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What I Learned From 7 Months Of Watching The Trump White House

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Back in January, a few days after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president, a bunch of us huddled in the FiveThirtyEight office to try to answer a pressing question: How could we possibly cover all the news coming out of this administration? Trump launched his presidency by signing executive orders that aimed to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, weaken Obamacare and begin construction of his signature border wall. The Trump administration wasn’t yet a week old, and we were already struggling to keep up.

This column was initially conceived as an experiment in how to keep track of what was happening while we waited for the initial flurry of activity to settle down. Thirty-one weeks and 30 columns later,1 we’re still waiting.

The nature of the Washington roller coaster has changed from week to week — health care! Russia! Nazis! — but the flow of news never really slowed. That’s even more true of the under-the-radar subjects that TrumpBeat has mostly focused on. Even with Congress in recess this week and Trump’s sights set on the media, there were important developments in tax reform, health care and, of course, foreign policy, where Trump announced plans to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.

Seven months of TrumpBeat, by the numbers

Number of columns featuring each topic

TOPIC COUNT
Health care 24
Environment 19
Immigration 15
Economy 9
Taxes 6
Staffing 5
Criminal justice 4
Budget 2
Education 2
Other 8

Starting next week, TrumpBeat will be under new management. After seven months as this column’s lead writer and editor — and close to four years at FiveThirtyEight — Friday will be my last day with the site. But before I head out the door, I wanted to pass on a few lessons from my time tracking the Trump administration.

Pay attention to what Trump does, not what he says

At his rally in Phoenix Tuesday night, Trump hinted that he would pardon former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, warned that he would “end up probably terminating” the NAFTA trade deal and threatened to shut down the government if Congress didn’t fund his proposed wall along the southern border. Any one of those moves would be a huge story if Trump followed through. But history suggests caution is warranted.

Part of Trump’s appeal, at least to his supporters, is that his words are his words. He veers off script; he tweets with abandon; he contradicts the carefully crafted talking points delivered by his aides and surrogates. (On the rare occasion that Trump does stick to the teleprompter, it’s usually easy to tell.) But one consequence of that freewheeling approach is that we can’t assume Trump’s statements are the result of a policymaking process. Back in April, Trump promised to release a tax plan that didn’t yet exist; earlier this month, he caught his own generals off guard by tweeting that he would ban transgender people from serving in the military.

And while both tax reform and the trans ban may materialize eventually,2 many of Trump’s promises appear to be more about scoring rhetorical points than making actual policy. Trump, for example, has repeatedly threatened to impose tariffs on imports from Mexico, China and other countries, but the administration still hasn’t followed through.3 (Mexico and Canada greeted Tuesday’s NAFTA threat with the diplomatic equivalent of a shrug emoji.) Journalists, primed by decades of carefully scripted politicians, still too often react as if every presidential utterance represents a real shift in policy. With Trump, it’s often wise to wait and see.

Don’t expect consistency

One reason many journalists, including me, have paid so much attention to Trump’s words is that we’ve been trying to answer a basic question: What kind of president will he be? As a candidate, Trump was full of ideological inconsistencies, sounding at one moment like a fire-breathing populist and the next like a typical Chamber of Commerce Republican. (One example: Trump once suggested he would raise taxes on the rich, then presented a tax plan that would have done the opposite.) Many of us thought Trump’s early decisions as president would provide the best window into how he intended to govern.

Except we were wrong. Or, at least, we were wrong to expect Trump to reveal any coherent political philosophy. Instead, what we’ve learned is to expect inconsistency on the part of both Trump and his advisers. The populist-or-conservative question has never been resolved; rather, the divide has been enshrined in his White House via competing power centers that have different ideas about taxes, trade and foreign policy. (The populist wing took a blow recently with the exit of chief strategist Steve Bannon, but plenty of Bannon’s allies remain.) And the inconsistencies go beyond broad ideological questions. Trump wavered on the GOP health care bill, praising it when it passed the House, then declaring the same bill “mean” just weeks later. Members of his team have disagreed about how to approach the heroin epidemic, the looming fight over the debt ceiling and the standoff with North Korea.

It’s hardly unusual for administration officials to disagree on key policy questions. During Barack Obama’s presidency, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden clashed over how to handle Afghanistan and Libya. But it is rare for so many disagreements to become so public so early in a president’s term. More significant is how Trump seems to handle those disagreements: Rather than letting his advisers debate the issue and then making a decision, Trump often provides contradictory answers. Witness his ever-shifting position on raising taxes on the rich.

Don’t just watch the White House

One of the most persistent narratives of Trump’s first few months in office has been that he is getting nothing done. It’s certainly true that he hasn’t made much progress on his major legislative priorities: Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare failed (at least for now); tax reform and infrastructure spending haven’t yet gotten off the ground; Congress so far hasn’t appropriated money for his border wall. And even initiatives that didn’t require help from Congress, such as Trump’s ban on travel from some Muslim-majority nations, have run into roadblocks.

But as we’ve written before, it would be a mistake to label Trump a do-nothing president. In fact, his administration is making sweeping changes in environmental regulation, immigration enforcement, criminal justice and other areas. It’s just that many of the most dramatic changes are taking place below the level of the White House.

The Department of Justice has stepped up enforcement of immigration laws, and the Department of Homeland Security has recruited local sheriffs to help in the effort. The Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps to roll back Obama-era regulations on coal-fired power plants and automobile mileage standards, and it has been filing fewer suits against polluters. The Interior Department is easing up on the regulation of fracking on federal lands; the Labor Department is working to reverse a rule requiring companies to pay more workers overtime; and the Department of Health and Human Services has run a PR campaign aimed at undermining the Affordable Care Act. Not all those developments have been front-page news, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

As we wrote way back in February, the notion of “distractions” is complicated when it comes to Trump. The stories that have often dominated media coverage — the Russia investigation, the health care debate, Trump’s comments after the Charlottesville, Virginia, attack — aren’t distractions in the sense that they’re unimportant. But they do make it hard to keep track of everything else that is going on. The goal of this column, from the start, has been to probe beneath the headlines — to pay attention to the developments that aren’t getting attention but should be and, just as importantly, to acknowledge when issues that are getting headlines are overblown. Seven months into Trump’s presidency, that mission is more important than ever.

Footnotes

  1. We missed one week; thank you, readers who noticed.

  2. The Wall Street Journal this week reported that the White House had drafted a memo outlining the change in military policy, the first step in putting the ban in place.

  3. The administration did recently launch a probe into China’s trade practices, which could result in penalties (although Trump has said he doesn’t plan to erect trade barriers “at this moment”). The Treasury Department this week also announced sanctions against Chinese and Russian entities alleged to have helped North Korea’s nuclear program.

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

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