“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, said days after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Emanuel’s point was that a moment of cataclysm meant a chance for big structural reforms that wouldn’t be possible in moments of calm.
But there are other ways to take advantage of a crisis, as the Trump administration is demonstrating right now. Even as the president’s impeachment trial moves forward, the White House is acting aggressively on a range of policy proposals that are politically, legally, or morally suspect, wagering—probably correctly—that the press and the people will mostly overlook them amid the drama in the Senate.
It isn’t, as has sometimes been claimed, that Trump wanted to be impeached, or that the impeachment is somehow a brilliant Machiavellian distraction he has orchestrated. The president has made clear that he wants the trial over as quickly as possible. But as long as it’s going on, the White House is using the crisis as best as it can.
The administration has announced a series of major steps just in the past few days, since senators were sworn in for the impeachment trial on January 16.
On January 17, the Agriculture Department announced that it would roll back nutritional standards for school lunches that were championed by former first lady Michelle Obama. (In what the government insisted was a coincidence, January 17 is her birthday.) The changes will likely mean less healthy lunches, but repealing the old rules had become a rallying cry among some conservatives.
That was just a warm-up for this week. Yesterday, while hobnobbing with the world’s wealthiest elites at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Trump told CNBC that he would consider cutting entitlements in a second term. That’s notable because Trump campaigned as a populist and told voters that, unlike his Republican rivals, he would not cut Medicare or Social Security. Since taking office, however, he has proposed budgets that would do so, and once again committed to cuts in the interview, if vaguely.
While in Davos, he also dismissed injuries sustained by American personnel in Iraq during Iranian strikes earlier this month. In his first comments after those attacks, Trump said “no Americans were harmed … We suffered no casualties.” Then the military announced that some Americans had suffered traumatic brain injuries, but that neither the president nor anyone else had been aware of this at the time of his January 8 remarks. Fair enough—yet Trump yesterday brushed off the injuries sustained by service members in the line of duty as “headaches.”
He also said he’d expand his controversial travel ban to Belarus, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania, with different restrictions on people from different countries. The original ban went through three versions before one passed muster in the Supreme Court, and the latest expansion is likely to draw lawsuits as well.
Meanwhile, the administration also disclosed plans to make it harder for pregnant women to get visas to travel to the United States, a move intended to prevent women from giving birth stateside and thus earning American citizenship for their children. The phenomenon of “anchor babies” or “birth tourism” has been, like Michelle Obama’s lunch rules, a conservative obsession for years, though it’s unclear how many people actually come to the U.S. to give birth.
Finally, the Justice Department told CNN that FBI forms from interviews with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, would not be released this week, even though a judge had ordered them to be handed over as part of a lawsuit, because redactions are needed. The department didn’t say when the forms might be released. The forms pertain to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which has been part of this week’s impeachment proceedings.
Today is still young, but already the administration is set to announce a drastic reinterpretation of the Clean Water Act that will exempt a large number of waterways from protection and allow more pollution.
All of this is only a few days’ worth of changes. Impeachment has dominated political news for nearly four months now, and the administration has made plenty of other under-the-radar moves—cuts to food stamps, rollbacks to LBGTQ protections, and diverting Pentagon funds to pay for border-wall construction among them.
When Trump takes quiet action amid this or another crisis (self-inflicted or otherwise), some scolds will insist that the public and press must “keep their eyes on the ball” and not get distracted. That’s a rather callow admonition. If the charges leveled by the House of Representatives against the president are true—and extensive evidence indicates that they are—they can hardly be ignored as a distraction. Yet these administration moves are consequential in their own rights. Somehow, the trick is to learn to keep our eyes on several balls at once.