An Accidental President Charts a Purposeful Course

Donald Trump may be floundering on the Hill, but he’s having a profound impact on regulatory policy, the judiciary, and the Fed.

President Trump applauds Neil Gorsuch during a public swearing-in ceremony for the new Supreme Court justice in the Rose Garden in April.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Sept. 21, 2017, 8 p.m.

It’s a popular refrain that President Trump and his administration are ineffectual and unable to achieve their goals. If you measure by legislation passed, that’s pretty much on target. Given that their four biggest priorities were Obamacare repeal, a major tax-reform or tax-cut bill, a $1 trillion, five-year infrastructure program, and a border wall, it’s hard to argue. If someone told you back on Jan. 20 when Trump took office that he would be going into the latter part of September with an 0-4 record, and that the only really significant legislation enacted was based on a deal with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a “D” grade would have been generous. Since Washington tends to put relations with Congress and enactment of legislation above almost anything else, the president would have a seat in the dunce’s corner.

But if you widen the lens to other areas, it turns out that Trump and his administration have made, and are likely to continue to make, an enormous impact on public policy. You can agree or disagree with the substance of what the Trump administration has set out to do, just as you can like or dislike Trump himself, but it’s hard ignore the significance what is happening.

First look at policy and regulation. Trump dropped out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he wants changes in the Paris Climate Accord, and he’s renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. The vast majority of policy decisions are not made in the Oval Office but rather in the bowels of Cabinet departments, agencies, and commissions. The administration is beginning to dismantle President Obama’s regulatory framework, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that virtually every controversial Obama-era regulation and policy is in jeopardy.

Decisions on the environmental front came first, but we are likely to see significant policy challenges across the whole policy horizon. The changes likely to occur in decisions by the National Labor Relations Board alone are huge. Corporate executives who find Trump’s style objectionable are nonetheless pleased with his aggressive approach to regulations.

Second, look at the judiciary. If Trump doesn’t get a single additional nominee for the Supreme Court, he will have already made an enormous impact. If newly minted Justice Neil Gorsuch, age 50, stays on the Supreme Court until he’s the same age as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is today, he will have served 34 years.

Then consider the potential for more changes. The oldest current member of the Court is Ginsburg, one of the most liberal members, who is 84. The next oldest is the swing vote on many issues, Anthony Kennedy, 81. Next oldest is another liberal, Stephen Breyer, 79. You have to go back a decade to find the next two oldest justices, Clarence Thomas, 69, and Samuel Alito, 67. Both are conservatives, as is Chief Justice John Roberts, 62. If there’s another high-court vacancy and Trump appoints someone in the mold of Gorsuch, the Supreme Court could have a conservative majority for a decade or more. Throw in openings on 13 U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal and 94 U.S. District Courts, and it’s likely that Trump will have a profound effect on the federal judiciary.

A bit more esoteric but vitally important is the Federal Reserve Board, which oversees monetary policy. The seven-member Fed currently has three vacant seats, and a fourth will open up in October, when Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer steps down. Also consider that while Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s term as a Fed governor doesn’t expire until the end of January 2024, her term as chair runs out Feb. 3. Trump has not indicated whether he will renominate her or seek a replacement. At the very least, a majority of the Fed governors, as well as its chair and vice chair, will be Trump appointees.

A few weeks ago, I sat in on a speech in New York by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump backer. Gingrich made the point that if you consider what most of us would have assumed 18 months ago—namely, that Hillary Clinton would be elected president—the policies she would have pursued would have been staggeringly different.

“Elections have consequences” may be a worn-out cliché, but it has particular relevance to what happened in 2016. The irony is that so many Trump voters probably didn’t think he had a chance of winning but cast their ballots for him anyway. Many others were so turned off by Hillary Clinton and by the disclosure of Trump’s lewd Access Hollywood comments that they either stayed home or threw their votes to Green Party nominee Jill Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson. On top of all that, Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes out of 128.7 million cast. He may be an accidental president, but he’s changing the direction of the country.

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