The Unraveling of the Trump Era

The Trump administration desperately wanted to cut government benefits, and it had outside help to do so. But very few of its new rules held up.

A frowning bag of groceries gives a thumbs up
Science Photo Library / Al Drago / Getty ; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

As president, Donald Trump wasn’t known for his mastery of the federal regulatory process. The “Muslim ban” is perhaps the most famous example of a Trump policy that was enacted hastily, challenged repeatedly, and ultimately undone by his successor; others, like his attempted changes to the census, methane emissions, and payday lending, fell flat for similar reasons.

Trump’s failures to permanently change government policy were remarkably diverse. Even when his administration pursued classically Republican agenda items, such as cutting food stamps, and had lots of outside help from conservative advocacy groups, it ran into trouble. For a time, the Trump administration did significantly change the way food stamps worked. But in that realm, too, few of Trump’s changes stuck: Some were struck down by courts, and others were reversed by the Biden administration.

The Trump administration seems to have fundamentally underestimated the difficulty of changing U.S. government policy: As of April, out of the 259 regulations, guidance documents, and agency memoranda it issued that were challenged in court, 200, or 77 percent, were unsuccessful, according to a tracker from the Institute for Policy Integrity, a think tank at New York University that researches regulatory policy. A typical administration loses more like 30 percent of the time, the group says. (Though it is nonpartisan, the institute submitted critical comments and briefs on the Trump Department of Agriculture’s rules.)

Part of the reason so many of Trump’s changes were short-lived is simply that he was a one-term president. It’s easier for your successor to reverse your policies if they have only a few years to set in. But that doesn’t explain the huge number of times his regulations were struck down by courts. Trump’s team fell short because it often made mistakes in the nitty-gritty work of rule-making, experts told me. That might come as a relief to Democrats, but it’s actually a warning: All it will take is someone with the same priorities as Trump, but better discipline, to reshape the way the government works.

The food-stamp saga highlights Trump’s rule-making foibles. The Department of Agriculture controls the food-stamp program, otherwise known as SNAP, which provides free food to 38 million mostly poor Americans. Almost as soon as Trump was elected, the department, led by former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, set about tightening eligibility for the program.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, I received emails that showed how Trump administration officials worked with conservative groups to reform SNAP. Perdue had help from an organization called the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based think tank that, broadly, wants Americans to get off government benefits and get back to work. On his biography page on FGA’s website, the founder Tarren Bragdon writes that he wants “more Americans to experience the freedom that work brings.”

Bragdon has long wanted to “ensure that people don’t remain in poverty, that they get back to work and on the path to the American dream,” he told me. Trump’s election presented the perfect opportunity to pursue those goals, and luckily, Trump’s USDA seemed extremely open to his group’s suggestions. Throughout the Trump years, FGA sent the agency research that advocated for tightening limits on food stamps and encouraging work requirements. Brandon Lipps, a former Republican congressional staffer Trump had picked as the acting head of the Food and Nutrition Service, had several meetings with FGA to discuss work requirements. Agency staff outlined FGA memos for their bosses. Robin Walker, FGA’s director of federal affairs, emailed Lipps and his colleagues in Washington, asking to drop off a document “for your review.”

Administration officials seemed to understand themselves to be working hand-in-glove with the outside group. In December 2017, Kailee Tkacz, one of the department’s policy advisers, sent USDA ​​Chief of Staff Heidi Green an email calling FGA “one of our conservative allies” and letting Green know that FGA had sent out a “complementary press release” about the agency’s approval of a waiver in Arizona, apparently one limiting the number of replacement food-stamp cards for recipients. In 2018, when Walker emailed another positive FGA press release to Lipps and Tkacz, Tkacz wrote back, “Thanks Robin and team we always appreciate the support from you!” Lipps wrote to Walker that an FGA op-ed had been “well written,” and later requested a meeting “to get briefed on what you are sharing with the Hill.”

All sorts of outside groups pressure bureaucrats to make rules friendlier to their interests, of course. Lipps told me that he’d had an open-door policy, and that he’d met with lots of different organizations, including more left-leaning ones, such as Feeding America. He took some suggestions from these groups, he said, and he ignored others.

But to some, FGA’s involvement was a sign of trouble. The Trump administration “simply didn’t have the type of personnel that knew how government works,” says Amit Narang, an expert on federal regulatory process at the consumer-rights organization Public Citizen. “It just felt like ideologues. These people came in, and they’re just like, ‘Who does the policy in this space?’ and they went straight for the most radical think tanks.”

