WTF Just Happened? Trump’s Chaotic First Weeks in Office
America has weathered the opening blitz of the Trump presidency with our republic intact, but our collective sanity rattled. The new administration has bombarded Americans with nonsense – from “alternative facts” about inauguration crowd size, to conspiracy theories about voter fraud, to a made-up “Bowling Green Massacre,” to Trump’s off-the-wall praise of long-dead abolitionist Frederick Douglass as someone “who has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” Adding to the psychological shock-and-awe, the administration has leaked a horrifying host of draft executive orders – to trash the UN, reopen CIA “black site” prisons and permit rampant LGBTQ discrimination – that may never become official policy.
Cut through the noise, and the new administration’s true actions are less overwhelming – but no less harrowing. Trump has pursued a substantive agenda, with dark consequences for Earth’s climate, America’s alliances, the Affordable Care Act, undocumented immigrants and refugees, middle-class homebuyers and investors, and the veterans who fill the federal workforce.
Here’s a recap of what the Trump administration has actually put in motion in its first weeks in office.
Without presenting a plan for its replacement, Congressional Republicans have taken the first legislative steps to repeal Obamacare. President Trump jump-started the tear-down with an executive order that weakens the health care law, blunting its enforcement mechanisms. The order instructs federal administrators to “exercise all authority and discretion” to “waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay” any “cost, fee, tax, penalty, or regulatory burden” under the law. Trump then shut down advertising and outreach programs that would have encouraged Americans to sign up for coverage before the January 31st deadline. The former chief marketing officer of Healthcare.gov estimates Trump’s move prevented 500,000 Americans from finding coverage for 2017.
Undermined women’s health across the globe
With an executive order, Trump reinstated and expanded the global gag rule (a.k.a. the “Mexico City Policy”), which bars groups that perform – or even discuss – abortion from receiving U.S. foreign aid. The last time the gag rule was in effect (under George W. Bush), one study found, “shipments of U.S.-donated condoms and contraceptives completely ceased to 16 developing countries,” while family planning groups in another 16 nations, most of them in Africa, “lost access to condoms and contraceptives as a result of their refusal to accept the Gag Rule restrictions.”
Empowered Big Oil
Consistent with its view that the federal Climate Action Plan is “harmful and unnecessary,” the Trump administration used executive orders to put two infamous oil pipeline projects back on the fast track, threatening to unlock megatons of new carbon pollution.
The Keystone XL pipeline would open the Gulf Coast as a global export market for Canada’s filthy tar-sands crude – increasing producer profit and spurring production. Trump’s executive order invites pipeline owner Trans Canada to renew its application for the pipeline, blocked by the Obama administration after years of protest. A second Trump order calls for “expedited” review and approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline that would transport crude from the shale fields of North Dakota to refineries in the Midwest. It has been blocked by an unprecedented protest by Native American “water protectors” at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where the pipeline would cross treaty lands and endanger tribal water resources. Neither order immediately renews pipeline construction. But the latter has already renewed clashes between law enforcement and DAPL protesters.
The Trump administration’s oil-first economic policy is now yoked to an oil-first foreign policy.
Trump’s nominee to lead the state department, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, was confirmed by the Senate on a 56-43 vote, backed by Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia as well as Independent Angus King of Maine. “They own this guy,” says 350.org founder Bill McKibben of Tillerson’s Senate supporters. “They own his policy. They own his corporate past. They own his ties to Russia. It’s all part of the big deal.”
The GOP-run House and Senate have also done Big Oil a good turn, passing legislation to kill an anti-corruption rule by the Obama-era Securities and Exchange Commission. It required oil firms to disclose their payments to foreign governments. This will be one of the first bills signed by President Trump (accompanied by another rule repeal that will let coal companies dump mining waste into streams).
Targeted immigrants and banned refugees
Nowhere has Trump been busier than on the subject of immigration and border security.
Acting on a top campaign promise, Trump issued an executive order calling for “the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border.” The order relies on existing legislation under which construction to be paid for by U.S. taxpayers – not Mexico.
Perhaps the most sweeping of Trump’s new executive orders has placed as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants in the crosshairs for priority deportation. Going far beyond criminal undocumented immigrants like gang members, the Trump order targets all “removable aliens” who have been “convicted of any criminal offense” or “charged with any criminal offense” or – and this is where it gets broad – those who have “committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.”
Since entering the country without papers is a “chargeable criminal offense” – as are other common status violations like securing a job without authorization or driving a car without a license – virtually anyone in the country without status is now vulnerable. In the words of a prominent immigration attorney, the order is “a blueprint for mass deportation … crafted by the most extreme anti-immigrant zealots in Trump’s orbit.”
Trump used the same order to threaten to strip sanctuary cities – jurisdictions that forbid their law enforcement officers from enforcing immigration law – of federal funding. Trump accused sanctuary jurisdictions of causing “immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.”
The impact of Trump’s order targeting undocumented immigrants has yet to be fully felt. And it was immediately overshadowed by the chaos created by Trump’s second executive order on immigration – suspending refugee settlement in the United States for 120 days (thereafter prioritizing religious minorities in their home countries, and largely excluding Muslims). The order additionally suspended immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Although the order – “PROTECTING THE NATION FROM FOREIGN TERRORIST ENTRY” – invokes 9/11 as a justification, it does nothing to restrict immigration from the homelands of the 9/11 attackers.
