If you think of Donald Trump’s presidency as a 48-minute NBA game, we’re only at the one-minute mark. So how come after just one tumultuous month of scandals, protests, unprecedented controversies and unfathomable tweets, it already feels like we’re heading into overtime?
It’s hard to believe it’s been just 31 days since Trump delivered his dystopian inaugural address promising to stop all the “American carnage.” He’s launched a full-court press on Washington ever since, shredding its norms, trashing his enemies, dominating the national narrative with a whirlwind of activity and incendiary rhetoric. He’s clashed with Mexico’s president, Australia’s prime minister, “so-called” judges, his Celebrity Apprentice successor, Democratic leaders, Nordstrom, and especially us jackals of the news media, “the enemy of the American people.” He’s fired acting attorney general Sally Yates, who refused to defend Trump’s executive order on refugees, and national security adviser Michael Flynn, who lied about his dealings with Russia. Trump himself has also told whoppers about the size of his inaugural crowd, which was nowhere near the largest ever; the U.S. murder rate, which is nowhere near a 45-year high; his Electoral College victory, which was nowhere near the largest since Ronald Reagan’s; the 3 million illegal voters who supposedly tried to prevent that victory, but do not exist; and the mass protests at the airports after his refugee order, which, come on, Mr. President, were definitely not caused by a Delta computer glitch.
Americans voted narrowly for change, and change has arrived bigly. The Republicans who now control Washington are on a mission to undo just about everything President Barack Obama did. And their leader is the polar opposite of No-Drama Obama, a volatile TV star who seems to combine the media flair of Meet the Kardashians with the management chops of The Office with the emotional maturity of BoJack Horseman. But this isn’t reality TV. This is reality. While the internet was freaking out over the non-existent Bowling Green Massacre and a White House statement about the Holocaust that neglected to mention Jews, the president has been making a flurry of announcements about immigration, health care, abortion, foreign policy, energy, trade and a new Supreme Court nominee. Still, in the words of NBA legend Bill Walton, never mistake activity for achievement. Most of Trump’s high-profile executive orders have resembled press releases written in legalese, signaling his desire to do big things without actually doing them. The most obvious exception is his far-reaching executive order on refugees, but the federal courts have put that one on hold. And so far, Trump has only signed two substantive pieces of legislation, both nullifying obscure Obama-era regulations that fossil-fuel industries found inconvenient. That counts as change, but by this point in his first term Obama had already passed one of the most expensive, expansive, and consequential pieces of economic and social legislation in decades, an $800 billion stimulus bill that would help end the Great Recession, launch a clean energy revolution, cut taxes for most workers, and much more.
Of course, Trump still has 47 more months to put his stamp on America and the world. He still could turn out to be a flamboyant-but-effective Hall of Famer like Dennis Rodman rather than a weird trash-talker with a limited game like Lance Stephenson. It’s just that there so many remarkable stories jumbling together and crowding each other out—was it really just two weeks ago that a Melania Trump lawsuit claimed a false news story had damaged her ability to cash in as first lady?—that it can be hard to keep track of what truly matters.
So here is the third installment of POLITICO’s Did-It-Matter-Meter, our ratings of TrumpWorld events according to the immediate substantive impact and the potential long-term importance. We tried to score every action Trump took in his first week, and Week Two was so wild we tried it again. This will be more of a overview, an effort to lay down preliminary markers until, as Trump said about his Muslim ban (which his aides denied was a ban even though he kept calling it a ban), “we can figure out what the hell is going on.” The basic theme is that Trump hasn’t really changed much policy yet, but there are constant signs of radical change to come.
The Russia House: The biggest story of Month One has been the Watergate-style questions about how much Trump and his team knew about Russia’s efforts to put him in office—and beyond that, why a president who has publicly insulted war heroes, civil rights heroes, GOP leaders and U.S. allies has always had such kind words for Vladimir Putin. The president dismissed the whole controversy as “fake news” at his rambling press conference last week, but the FBI is investigating, intelligence agencies (who perhaps recall that he has compared them to Nazis) are on the case, and even a few Republicans in Congress have called for an independent look at the Kremlin connection to the election and the administration. To return to the NBA analogy, this is the kind of foul the refs could conceivably call an ejection-worthy Flagrant Two, although it’s not clear they’ll even review the video.
