeting with the CEOs of some of the country’s biggest companies. (He met separately the next day with the heads of the Big Three automakers.)

Trump used the meetings to urge CEOs to invest in the U.S. (a standard presidential plea) and to warn them against sending jobs overseas (a much more unusual threat). That’s a continuation of the approach he used during the presidential transition, when he cut a deal with Carrier Inc. to keep jobs in the U.S. and threatened Ford on Twitter over the automaker’s own outsourcing plans. It’s a strategy that favors dealmaking and personal relationships over traditional policymaking. (Andrew Ross Sorkin this week compared the approach to that of activist investors like Carl Icahn, a friend of Trump’s.)

That deal-focused approach can create some perverse incentives. Lauren Weber of The Wall Street Journal this week reported that CEOs are looking for ways to “reshore” a small, symbolic number of jobs to keep out of Trump’s crosshairs. But neither Trump’s public shaming nor his proposed policies would do much to address the underlying causes of the disappearance of U.S. manufacturing jobs, such as globalization and automation. And as Nelson Schwartz and Alan Rapperport noted in The New York Times this week, even many of the CEOs that met with Trump on Monday have cut U.S. jobs in recent years — and they haven’t pledged not to do so again.

The environment: Self-censorship

Trump’s relationship with government scientists is off to a bad start. Multiple federal agencies reported being under instruction to temporarily cease communication with the public, and grants and contracts have been frozen at the Environmental Protection Agency. But buried in the (conflicting) reports about the Trump administration censoring scientists is something a lot more sinister: scientists censoring themselves.

On the 20th, This American Life aired an interview with a Department of Energy employee who described preemptively editing references to climate change out of DOE materials. On Monday, the CDC canceled — apparently on its own volition — a major conference on climate change and health that was supposed to happen next month. (The conference is apparently back on again, but without the federal government’s involvement.) Even the widely shared news of a former employee of Badlands National Park using the park’s official twitter account to spread information about ocean acidification and carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere ended this way — the park deleted the tweets and told reporters it was not forced to do so. That’s significant because, according to White House spokesman Sean Spicer, the administration never told the federal agencies to freeze public communications, either.

The EPA has told the press that the restrictions and budgetary freezes are temporary — some could lift by Monday. But the self-censorship problem isn’t just going to go away, and that could pose a bigger problem for the agency employees and scientists who say they want to resist Trump.

More from FiveThirtyEight

  • Tom Price, Trump’s nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services, managed not to leak the Republican replacement plan for the ACA, or say much of anything we didn’t already know, during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
  • Trump’s immigration crackdown comes as public opinion is warming to immigration. But the policies could spell trouble for Mexico’s economy.
  • Trump took to Twitter Tuesday night to highlight Chicago’s rising rate of gun violence. The increase is real, and dramatic, but the level of “carnage” (Trump’s word) isn’t unprecedented.
  • Roughly 3.2 million people participated in protest marches across the U.S. on Saturday. That’s 10 times as many as joined the early Tea Party protests in 2009.
  • The Obama administration adopted policies to ensure that government scientists can conduct and discuss their research free from political interference. But it turns out there are no legal consequences to violating the policies.
  • Meanwhile, if Trump does try to meddle with the Environmental Protection Agency, he won’t be the first president to do so. It hasn’t always gone well.
  • Is American democracy at risk? FiveThirtyEight’s politics team discussed the evidence in their weekly chat. And in this week’s podcast, the team is joined by political scientists Julia Azari and Erica Chenoweth to discuss Trump’s first 100 days, the women’s marches and where both fit in political history.
  • Reports of hate crimes rose sharply in the days following Trump’s election. The data is sketchy, but it suggests such crimes are more common in parts of the country where income inequality is greatest.

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

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

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.