IT’S NOT UNUSUAL for a new administration to have a rocky start. But after more than four months in office, the U.S, government of President Donald Trump still seems unable to find its footing. Is this just an inexperienced administration’s growing pains or is an increasingly chaotic presidency flirting with irrelevance?
This time it was Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and key adviser, who was accused of proposing a “private back channel” communications link between the incoming administration and the Kremlin. He denied the accusation.
Although the White House heralded Trump’s overseas trip as a resounding success, European Union leaders were more guarded. German Chancellor Angela Merkel summed up the European reaction to the trip when she remarked that, “The times when we could fully count on others are over to a certain extent. … Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.”
Trump used the occasion of his first NATO summit to again criticize its members, 23 out of 28, for failing to meet the agreed-upon target of two per cent of gross national product on defence spending. Significantly, he failed to reaffirm America’s commitment to the Article 5 mutual defence clause of NATO. That drew sharp criticism and spurred Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis to quickly and publicly reaffirm Washington’s commitment to NATO’s mutual defence provision.
The Trump administration came to Washington with an ambitious legislative agenda. But so far, it has largely failed to present concrete legislative programs
On his return, the administration announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate accord. The decision brought new rounds of criticism from European leaders and domestic opponents of the president. The administration also announced it would soon unveil a plan for shifting infrastructure spending to cities and states in collaboration with private industry, and that it intended to overhaul the country’s air traffic control system by spinning it off into a private, not-for-profit corporation.
Meanwhile, the administration’s legislative agenda seems either stymied or in limbo, awaiting further details. The repeal of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obama Care, seems unable to move forward, with key Senate leaders announcing that it was unlikely that the Senate will vote on the House bill repealing it before 2018. Two other key administration legislative priorities, tax reform and a massive infrastructure program, await more specifics from the White House.
In the meantime, hundreds of presidential appointments remain unfilled. Those open positions are in addition to hundreds of positions that remain vacant in cabinet departments. The State Department alone has hundreds of positions that would normally have been filled by now by an incoming administration. Ditto for the Department of Defence and other key government agencies.
From a practical standpoint, these positions are not empty, they simply continue to be filled on a “temporary” basis by holdovers from the Obama administration. These officials have little allegiance to the Trump administration or its agenda and are widely blamed for the never-ending leaks that have bedevilled the Trump White House.
To a large extent, the future of the administration will hinge on its ability to present a legislative program that Republican majorities in the House and Senate can pass. The White House can roll back many of the executive orders issued by former president Barack Obama, although many of these orders will be subject to legal challenges that will take a while to resolve. Even then, such rollbacks will fall far short of the promises that candidate Trump made. Moreover, they risk portraying his administration’s agenda as little more than an anti-Obama program.
Presidents have a lot more leeway when it comes to foreign policy. But here too their power is constrained both by the realities of the national interest and by the complexity of the many ties that bind the U.S. to other countries. Trump can pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord, he can criticize NATO and pointedly refuse to reaffirm the Article 5 provisions of NATO, and he can criticize other countries, including Canada and Mexico, for unfair trade practices. But from a practical standpoint, he can’t very easily disengage the U.S. from its worldwide commitments or treaty obligations.
Indeed, notwithstanding the campaign rhetoric that Syria was a problem for the Syrians to resolve or that the U.S. needed to pull out of Afghanistan, the Trump administration quickly found itself reversing course and increasing U.S. troop levels and military activity in both countries. Republicans in the Senate have expressed their concerns about Trump’s America First-inspired foreign policies and some, like Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, have emerged as staunch critics of such policies.
It’s on the domestic front that presidents typically can make lasting impacts. The Trump administration came to Washington with an ambitious legislative agenda to promote American trade, create millions of new jobs through a major infrastructure rebuilding program, and to roll back tax rates and what it characterized as excessive government regulation beginning with Obama Care.
So far, it has largely failed to present concrete legislative programs to Congress to implement this agenda. In the meantime, the administration has often found itself criticizing congressional Republicans for failing to defend the White House’s missteps or to get behind its legislative goals.
The administration needs to forge a consensus with Congress to define a legislative program that the Republican leadership can get passed. Doing so will force it to abandon much of the America First policies and rhetoric that characterized the campaign and the administration’s first four months in Washington.
The Trump White House has been ambivalent about doing so. It has maintained the rhetoric even as it has quietly shelved plans to build a wall along the Mexican border or pull out of NAFTA. That ambivalence is in large part because the White House is divided between moderate and radical wings.
The risk is not just legislative inertia but the danger that congressional Republicans will pay the price for the Trump administration’s missteps and lose their majorities in either or both the House and Senate. Such an outcome would largely doom any hope of the administration getting even a watered-down version of its legislative agenda passed by Congress.
In that case, a chaotic administration will likely become largely irrelevant.
Joseph Micallef is an historian, best-selling author and commentator on world politics.
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