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Commentary: A historian’s take on Trump’s presidency so far


On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration as president, pundits predicted one of two things: either Trump would “blow up” the presidency — as he promised during his campaign and pursue a radical agenda — or he would moderate and “play by the rules,” as Republican Party leaders hoped. Trump has done neither of these things. We have every reason to expect more of the same in the coming months and years.

Trump’s transition into the White House left him unprepared to govern. His close advisers, particularly Stephen Bannon and son-in-law Jared Kushner, did not have any governing experience. They did not know how to manage presidential appointments, press relations, legislative affairs, foreign policy and the countless other demands on a new administration. Partly due to this, Congress is drifting away from the White House. Trump’s loyalty to a small circle, and an absence of relationships beyond that group, make it difficult for him to get his administration running effectively.

The policy failures and reversals have already begun to add up. Federal judges in multiple jurisdictions have stayed two executive orders issued by the president to keep people from particular Muslim-majority countries out of the United States. A federal judge has also prohibited the Trump administration from punishing “sanctuary cities” — including Houston, Dallas and Austin — for their efforts to shelter immigrants, despite federal crackdowns. On immigration policy, Trump has made no headway, and he has, in fact, motivated more opposition to his anti-immigrant proposals than ever before.

The promised repeal of Obamacare has also failed, never making it to a vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Passage of new legislation looks unlikely anytime soon. Trump’s budget proposal is also dead on arrival. He has failed to persuade his own party to spend billions of dollars on a border wall with Mexico. He had promised in the campaign that the Mexicans would pay for it, which they won’t, and now he must ask Congress to foot the multibillion-dollar bill. Do taxpayers really want to pay for a monstrous and ineffective wall?

Foreign policy does not look much better. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign under scandal after just 24 days. He will probably go to jail. Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is rarely seen and even more rarely heard. There are few, if any, big foreign policy ideas coming out of the State Department right now.

The only bold policy action that Trump has taken so far was launching a series of cruise missile strikes into Syria. The strike plan had been written as an option for President Barack Obama. Trump used Obama’s plan, and like his predecessor, he has failed to follow up with strong measures that have a lasting effect on the ground.

This list could go on further. The point is that Trump has failed to institute any serious strategic policy changes. He has signed executive orders. He has bullied members of Congress. He has tweeted.

To use power effectively, a president must work with others — with Congress, with the judiciary, with allies, even with the media. That requires mutual understandings, shared commitments and trust. Trump’s style runs against all of these attributes. He is a gun-slinger, an angry unilateralist. He will continue to affect our public rhetoric and enforcement of regulations, but he is poised to achieve far less policy change than his predecessor. Why? Because he simply hasn’t worked well with others. At home he has alienated the essential partners in government, and abroad he is creating growing separation from our friends. There can be no progress around North Korea, Iran, or other crisis areas without support from American allies nearby, who are increasingly wary of Trump.

Trump must also make a sincere and consistent effort to reach out to different groups here at home including women, minorities and recent immigrants. He must show that he cares about their future and connect his health, budget and immigration plans to their needs. These groups must see something for themselves in Trump’s agenda, or they will continue to resist it.

Trump will surely remain erratic. He is, however, doing things each day that weaken his ability to shape the big policy issues, and he is further isolating himself in what is already a lonely White House. Isolated, lonely power is ineffective at best, self-defeating at worst.

Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas. His newest book is “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.”



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