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TrumpBeat: What The Immigration Chaos Tells Us About What’s To Come

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.

President Trump’s first week in office was a constant stream of major announcements: health care, the wall, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a hiring freeze. Week No. 2 was no less busy, but this time one issue dominated all others: the Muslim ban.

The administration and its supporters, of course, have argued repeatedly that the executive order Trump signed a week ago was not a Muslim ban. It temporarily blocked travel (by anyone, regardless of faith) from seven predominantly Muslim countries that had previously been identified by the Obama administration as “countries of concern.” Muslims from other countries can still travel as usual. But those technicalities didn’t stop tens of thousands of people from protesting at airports around the country last weekend; nor are they likely to stop legal challenges arguing the policy is a de facto religious test. (It doesn’t help that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a frequent Trump surrogate, told Fox News that Trump wanted a Muslim ban and asked Giuliani to find a way to do it “legally.”)

One reason the travel ban has stayed in the headlines is that it involves at least three storylines. The first is the policy itself, which tapped into many Americans’ deep-seated fear of terrorism while, opponents argue, running counter to fundamental principles of religious freedom and the American identity as a nation of immigrants. Unlike many of Trump’s other early-term policy announcements, the travel ban also had immediate human consequences; by Saturday, media outlets were full of heart-wrenching stories about refugees and other travelers who were denied entry to the U.S.

The second storyline is one we’ve already covered at some length: Trump is doing what he said he would do during the campaign. When Trump first called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration during the Republican primary in late 2015, many in the media treated the statement as the kind of over-the-top proposal that would prevent Trump from winning the nomination (oops) and, if he did somehow get elected, would never be enacted. Trump’s actual executive order stops short of the full ban he initially proposed, but it nonetheless shows that he plans to make good on promises even (or perhaps especially) when they are opposed by the establishment wings of both parties.

The third storyline is how Trump enacted the ban: with minimal input and maximum chaos. Trump’s executive order was met with widespread confusion over who was covered by the ban — it took until the middle of the week to nail down whether green-card holders are exempt (they are, mostly) — and how it should be enforced. Border agents at Dulles airport outside Washington, D.C., for example, appear to have been stricter than those at other airports. By Monday, it was clear that a major reason for the confusion was that few of the agencies responsible for carrying out the policy had been consulted — or even informed about the details — before the order was signed. Multiple news outlets reported that Trump declined to consult relevant members of his own Cabinet, including Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, who apparently learned of the signing when an aide saw it on television.

FiveThirtyEight: Nate Silver on Trump’s immigration ban

The travel ban, then, encapsulates much of what we’ve seen from the first weeks of Trump’s presidency: aggressive, even radical policy announcements, but far less attention to the practical questions of how those policies will be carried out. That approach may work fine for rallying Trump’s political base, but if he wants to enact lasting policy change, eventually he will have to focus on the details.

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

The economy: An empty chair?

Two weeks into his presidency, Trump still hasn’t named someone to lead his Council of Economic Advisers. Politico’s Ben White on Wednesday reported rumors that Trump might not fill the job at all. (On Thursday, White quoted an anonymous insider who said CEA was at risk of “getting taken out back and shot.”)

This might sound like the ultimate in inside baseball — how many previous CEA chairs can you name? — but it matters because Trump, more so than any president since Ronald Reagan, is looking to reshape the American economic system. He wants to rewrite the tax code, restrict immigration and upend 20-plus years of trade liberalization. Yet almost no one in Trump’s inner circle has expertise in determining the many overlapping economic effects those policies would have, or in communicating those conclusions to policy-makers and the public. Trump’s administration is full of bankers and business executives, but his senior team includes only one economist: Peter Navarro, whose portfolio is limited to trade policy. (The person who once looked likely to run Trump’s CEA, CNBC talking head Larry Kudlow, doesn’t have an economics degree but at least has experience with economic policy.)

Trump is famously skeptical of experts, and with economists, at least, the feeling is mutual: Many prominent economists spoke out against Trump ahead of the election. But Trump would have little difficulty finding respected economists sympathetic to his policy priorities. George Borjas of Harvard has written repeatedly about how certain kinds of immigration can lead to lower wages for American workers. David Autor of MIT has studied how competition from China has killed jobs in the U.S. Numerous economists have argued in favor of lower taxes and reduced regulation.

What a good economic adviser would not be, however, is a sycophant. Glenn Hubbard, who ran the CEA under President George W. Bush, argued against Bush’s proposed tariff on imported steel. He lost the debate, but he made sure the president knew the consequences of his decision. Other former CEA chairs tell similar stories. It isn’t clear who, if anyone, will play a similar role in Trump’s White House.

Health care: Let the dismantling begin

Republicans’ promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act rolled on this week, even as leaked audio from a Republican strategy meeting, published first by the Washington Post, confirmed that there’s no consensus on how to replace the law. In the meantime, however, the ACA remains in place: Open enrollment on the federally run health-insurance marketplaces closed on Jan. 31. As with most things, people tend to wait until the last minute to sign up for insurance: Last year, just over 7 percent of all marketplace signups happened during the last week of open enrollment.

Under Trump, however, the Department of Health and Human Services decided to cut advertising for open enrollment to just a quarter of the $1 million per day that had been set aside by the Obama administration, according to Politico. That could be a problem for the marketplaces because, in past years, late signups have skewed young and healthy. Research has shown that the advertising works to increase enrollment, so with less advertising, insurers could end up with fewer healthy people than expected, potentially causing premiums to increase dramatically again next year.