This mess has already led to the ouster of retired Lt. Gen. Flynn, who called the Russian ambassador the day Obama announced sanctions over the electoral interference, then falsely denied they had discussed those sanctions. There have also been reports that several of Trump’s operatives were in touch with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign (which the White House, for what it’s worth, is denying). And there are still all kinds of lingering questions—whether the Trump campaign had anything to do with Russian hacking; whether Trump’s unreleased tax returns would reveal anything about his ties to Russia; why FBI director James Comey made such a public fuss about Hillary Clinton’s emails while keeping his agency’s Trump investigation secret; and the classic scandal query of who knew what when. It’s hard to deny that Trump often acts strangely when the topic is Russia, like his public invitation to “Russia, if you’re listening” to hack Clinton’s emails at a campaign press conference, or his “no puppet, you’re a puppet” spluttering during one of the debates.
So far, Trump has kept Obama’s Russia sanctions in place, so there hasn’t been a direct foreign policy impact, and the scandal has not yet had the paralyzing effect on Washington of Watergate, Iran-Contra or the Monica Lewinsky fiasco. But U.S. allies in Europe are deeply worried about Trump’s soft spot for Moscow. And the firing of Flynn, a potential loose cannon on an otherwise surprisingly conventional foreign policy team, could be a deeply consequential shakeup for the world.
Hiring the Best People: Flynn’s 24-day stint in the White House was only the most prominent example of the staffing problems that have plagued Trump’s first month. Trump’s supporters hoped he would run the government like a business, but at times it has felt like his human resources department needs a bailout.
His first choice to replace Flynn, retired vice admiral Robert Harward, turned down the job, which is not something prospective national security advisers usually do. His nominee for labor secretary, fast-food executive Andy Puzder, withdrew after revelations of an undocumented nanny and domestic violence allegations. His nominee for Army secretary dropped out as well. And other controversial Trump nominees barely squeaked into office. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price got only 52 votes in the Senate, budget director Mick Mulvaney just 51, and Vice President Mike Pence had to break a tie to make Betsy DeVos secretary of education after the Senate deadlocked 50-50 on her confirmation. Trump is lagging well behind the pace of his predecessors in staffing not only his Cabinet but his entire government; the Partnership for Public Service says he has only nominated candidates for 34 of the 539 key jobs requiring confirmation.
Then again, the struggles of Price, Mulvaney and DeVos to get confirmed are less significant than the fact that Senate Republicans confirmed all three of them despite unanimous opposition from Democrats and the kind of baggage (Price’s dubious stock trades, Mulvaney’s failure to pay taxes for a nanny, DeVos’s train wreck of a hearing) that have sunk nominees in the past. It’s also significant that Price, Mulvaney and DeVos—along with EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who managed to get two Democratic votes, and attorney general Jeff Sessions, who got one—are all conservative ideologues who will presumably seek dramatic rightward shifts on health, budget, education, climate and criminal justice policies. Similarly, Trump’s most important pick so far has been Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, a highly respected jurist with deeply conservative legal views that could tilt American jurisprudence to the right for decades to come. Democrats aren’t going to want him on the Court, but what they want isn’t going to matter much.
By the same token, it’s significant that Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who were easily confirmed, are widely viewed as responsible former generals who might be able to rein in TrumpWorld’s less restrained elements. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also seen as a grownup who understands global diplomacy, even though his tenure as ExxonMobil’s CEO remains controversial. It matters for the moment that Trump is struggling to staff the executive branch, but eventually, all those empty slots will get filled. It matters more what kind of people Trump is picking to fill them. And it may matter even more that most Republicans seem willing to approve whatever people Trump asks them to approve, because congressional Republicans have a great deal of power to rein in Trump if they want to. So far, most of them don’t seem to want to.
Many liberals watching the chaos in the White House are predicting Trump’s eventual impeachment, but that can’t happen without a lot of votes from Republicans who currently seem perfectly content to back their party leader, who is still polling well among the GOP base.
Oversight Oversights: A few Republicans have expressed concern about the White House and the Russians, but a lot more Republicans—including Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House oversight committee, and Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House intelligence committee—have expressed more interest in investigating leaks to the press about the White House and the Russians. With a zeal that would make Captain Queeg blush strawberry-red, Chaffetz is still investigating Clinton’s emails, but his recent list of the 43 issues his committee plans to tackle included nothing about potential conflicts between Trump’s public duties and his continuing business interests. In fact, when Office of Government Ethics director Walter Shaub publicly questioned Trump’s conflicts, Chaffetz threatened to investigate Shaub for speaking out rather than the subject he was speaking about.
Beyond the hypocrisy of Republicans suddenly losing their ardent passion for investigating the executive branch once their party controlled it, their see-no-evil approach should give Trump the chance to run his government as he sees fit without having to worry about embarrassing investigations or confrontational hearings. That could have a huge impact on the direction of the Trump administration—and, of course, the Trump Organization.
