The High-Water Mark of the Trump Presidency

The last eight months have been the most productive of this administration. Unfortunately for the president, there may be nowhere to go but down.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The good news for Donald Trump is that the period from December through early July has been the most productive stretch of his presidency so far. The bad news for Trump is it seems likely to end up as the peak of productivity for his presidency.

From the passage of a package of tax cuts, to his summit with Kim Jong Un, to a second vacancy on the Supreme Court, the president has collected a series of big-ticket triumphs as well as some smaller ones. But many of these wins are either fragile or potentially pyrrhic. Trump’s agenda is increasingly thin on new ideas. And with Democrats likely to gain ground in Congress in November, it will not get easier for him going forward.

The chaotic, often-overwhelming nature of the Trump presidency, the ever-expanding list of scandals plaguing him, and the frequent incompetence of administration efforts mean that the real contours of what Trump has done in office are sometimes obscured. It doesn’t help that Trump often claims to have done things that he didn’t. But it’s important to keep a clear tally to understand what is happening, whether one supports or opposes Trump, or is indifferent. Every few months, I’ve tried to step back and take inventory.

Just as it has been in past tallies, Trump’s impact on the Supreme Court seems to be his most lasting constructive achievement. But whereas before Trump had placed one justice on the Court, Anthony Kennedy’s retirement has given the president a second slot to fill, and in Brett Kavanaugh he has a nominee likely to win confirmation. Trump could have two appointees on the Supreme Court by the midterm elections. It’s a notable example of a promise kept. During the presidential election, Trump wielded the power to nominate as a weapon to keep conservatives from defecting from his campaign. While some social conservatives have grumbled about the nomination of Kavanaugh over other contenders, Trump has kept to his pledge to nominate conservative judges, despite no demonstrable interest in conservative jurisprudence before his entry into politics.

The president is already seeing payoffs. After a series of defeats in lower courts, the White House was dealt a win in late June by the Supreme Court, which deemed Trump’s travel ban constitutional. (Justice Neil Gorsuch, whom Trump nominated early in his term after Republicans successfully blocked Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, joined the majority.) Trump also continues to name a large number of nominees for lower federal judgeships. In fact, Trump has nominated more judges in 2018 than he did in 2017.

Another major moment in the last few months was Trump’s June summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, in Singapore. Although experts worried that the president simply handed Pyongyang a major propaganda victory by granting Kim a glitzy meeting of equals, Trump also loved the spectacle and the breathless American news coverage that attended the meeting. He has since claimed victory, saying he has ended the threat of North Korean nuclear proliferation.

Shortly before Christmas, Trump signed into law sweeping new tax cuts. The reductions are not, as he is fond of claiming, the largest in history, but the bill represents Trump’s greatest legislative achievement to date. The legislation moved over the doubts of analysts who doubted that Congress could produce a slate of tax cuts on the abbreviated timeline the president demanded, and it came after a series of notable legislative failures, especially to repeal Obamacare.

Coinciding with the tax cuts has been a streak of positive economic news. The economy is consistently adding jobs every month, the unemployment rate is down, wages are rising (slowly), and the Dow, while below its peak earlier this year, remains strong.

As for Obamacare, Trump has managed to find ways to pick at and undermine the law even without managing to repeal. On July 7, the administration quietly stopped payments intended to balance out risk among insurers. That is likely to jack up premiums, making health insurance less alluring to citizens—and with the individual mandate to hold insurance also repealed, there’s less motivation to buy a policy.

This summer has also seen Trump bring his long-desired goal of imposing steep tariffs on U.S. trading partners come to fruition. The president, who says trade wars are easy to win, has levied tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the European Union. Tariffs on China have produced an escalating spiral of countermeasures. Some of Trump’s advisers are wary of the protectionism, but he revels in it.

In all, this adds up to Trump’s most effective string of turning his ideas into reality of any stretch of the administration, including the flurry of executive actions he undertook at the start of his presidency. That has coincided with a time of relative quiet for new revelations about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia, with fewer huge stories emerging from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

The problem with high-water marks is that they are followed by receding waters. There’s no clear path for Trump to build on what he has accomplished over the last few months, and many of the biggest successes seem likely to crumble or to carry within themselves the potential to undermine the president’s political standing.

For example, Trump will benefit from a more conservative Court for as long as he is president, but otherwise the political benefits for him are only likely to shrink. His standing with social conservatives has nowhere to go but down—and as the fiasco over separating immigrant children from their parents at the border demonstrates, even figures such as Franklin Graham are willing to break with Trump on some things. And although the court was a useful motivation for conservatives in 2016, they may lose interest, having secured a conservative majority. Early polling on the current vacancy shows Democrats are far more engaged on the issue than Republicans.

As for North Korea, the summit itself seems likely to be the peak of the diplomatic overtures, rather than the beginning. The document that Trump signed with Kim is vague unto meaninglessness, and it’s already becoming clear that North Korea doesn’t accept the American definition of denuclearization. The United States has no clear timetable for denuclearization, and there’s no detail about how it would be verified. A follow-up visit to North Korea by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week was a disaster. Each day, it seems more and more likely that North Korea has pulled the same bait and switch that it pulled on previous American presidents—but with the added victory of the Singapore summit.

The tax bill was meant to be the Republican Party’s big advantage headed into the midterm elections—a move that would please the GOP base and win over independents by putting extra cash in their pockets. But from the start, there were troubles. Most Americans either didn’t know or refused to acknowledge that they were going to receive a tax break. Republican candidates in special elections have found that the tax bill is no help at best, and a net disadvantage at worst. Many GOP candidates have stopped talking about it altogether. A predicted boom in corporate spending on wages hasn’t materialized, meaning there’s less economic boost. Meanwhile, whatever economic gains have accrued from the cuts could be wiped out by blowback from the trade wars that Trump has been eager to ignite.

The slow bleeding of the Affordable Care Act is of dubious political value, too. Trump and Republicans can’t claim they repealed the law altogether (though the president has tried). In any case, repeal is popular with Republican voters but deeply unpopular overall, and Democrats have found success by campaigning against GOP moves on health care. They are planning to do more of that ahead of the November elections. Trump also can’t plausibly blame Obama for the increasing costs of health care anymore.

Mueller’s investigation has indeed been quiet compared to the earlier months, and as the country moves closer to elections, he’s likely to keep a lid on anything newsworthy—avoiding the mistake for which the Justice Department’s inspector general filleted Mueller’s protégé James Comey, the former director of the FBI. Yet his conclusions are still likely to be explosive when they eventually emerge.

Strangely, Trump looks a lot like a second-term president. It is telling that his greatest accomplishments over this period come from appointments and foreign affairs—areas where presidents in the twilights of their tenures tend to focus, because they offer the prospects of achievements that don’t require the cooperation of Congress. It’s not just that Trump has had little legislative success and will have even more trouble if Democrats retake the House or Senate; it’s that he has practically no remaining legislative agenda to pursue, and few ideological precommitments that would shape an effort to produce a new agenda. (Stricter immigration laws, including limits on legal immigration, have some support within the GOP, but might still be a tough sell.) Like many second-term presidents, Trump’s approval rating is low, having peaked briefly after the North Korea summit, only to sink again after border separations. He’s increasingly abandoned even by supposed lifers such as his longtime personal counsel and fixer Michael Cohen.

Just because Trump resembles a lame-duck second-term president doesn’t mean he can’t be reelected. Given the lack of a clear Democratic candidate, the positive economic indicators, and the advantage of incumbency, Trump might even be the favorite in 2020. The question is what he can hope to get done in the remainder of his time in office, whether that’s two and a half years or six and a half years.