What Trump Has Quietly Accomplished
The actual government, the administration of Donald Trump, is coming off the worst week of his presidency, although there haven’t been any smooth weeks. Trump’s top legislative priority, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, seems dead for the moment. (Tax reform? Forget it.) His administration has set a new standard for chaos and dysfunction, rolling through staffers the way other administrations run through, well, legislative initiatives. Trump’s foreign policy remains inchoate and ineffective. Meanwhile, a special counsel investigation looms over the entire administration, threatening both its legitimacy and legal jeopardy for some of its members.
Things are going considerably better for the shadow government. With the Trump administration’s chaos sucking up all the attention, it’s been able to move forward on a range of its priorities, which tend to be more focused on regulatory matters anyway. It is remaking the justice system, rewriting environmental rules, overhauling public-lands administration, and greenlighting major infrastructure projects. It is appointing figures who will guarantee the triumph of its ideological vision for decades to come.
The trick here is that the administration and this shadow government are one and the same. Even as the public government sputters, other elements of the Trump administration are quietly remaking the nation’s regulatory landscape, especially on the environment and criminal justice.
Trump’s complaints that the press is ignoring his victories in favor of covering controversies ring hollow. You can’t very well go around setting things on fire and then asking why the press keeps covering the fires. But warnings that the Trump administration is doing X to distract from Y seem misguided for a couple of reasons—one being that they ascribe a greater organization that the White House evinces in any other sphere, and another being that the supposedly distracting stories are often just as catastrophic. But the large-scale disasters do keep attention focused away from what smaller agencies are doing, as Ben Carson acknowledged recently.
“Let me put it this way,” the secretary of housing and urban development told the Washington Examiner. “I’m glad that Trump is drawing all the fire so I can get stuff done.”
Meanwhile, Trump continues to make preposterous claims. His assertion, at the six-month mark of his presidency last month, that he’d signed more bills than any other president over that stretch earned a snarky rejoinder even from The New York Times. But that is small consolation for progressive environmentalists, public-lands advocates, LGBT activists, and criminal-justice reformers. The list of accomplishments fall short of what Trump promised, but many of them are still quite consequential, with effects to be felt for decades to come. That’s one reason this sort of devil’s advocate exercise is important, although when I tried it in January it was not well received (except by the White House). Still, in the spirit of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who intends to establish a “red-team blue-team” exercise to investigate whether climate change is actually happening, let’s consider the Trump administration’s accomplishments. Spoiler alert: like climate change, they’re real.
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