Peak Trump

As he nears the end of his second year in office, Donald Trump has reached the high point of his influence and power.

For the last two years, the president has relied on a Congress controlled by the Republican Party. He took advantage of this congressional control to appoint two Supreme Court justices. He also achieved one principal legislative victory: the enormous tax cut in 2017 that largely benefited the wealthy.

Trump used his authority to issue 86 executive orders over the last two years. Some of those have been immediately effective, such as cancelling U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Others, like the Muslim travel ban, were blocked by the courts.

The president has also discovered that he has more range of action in the foreign policy realm than with domestic legislation. He has withdrawn the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran and the Paris climate change agreement. He has imposed tariffs on trade with both allies and adversaries. And he has negotiated face to face with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump supporters believe that he has already accomplished a great deal – tax cut, Supreme Court appointments – and complain that a “deep state” of opponents in Washington or a hostile media or an international network of globalists have prevented the president from accomplishing even more.

Trump critics believe that the current administration has been one of the most incompetent and criminally negligent governments in U.S. history. Trump has only achieved its few accomplishments because the Republican Party has rallied around a man that the party universally reviled three years ago. The party did so in part to get long sought-after victories (like the tax cut) and in part because of fear of presidential retaliation.

Many of Trump’s appointees have left office in a cloud of scandal, such Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt and, most recently, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Others have demonstrated an unprecedented lack of qualifications to do their job, such as Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Scandal and incompetence have limited how much the administration has been able to accomplish.

Whatever you might think of Trump’s record in office, the last two years were something of a honeymoon for Donald Trump. The president will never again have so many levers of power at his disposal.

After the mid-term elections, the Democratic Party will control the House of Representatives by a significant margin of more than 30 seats. The Democrats will be able to block Trump’s legislative agenda. They will also use their control of committees to launch multiple investigations into Trump personally (such as his tax returns), into his 2016 campaign (including campaign financing), and into the actions of his administration (for instance, the use of his office to increase his family’s wealth).

In 2019, Trump will face greater pressure from the investigation by Robert Mueller. So far, this investigation under the auspices of the FBI has resulted in five guilty verdicts for Trump associates: foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos for perjury, campaign manager Paul Manafort for financial crimes, campaign aide Rick Gates also for financial crimes, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn for perjury, and lawyer Michael Cohen for campaign finance violations.

The Mueller investigation has been going on for 18 months. Despite numerous predictions that it was going to wrap up soon – White House special counsel Ty Cobb figured it would be done by Thanksgiving 2017 – the investigation is still going strong. Investigators are scrutinizing Trump’s family: Donald Trump, Jr., Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law Jared Kushner may also face indictments in 2019. It has already touched Trump himself.

The Mueller investigation has yet to produce evidence that Trump conspired with a foreign power (for instance, Russia) to influence the 2016 presidential election. Although there is sufficient evidence that Trump knowingly committed campaign finance violations when he directed his lawyer to pay hush money to two of his alleged mistresses, campaign finance violations generally end with a fine, not jail time. But if it is decisively proven that the president tried to cover up this crime, that would be a stronger case for impeachment.

Both the Mueller and the congressional investigations have and will inflict reputational damage on Trump and his administration. They will consume the president’s time and attention. They will make it more difficult for the administration to push its foreign and domestic agendas.

Indeed, the Trump administration itself seems to anticipate its future declining influence. So, for instance, it doesn’t have much of a legislative plan for 2019. Reports Politico:

Trump has offered almost nothing in the way of a legislative vision for 2019 beyond approval of a new trade deal and vague references to infrastructure. His only clear priority is enforcing border security.

Trump remains fixated on one thing: building his Wall along the border with Mexico. Several days before the holiday break, he closed down part of the federal government in a battle with Congress to get a fraction of the budget ($5 billion) for building the structure (estimated to cost at least $15 billion and perhaps as much as $67 billion). It is a very unpopular move, with 54 percent of Americans opposing the shutdown versus only 29 percent in favor. Even the Republican Party is uncomfortable with the president’s confrontational tactics.

Thus, at the end of two years in office, the president has been forced to use all of his dwindling power and authority to get a limited win on his signature policy proposal. And even though he is willing to go to the wall for his Wall – bringing many federal government functions to a halt – he is not likely to achieve even this limited victory since he doesn’t have enough votes to win in the Senate.

Donald Trump will probably remain in the White House for the next two years, even as threats of impeachment intensify. Nevertheless, barring a war or other catastrophe, the world has seen peak Trump. It’s all over but the shouting.

Hankyoreh, December 27, 2018


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