The Great Undoer

Donald Trump’s biggest political wins have come in dismantling existing policies, but constructive and proactive steps have eluded him.

Donald Trump in Chicago in 2004, as demolition of the old Chicago Sun-Times building begins.
Donald Trump in Chicago in 2004, as demolition of the old Chicago Sun-Times building begins. (Jeff Roberson / AP)

Last week was a banner week for Donald Trump—after the first week of his presidency, perhaps the most productive, at least in terms of raw political accomplishments.

The two big headlines, pulling the plug on subsidies in Obamacare insurance markets and tossing the Iran nuclear deal to Congress, are both highly fraught. Yet with these two decisions, President Trump has brought himself closer to following through on major campaign promises than nearly anything else he has done as president.

There are two notable things about the moves. First, they are both incomplete. President Trump has neither repealed and replaced Obamacare, nor has he shredded the Iran deal. Second, they have real potential downsides. Ending the Obamacare subsidies could end with millions of people losing their health insurance, a disaster both moral and, potentially, political. And decertifying the Iran deal could allow it to build nuclear weapons, and undermine American credibility in the Middle East and beyond for decades to come. Taken together, though, they show how Trump’s accomplishments at this stage in his presidency are almost entirely destructive, rather than constructive. Trump made his reputation as a builder, but he’s made demolition his mode in the White House.

Trump has not yet found a way to get Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Several attempts by lawmakers came to naught—and although it’s still possible that leaders in the House and Senate could try to revive repeal, neither leaders nor rank and file seemed eager to fight another bruising internecine fight, and the repeal effort only went as long as it did because Trump almost single-handedly willed it to do so. Part of the problem is that the Republican Party is deeply divided over the aims of a replacement, and so is the president. His statements about what he wants out of a new system are self-contradictory and frequently change.

While Trump has not yet found a way to fix the health-care system, he has found a way to further break it—and to get political credit for doing so. As my colleague Olga Khazan explains, the revocation of the subsidies could destroy the entire market for private insurance, which is just what Trump would like credit for.

“You saw what we did yesterday with respect to health care,” he said Friday at the Values Voter Summit. “It's step by step by step. And that was a very big step yesterday. Another big step was taken the day before yesterday. And one by one it's going to come down, and we're going to have great health care in our country.… We're taking a little different route than we had hoped, because getting Congress—they forgot what their pledges were. So we're going a little different route.”

As for that “great health care,” Trump is leaving it all up to Congress, trying to force it to come up with something. He still hasn’t put forth a coherent health plan of his own. It’s no wonder that GOP lawmakers are expressing unease about the subsidies’ demise. Between their own dysfunction and Trump’s disinterest, the prospects for avoiding market collapse seem dim.

The Iran deal fits a similar mold. Trump promised during the campaign to negotiate a better deal with Tehran, but since he entered office, reality has begun to pinch him. Neither Iran nor the American allies who are party to the deal are willing to reopen it. Trump seems to have preferred to simply walk away from the deal, though his aides convinced him instead to instead decertify it and, yet again, pass the buck to Congress.

That’s risky, as the president acknowledged during a Cabinet meeting on Monday. “I'm not going to blame myself,” he said of Congress. “I'll be honest. They’re not getting the job done.”

I have written previously that the chaos and disorder that characterize the Trump administration often eclipse his accomplishments, which will shape American society for decades. But nearly all of these things—with the notable exception of appointing Justice Neil Gorsuch and a handful of other federal judges—are cases where Trump has dismantled something, not built it. This is true of a slew of environmental regulations overseen by both the EPA and the Interior Department; financial-industry regulations; and the Paris climate accord, from which Trump has announced plans to withdraw the United States.

What these things share is that they are all doable by executive fiat, without the involvement of Congress. Trump doesn’t have to negotiate with leaders in Congress, try to strong-arm legislators (a task which he has approached with everything from indifference to incompetence), or wait for action. The judicial nominations are similar, in that although they require Senate consent, Trump has not faced any major battles over nominees thus far. (However, of 50 Trump nominees to courts, only seven have been confirmed so far.) The problem is that Trump has not found ways to use executive orders to achieve proactive measures. It is much easier for a liberal president to enact new things with executive orders, as Barack Obama did, than it is for Trump to achieve his goals through the same means. And when he has tried, as with his travel ban, he has often been slapped down by the courts.

Even when Congress is not a factor, however, the Trump administration appears to struggle to work constructively. On October 9, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced he would move to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era carbon-regulation rule. While the Trump administration, with its obsession with coal jobs, seems to lean toward scrapping the rule entirely, many figures in the energy industry actually favored not total elimination but a softer rule, because they fear courts will otherwise step in and require stricter rules. The EPA says it’s going to write a new rule, eventually, but no one seems to expect that to happen any time soon.

The political ramifications of Trump’s destructive approach are difficult to read. The funny thing about much-maligned campaign promises is that politicians usually intend to keep them, and usually succeed. If Trump continues to fail to actually get things done, will that hurt him?

One test case might be tax cuts. It’s the last, best chance for the Republican Party to achieve a major legislative victory, having struck out on health care and everything else so far. Senator Lindsey Graham said of reform on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, “If we don't, we're dead.” That may be true for the GOP in Congress, but it’s unclear if it applies to Trump. The president’s Gallup rating over the eventful last six weeks has bounced between 37 and 38 percent—miserable, but apparently in a stasis impervious to most outside forces.

Why has his support proven so resilient? For one thing, many Trump voters harbored ambivalence about him in the first place. They didn’t necessarily think he had the temperament to be president, exit polls showed; they thought he was not qualified. But their level of pessimism, and anger at the way the government was working, meant that they didn’t care—when Democrats warned that Trump would blow up the system, they nodded in agreement, and figured that was a good thing. Whether or not Trump is managing to fix health care or negotiate better deals, he’s destroying the status quo quite effectively. He’s helped out by slavish defenders like Newt Gingrich, who argues that anyone who takes issue with Trump is simply bitter: “Donald Trump really is draining the swamp, and the alligators are really unhappy.”

Trump also inoculates himself from any danger caused by his habit of tearing down and not rebuilding by not telling the truth about it. Michael Kruse nicely illustrated Trump’s habit of simply claiming he has achieved what he manifestly has not.

Trump can exaggerate his accomplishments, and he can shift some blame to Congress, and he can portray it all as swamp-draining, but at some point these tactics are likely to reach a limit, even if it’s impossible to guess quite when. The challenge is underscored by Trump’s signature campaign promise: He’ll have to build the wall, and some other things besides it, to succeed.