Despite Trump’s recent, very public dissatisfaction with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has been particularly effective in changing the policy landscape. Sessions, a long-time conservative crusader for tough-on-crime policies, has moved to enforce them. Over the objections of libertarians and civil libertarians, and contrary to a bipartisan move toward criminal-justice reform over the last decade, he strengthened the federal government’s power of civil-asset forfeiture, a practice that allows police to seize cash and goods from people suspected (but not convicted) of crimes, and one that is often abused. Also contrary to recent trends, he has reversed Obama-era policy by encouraging prosecutors to pursue the harshest sentences for low-level drug offenses. Even if Sessions doesn’t last long in his job, those handed long prison terms will still be behind bars.
Although the Justice Department had staunchly opposed a Texas voting law that has repeatedly been smacked down by courts as discriminatory, Sessions switched the department’s position, and it has now told courts the law ought to be allowed to remain. The attorney general has also sought to cut off funding to so-called sanctuary cities, though his legal authority to do so is disputed.
Curiously, since he campaigned as an atypically LGBT-friendly Republican, Trump has also made a range of changes on gay issues. Last week alone, the Justice Department announced that sexual orientation was not covered by Section VII, and the president said that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the military. The administration has also rejected Obama-era protections for transgender students.
Trump continues to boast about the economy, and in particular the booming stock market and a sinking unemployment rate, though both are the continuation of trends that started years ago, and presidents tend to have limited control over both. The administration has sought to loosen business regulations in several respects, however, attempting to peel back parts of the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law and undermine the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.
These less heralded, less noticed, and sometimes obscure changes to federal policy are more fragile than major legislation; just notice how many of them involve reversing Obama-era decisions that were implemented solely through the executive branch. But their effects are no less real, and in many cases they’re drastic.
There is some irony to Trump’s greatest victories coming through the executive branch, and it in turn reveals just how far the president’s efforts have fallen short of his ambitions so far. The White House bragged in July that it had withdrawn regulations and delayed another 391. But numbers like that are only mildly illuminating in aggregate, and when chief strategist Steve Bannon vowed to bring the “destruction of the administrative state,” this kind of bean-counting and bureaucratic tinkering around the edges can hardly be what he had in mind.