The first lady’s legal point that the White House is a huge money-making opportunity, while spectacularly inappropriate, happened to be true. The Trump family is now uniquely positioned to monetize public service, and the signs of blurred lines are everywhere. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort has doubled the fee for membership that now includes opportunities to hobnob with the commander-in-chief. Trump’s Washington hotel is quickly becoming the go-to location for foreign diplomats to stay and spend money. Trump angrily attacked Nordstrom when it dropped his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line, an unsubtle warning to other companies doing business with the Trumps that backing off could prompt a salvo from the White House. For a decade, Trump has sought to trademark his name in China; last week, after he broke a promise to label China a currency manipulator and agreed to recognize the One China policy, his application was finally approved. A coincidence, no doubt.
This kind of thing would be less noteworthy if Trump had agreed to sell his companies or place his assets in a blind trust. Instead, he retained his ownership stake and put his sons in charge of his companies. It has been jarring to see them (and their taxpayer-funded Secret Service detail!) at the opening of a new Trump golf resort in Dubai, or schmoozing with Republican leaders at the White House. But the president and his family have made it clear that they don’t intend to worry too much about appearances, and GOP investigators have made it clear they don’t mind.
Not Much of a Passing Game: In Obama’s first month in office, he and the Democratic Congress enacted a children’s health insurance bill extending coverage to millions of kids, an anti-discrimination bill making it easier for women to sue for equal pay, and the groundbreaking stimulus. Trump and the Republican Congress have enacted just two laws affecting policy so far: one overturning an arcane anti-corruption rule from the Obama era that forced oil companies to disclose payments to foreign governments, the other killing another Obama regulation that prevented mining companies from burying streams. Their donors from the oil and coal industries will be pleased, but those moves won’t alter the trajectory of the country. It’s too early to judge how long this inactivity will last. But it’s not too early to speculate that Republicans might find it harder than they thought to wipe out the Obama legacy through legislation. During the campaign, Trump talked about repealing Obamacare on Day One, but he hasn’t put out a plan yet, and Republicans on the Hill haven’t agreed on an approach. You also hear a lot of talk in Washington about passing tax reform, an infrastructure bill and a rollback of Obama’s financial reforms—but again, there’s no evidence of progress, and the legislative clock is ticking. And it’s not clear how passionately Trump will try to herd 535 congressional cats around legislation, or whether he’ll prefer other mechanisms for getting things done.
Less Law Than Order: So far, Trump’s preferred mechanism for making a splash has been executive orders, which seem more in tune with his “I alone can fix it” mentality. To go back to the NBA, he’s a showy shoot-first point guard at heart, not a facilitator.
Trump has signed a slew of high-profile orders signaling his intention to dismantle Obama’s health care and Wall Street reforms, build his famous border wall, roll back regulations and beef up the military. But he had already signaled his intention to do all those things, and the orders do not make any of them happen. They’re mostly campaign-style rhetoric sprinkled with “hereby,” “pursuant” and other legal jargon. One order that was hyped as action on reducing crime merely announced Washington’s latest task force on reducing crime. At the start of his second week, Trump signed an order directing his national security team to devise a plan to defeat ISIS, which raised the question of why he didn’t order it in his first week—or why his team didn’t start ginning up a plan after his election.
A few of Trump’s orders did formalize significant policy moves that everyone knew were coming—withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, undoing Obama’s rejection of the Keystone pipeline and delaying an Obama rule cracking down on unscrupulous investment advisers. He also reinstated the “global gag rule” barring overseas funding to groups that provide abortions, just like George W. Bush did, except that Trump’s rule applied to all global health funding rather than just family planning funds, which could reshape foreign aid. Trump’s initial orders on immigration also packed more symbolism than impact—he needs funding from Congress to build the wall—but the symbolism was important in its own right. Trump officially labeled undocumented immigrants as “a significant threat to national security and public safety,” ordering the Department Homeland Security to provide a weekly list of their crimes and creating a new government office to attend to their victims. Trump made it clear he considers them dangerous enemies of the state.
The president’s refugee ban took that fear even further, blocking all citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries and all refugees from around the world from entering the U.S. It was his most significant policy move yet, but a district court judge issued a stay that was upheld by an appeals court, so the White House is now racing to rewrite it in a less sloppy way that doesn’t sweep up green card holders. Whatever happens in court, Trump has sent a clear message to the world that America will no longer be a sanctuary for its huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Fighting the Power: There’s no point sugar-coating Trump’s autocratic style. His bombastic efforts to delegitimize independent sources of authority that challenge him—journalists, judges, protesters, leakers, Democrats, the very concept of objective facts that he doesn’t get to certify as true—are hallmarks of strongmen trying to consolidate power. But so far, there’s no evidence that Trump has done anything or even tried to do anything beyond the legal limits of his authority. On the other hand, from the historic Women’s March the day after his inauguration to the court orders on refugees to the media reporting on Russia, there is already strong evidence that America’s countervailing forces to unchecked presidential power are mobilizing for a fight. The obvious exceptions are House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and their GOP conferences in Congress, who do not seem too keen on checking or balancing. But there have even been signs from a few Republicans like Justin Amash in the House and John McCain in the Senate that there are at least potential lines they won’t tolerate Trump crossing.