The order created chaos at the nation’s international airports. Vetted visa holders, and even permanent U.S. residents with green cards, were denied entry upon arrival. Mass protests and lawsuits filed by the ACLU and others secured entry of most of those detained – including heroes who risked their lives serving U.S. troops in Iraq. And the administration walked back its ban on green card holders, issuing a new order clarifying that Trump’s order “do not apply to such individuals.”
But the chaos created by the order is ongoing. According to court declarations by an attorney for the U.S. government, as many as 100,000 visas held by citizens of the banned countries were provisionally revoked. White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters he does not know whether the administration has designs to deport those visa holders already in the country.
Now, following a lawsuit by the state of Washington, and a decision by a federal judge appointed by George W. Bush, key provisions of the executive order have been blocked, subject to a temporary restraining order.
The executive branch has reassured democracy-watchers by complying with the order. But Trump has taken to Twitter, blasting the judicial branch for placing the country “in peril.”
Tore down financial guardrails and targeted the middle class
During the campaign, Trump blasted Hillary Clinton as a Wall Street stooge. As president, he’s now eagerly advancing Wall Street’s agenda.
Trump has begun the process of dismantling the legal protections designed to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial collapse. One Trump order takes aim at the Dodd-Frank regulations on Wall Street. The order is short on specifics, but stands as a declaration of war on the post-crash financial regulatory regime.
Despite having run as a populist, Trump signed two orders that will cost the middle class. The first blocks a rate cut on the mortgage-insurance premiums paid by buyers with smaller incomes, lower credit scores and/or modest down payments. Trump’s order will cost the typical buyer of a $200,000 home nearly $500 a year. A second order instructs the Labor Department to repeal a requirement that financial advisers work to maximize the profits of their clients – freeing them instead to pad their own commissions at the expense of grandma’s 401(k).
Froze and intimidated the federal workforce
Trump issued a hiring freeze across the federal government – exempting some positions at the VA only after public outcry. The action remains a stick in the eye for America’s veterans, who comprise 30 percent of the federal workforce and nearly a third of new hires. The Trump administration also gagged several science-based agencies – elevating rogue tweets of climate data from the @BadlandsNPS account into an act of bold resistance.
Erased Jews from a Holocaust remembrance statement
The Trump administration marked Holocaust Remembrance Day by failing to mention the six million Jews who were exterminated. (The administration reportedly rejected a proposed statement by the State Department’s Special Envoy on Holocaust Issues honoring Hitler’s Jewish victims.) The erasure was defended by the president’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and lauded by white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, the man who coined the term “alt-right.” Spencer defended the White House for “its ‘de-Judification’ of the Holocaust.”
Bungled special ops
In his first act as commander-in-chief, Trump launched an ill-advised raid on a terrorist compound in Yemen that cost America dearly – and reportedly killed more than a dozen civilians. The raid encountered a far more fortified resistance than anticipated; according to reports, the firefight killed a Navy Seal, wounded three other U.S. special forces, killed an 8-year-old American living on the premises – among as many as 10 women and children killed – and forced the military to destroy a $75 million Osprey aircraft damaged in the operation. Trump did not watch the raid from the situation room, preferring updates delivered to the White House residence.
Weakened national security
In a power grab that Trump himself was reportedly not fully briefed on, the president signed an executive order that demoted the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the armed forces and the Director of National Intelligence from permanent seats at the National Security Council that advises the president on matters of war and peace. The same order elevated Trump political adviser Steve Bannon, former executive of the alt-right platform Breitbart, to a permanent chair.
The move was blasted by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who pulled no punches in declaring, “What is making America less safe is to have a white supremacist named to the National Security Council as a permanent member, while the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence are told: ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.'”
Strained relations with allies and emboldened Russia
Trump’s diplomatic rollout with allies has been a rocky mess. The president’s loose Twitter rantings led Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel a meeting with Trump, who then reportedly threatened, on a phone call with Peña Nieto, to send U.S. troops into Mexico to deal with that country’s “bad hombres.” Trump followed that diplomatic gesture with a tumultuous 25-minute call with the conservative prime minister of Australia – one of the United States’ staunchest allies.
Trump had a more cordial call with Vladimir Putin of Russia – a call that has been followed quickly by renewed hostilities from Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. When pressed by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly as to why Trump respects Putin – a “killer,” in O’Reilly’s words – Trump deflected: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What – do you think our country’s so innocent?”
Ceded economic influence to Asia
The Trans Pacific Partnership was already dead. But Trump pounded a final nail in the coffin with an executive order withdrawing the U.S. not only from the free trade agreement, but from the negotiating structure entirely – meaning that Trump will not negotiate a better deal. The move cedes influence in Asia to America’s top trade rival, China.
If there’s a silver lining from Trump’s dangerous opening act, it’s that it has been widely unpopular.
Not only have millions of Americans taken to the streets and airports in protest, but a majority of Americans already disapprove of the president, whose favorable rating is mired in the low 40s. (No honeymoon. Sad!)
Trump himself has become increasingly toxic. Corporate actors like Apple, Lyft, Microsoft and Twitter have joined friend-of-the-court briefs to block the president’s immigration ban. Harley Davidson canceled a planned Trump visit to a plant. The CEO of Uber fled Trump’s economic council. The CEO of Disney turned down an invitation to the White House. Nordstrom discontinued selling Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. And it was impossible not to view the pro-diversity, pro-immigrant, anti-wall ads during the Super Bowl as an extended subtweet of @RealDonaldTrump.
So chin up, America. Not only does political gravity still exist – your resistance is making it stronger.