Insurers, meanwhile, are already starting to shy away from participating in the exchanges next year. Aetna, Anthem and Molina Healthcare, once a darling of the ACA, have all expressed skepticism over whether they will participate in the 2018 marketplace. They blame uncertainty about the law’s future, even as companies say they are seeing the markets stabilize. If people start losing insurance next year as a result of soaring prices, marketplace chaos could be a bigger hit to Trump and Republicans in Congress than it is to the ACA’s legacy.

Pharmaceuticals: It’s hard to be pro-business and anti-establishment

Trump criticized drug makers for high prices on the campaign trail. Since winning office, he has said lobbyists are partly to blame and has suggested he’d be interested in using Medicare to negotiate prices down. That wasn’t the line he took earlier this week, however, during a meeting with drug company executives. There, he told the group that he expected more pharmaceuticals to be manufactured in the U.S., while promising to speed up the regulatory process and reduce taxes.

Trump’s approach to the high cost of drugs illustrates the challenge of balancing his populist and pro-business agendas: Generic drugs, which are largely manufactured abroad, dramatically reduce how much people pay for medicine, and bringing that manufacturing back to the U.S. (where production costs are higher) could raise prices. Using Medicare to negotiate better drug prices is extremely popular with the public but unpopular among the conservative establishment, and it would likely produce only modest savings, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Drug companies would no doubt be thrilled to have less regulation, but they say themselves that regulation isn’t what’s holding up the innovation process. In fact, they worry more about whether insurance companies will cover new drugs than they worry about getting them approved, according to a study by FasterCures, a research center that works to speed up the medical research pipeline. That problem will only get worse if fewer people are insured as a result of repealing the ACA.

Environment: The return of DAPL

Last week, Trump issued a presidential memorandum calling for the “expedited” review and approval of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, the controversial North Dakota project that Obama blocked in the waning days of his administration. Trump wasn’t kidding about “expedited”: On Monday, North Dakota senator John Hoeven and representative Kevin Cramer both issued statements saying that acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer had ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to issue the permit necessary to complete the pipeline.

Buried in a lot of this news is the fact that if the Corps does go ahead and issue the permit, it would do so without completing a new environmental impact statement — a cost/benefit analysis process that considers scientific evidence, historical significance and public comment. The Corps’ previous impact statement drew criticism from environmentalists and other opponents for relying heavily on analysis from the pipeline’s developer and largely ignoring concerns raised by other federal agencies. When Obama blocked the pipeline, he ordered the Corps to consider new routes for the pipeline and to produce a new environmental review. That process has already begun, and it isn’t clear whether the Trump administration can legally stop it. The Standing Rock Sioux say they will go to court to fight any effort to stop the review. (This would be a good time to remind you that protests over this pipeline have as much to do with tribal sovereignty as with environmental protection.)

All this is significant partly because the environmental impact statement process is usually a long one. A 2008 study of more than 2,000 such statements issued between 1998 and 2006 found that, on average, they took 3.4 years to complete. And the process is getting longer. During the study period, the time it took to complete a statement increased by an average of 37 days per year. Were the process to go forward as planned, there’s a decent chance it could carry the final decision on the pipeline past the end of Trump’s current term in office.

Opponents of the pipeline, of course, would be happy with that outcome. But despite the long (and lengthening) review process, environmental impact statements often aren’t very good. A different study, which looked at the quality of environmental impact statements between 1998 and 2004, found the statements became less thorough and accurate over time — continuing a trend that goes back decades. In other words, agencies are taking longer and longer to complete these things, and they’re increasingly likely to produce slipshod results. That’s a problem. And it’s one that’s unlikely to get solved. As a Congressional Research Service report concluded in 2006, almost everyone agrees this process could be more efficient — but nobody can agree on how to fix it. Largely because “fixing it” means something different to people like the Standing Rock Sioux than it does to people like pipeline developers.

More from FiveThirtyEight

  • Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, would almost certainly be a reliable conservative vote and voice. (It’s also very likely that he’ll be confirmed by the Senate.)
  • Even if Trump gets to name another justice after Gorsuch (as is likely given the age of the court’s liberal wing), don’t expect the Supreme Court to immediately overturn Roe v. Wade or other big liberal decisions. Respect for precedent makes it more likely that the court will chip away at those rulings gradually.
  • Amid the debate over Trump’s travel ban, the Pew Research Center asked Americans what characteristics are central to their national identity. Most said people had to speak English to be “truly American”; one in three said Christianity is key.
  • Trump’s changes to the makeup of the National Security Council have drawn a furious reaction, but most of them weren’t that unusual.
  • Virginia is considering changing the way it allocates its votes in the Electoral College. If every state did the same, it could create an even greater disparity between the popular and electoral votes than the one we saw in 2016.

Weekend reads

  • Presidents don’t always like what economic data shows, but (at least since Richard Nixon) they haven’t tried to interfere with it. Gene Sperling, a former economic adviser in the Obama and Clinton administrations, asks in The Atlantic whether we can trust Trump to be equally hands-off.
  • Congressional Republicans want to overhaul the way we tax companies so that we tax imports but not exports. (Trump once opposed such a move, but has recently sounded more open to it.) Not all companies, however, are fans of the idea, as The Wall Street Journal’s Richard Rubin explains.
  • Trump’s first military operation, a SEAL raid in Yemen, didn’t go according to plan. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Missy Ryan of The Washington Post look at the lessons the mission carries for Trump’s national security team.
  • Jerry Falwell, president of evangelical Christian Liberty University, says he has been asked by Trump to lead a new education task force. Goldie Blumenstyk of The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses a policy memo that could shed some light on Falwell’s priorities.

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

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.