Trump rose to power by violating political norms and challenging governing institutions. His victory may have shattered some of those norms forever, but the next four years will test the resilience of those institutions. The judicial stay, the ousters of Flynn and Puzder, and the Russia bombshells from media outlets the White House calls “the opposition party” are all examples of institutions biting back.
The Fine-Tuned Machine: The chaotic process and inept drafting that spoiled the rollout of Trump’s refugee order was a reminder that incompetence could become another check on the power of this White House. Then again, the Republican convention and much of the Trump campaign was widely ridiculed as chaotic and inept; it all worked out pretty well for Trump. The future implications of the internal secrecy and power-jockeying around the refugee ban—Trump’s foreign policy team out of the loop, alt-right media impresario Steve Bannon taking the lead—might not be all that comforting for Trump’s critics, either.
Today, Bannon seems like the most powerful aide inside the White House, the driving force behind Trump’s hard-edged populist nationalism; he even engineered an executive order inviting himself to National Security Council meetings. He made the cover of TIME; Saturday Night Live has started portraying him as a Grim Reaper telling Trump what to do; the Twitterverse has dubbed him President Bannon. But there is also an establishment wing of the Trump administration, led by Vice President Pence, chief of staff Reince Priebus and other more traditional Republicans. They all know that someone else could be ascendant tomorrow—after all, Trump’s main claim to fame used to be that he liked to fire people.
So far, though, the main consequence of all these internal power struggles seems to be policy incoherence. On foreign affairs, Pence and Mattis have been on cleanup duty, assuring allies that Trump isn’t in Russia’s pocket and doesn’t want to abandon NATO. Trump didn’t even bring Tillerson to his meeting with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after which he declared that he doesn’t care whether there’s a one-state or two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley walked that one back, but it’s clear that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, not Tillerson, is running Middle East policy. The message has been just as muddled on issues like border taxes, what to do about Obamacare, the immigration status of Dreamers who came to the U.S. as children, the refugee ban that may or not have been a ban and much more. Administration officials keep litigating and relitigating this stuff through the press, and it’s hard to tell where any of it is heading.
The WTF Factor: The overall effect of the Trump presidency so far has been a constant invasion of America’s mental space, a never-ending viral-video barrage of He Said What? His recent press conference was a perfect example: Brazen lies about the economy and the size of his electoral victory, followed by an astonishing complaint that protesters defending Obamacare “are not the Republican people our representatives are representing,” followed by a bizarre argument that the leaks coming out of his White House about Russia are real but the news stories reporting those leaks are fake, after which he mentioned that he watches CNN even though it’s just anger and hatred, a statement he then amended by saying he doesn’t watch CNN at all anymore, which by the way is untrue. Trump also attacked a Jewish reporter who respectfully tried to ask him about the rise of anti-Semitic threats; asked a black reporter if she could set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus; and said that Flynn did nothing wrong but that he fired him anyway.
It’s exhausting. And there’s always some dude in your Facebook feed haranguing you to stop focusing on this one lie because it’s just a distraction from that other lie and you’re just doing what Trump wants you to do.
Really, all lies matter. What Trump is doing is not normal. Jeb Bush called him a chaos candidate, and he’ll be a chaos president. He will say flabbergasting things all the time, like his Black History Month tribute to Frederick Douglass as “somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more,” or his SEE YOU IN COURT tweet to the judges who just ruled against his refugee ban in, obviously, court. It’s probably wise to try not to let him elevate your blood pressure every time he attacks Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings at a prayer breakfast, uses Air Force One as a campaign prop, or plays golf even though he repeatedly attacked Obama for playing golf. The point of the Did-It-Matter-Meter is to try to separate words from deeds, the fleeting rhetoric from the major policy implications. But it’s a big deal to have a president routinely saying things that sound unhinged.
It’s still early in the game, though. (Is it really only August?) Trump is still assembling his team. His approval rating is sinking, but he’s defied the polls before, and he’s defied the experts who didn’t think his game was ready for the NBA. While the president publicly insists that everything is going swimmingly—“I’m not ranting and raving,” he declared, incorrectly, during his press conference—his aides are privately much more realistic about their rocky start. Their message seems to be: Trust the Process.
Of course, that was also the message of the Philadelphia 76ers, and they still suck. But even the Sixers can’t be counted out of a game at the one-minute mark.