FGA got much of what it wanted—at least initially. In 2019, the USDA proposed tightening eligibility rules that had made it easier for slightly less poor Americans to qualify for food stamps. Later that year, the agency issued a rule that would have limited the circumstances under which adults without children could qualify for more than three months of food stamps in three years. After the pandemic began, the Trump administration decided that if a person was already receiving the maximum SNAP benefit, he or she was not eligible for additional emergency benefits. All the proposals pointed in the same general direction: Cut the number of people on food stamps in hopes of getting them back into the workforce and saving the government money.

But few of these changes lasted. In October 2020, a judge struck down the rule that would have kicked an estimated 700,000 able-bodied adults without dependents off the program. “The agency has been icily silent about how many [recipients] would have been denied SNAP benefits had the changes sought in the Final Rule been in effect while the pandemic rapidly spread across the country,” Judge Beryl A. Howell wrote in a scathing opinion.

This past spring, the Biden administration withdrew the eligibility-rules proposal, which could have removed 3 million people from the program, and settled a lawsuit about the emergency benefits, essentially allowing people to access the funds. (Lipps noted that other rules his team wrote held up.) A few months after Joe Biden took office, he increased food-stamp benefits for 25 million people.

Trump’s agencies wrote fewer rules than past administrations, including other Republican ones, says Susan Yackee, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin who focuses on rule-making. Although many controversial regulations wind up in court, agencies typically win those cases, she told me. Here, too, the Trump administration was an outlier: It lost a lot.

The rule process is specific, technical, and tedious, which did not exactly fit Trump’s style. Some experts say Trump’s agencies wrote their rules carelessly, failing to provide good explanations for what they were doing. “​​You do have to explain why you’re making the change you’re making and give some good reasons for it. And you have to respond to criticism from the public,” Jack Lienke, the regulatory-policy director of the Institute for Policy Integrity, told me. “And the Trump administration often didn’t do that.” At this, Lienke let out a little laugh, as though amazed anyone could be so foolish as to not follow proper regulatory procedure.

The Trump administration did not like to acknowledge the negative consequences of its decisions, Lienke said. For example, its eligibility-rules proposal didn’t include a discussion of the regulation’s impact on free school lunches, according to a letter to Secretary Perdue from Representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia. Other agencies had a tendency to leave unfavorable data out of their proposals, shielding the public from their true impact.

The USDA didn’t cite many benefits to removing people from the food-stamp program. “They would say, ‘Well, the government will save this many millions of dollars,’” Lienke said. “But that can’t be the reason for the policy change, because the best way to save the government money would be to just stop providing SNAP benefits at all.”

Lipps disagrees with Lienke’s critique. The Trump-era rules, he noted, were written by career staff, he said—lifelong bureaucrats, not political appointees. They were well thought out and well drafted. Cutting food-stamp waste is important, he said, because it bolsters Americans’ confidence in the program. A millionaire has reportedly collected food stamps. That’s the kind of thing that “makes so many Americans say that program’s just full of waste, fraud, and abuse,” he said.

As is typical for political appointees, Lipps and Tkacz resigned when Biden was elected. Lipps now runs his own consulting firm, and Tkacz became president of the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils, “advocating on behalf of refiners who produce 95 percent of domestic edible fats and oils.” (She did not return requests for comment.)

Bragdon, too, is taking a break from the D.C. bureaucracy. “We were happy with what we were able to accomplish during Trump and not surprised that the Biden administration moved in another direction,” Bragdon told me. He said he hasn’t worked as much with the Biden USDA as he had with Trump’s. “It doesn’t seem like, based on their policy priorities, they’re very interested.” Like many conservative groups, FGA is now pivoting to the states, trying to find governors who might be more receptive to its ideas.

To Democrats, this all might look as though the system worked. Trump tried to do something and courts stepped in, thwarting him. But this might not be the last attempt to slash the number of Americans on government benefits. “The Republican Party seems to be in the thrall of President Trump right now,” says Jeffrey S. Lubbers, an administrative-law professor at American University. “If the Republicans win in 2024, I would think the nominee is going to be somebody who would want to start trying to put back in place some of the Trump things that have gotten struck down during the Biden administration.” Liberal lovers of regulatory procedure might find themselves torn: unsure whether to hope that the next Republican president will be someone who is good at rule-making or blessedly bad at it.