On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump promised to take a blowtorch and pliers to the Washington political establishment.
But three weeks into his presidency, he has been repeatedly disarmed and frustrated by partisan opponents and the machinery of a government designed to check his power.
It hasn’t been for a lack of trying. Trump over his first 21 days in office has issued a barrage of executive actions aimed at delivering on a range of policy pledges — including many of his most aggressive and controversial. But the January 27 travel ban has become a millstone on the neck of a young administration that has spent the last two weeks digging deeper into a legal battle that now seems destined for the Supreme Court.
Much of the emerging image of dysfunction has been painted by Trump’s own staff. The calls are coming from inside the White House — and they are going to reporters, who have been flooded with accounts of a frenetic and angry president, who bounces from political frustration to personal grudge — often in his bathrobe, according to a New York Times account disputed by the White House — in the space of a few minutes.
Now, with the foot soldiers of his Republican majority under siege in their home districts, the blustering outsider who chalked up his predecessors’ failures to their lack of will or guile, is seeing his own challenged daily.
A growing barrier to ‘The Wall’
“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively,” Trump said during his June 2015 campaign kick-off. “I will build a great great wall on our southern border and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall.”
Trump’s promise to build a wall on the southern border was a consistent crowd-pleaser during the campaign. Congressional Republicans have vowed to finance its construction, but have been short on the how and when details.
His guarantee that the Mexican government would foot the bill, which could, according a Reuters report out Thursday, cost more than $20 billion, had been one of the pitch’s key selling point. But their president, under pressure at home, has balked and dismissed it out of hand. When the White House floated a 20% tariff on Mexican imports to cover the upfront costs, there was a rare bipartisan meltdown and the trial balloon was quickly deflated.
Repeal and replace Obamacare with … what?
“Something terrific,” Trump said during a July 2015 interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, who asked what he would push in place of Obamacare.
Pressed to provide a bit more detail, Trump advocated for allowing people to buy insurance across state lines. But that carries concerns for critics from both sides of the aisle.
It’s been more than 18 months since that conversation — and nearly seven years since President Barack Obama signed and Affordable Care Act into law — but Trump and Republicans do not yet have a viable replacement to shop. In a Sunday interview with Fox News, the President called the process “very complicated” and suggested it could last into 2018 — a midterm election year.
And with demonstrators flooding town hall meetings to rail against Republicans’ health care plan, or a convincing lack thereof, full repeal seems a long ways off.
Some doubts on the homefront
A little more than a week before his inauguration, Trump declared at a wild press conference in New York that “Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, all countries will respect us far more, far more than they do under past administrations.”
Trump during his campaign, and after being elected, asserted over and again the US, mostly because of Obama, had been diminished in the eyes of the world. He pledged to reverse that and restore those purported losses.
While it’s unclear exactly how outsiders’ views of the US have shifted over the past three weeks, Gallup found that only 29% Americans believe “other countries around the world have respect for the president.” Two-thirds of respondents said they did not.
Here’s how those numbers stack up against Presidents Obama and George W. Bush at similar stages of their first terms:
Travel ban and a reckoning with the courts
Another central tenet of his campaign, the ban — proposed at first to target all Muslims, then reframed after his swearing-in to focus on citizens from seven majority Muslim nations — has been the administration’s most controversial initiative so far.
The executive order, which also paused the US refugee program and halted the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely, set off mass protests around the country. Within 24 hours, judges were hearing arguments against it. Now, after seeing it blocked in multiple venues, Trump will have to decide if he wants a Supreme Court showdown or to go back to the drawing board.
On Friday, he signaled both options remained on the table. And more pointedly, doubled down on his argument in favor of some kind of ban.
“There are tremendous threats to our country,” he said during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, eschewing specifics but suggesting that he, as President, was privy to information that would shake the broader public.
However it plays out, what’s clear now is that Trump’s December 2015 announcement “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” is a long way off — and even more measured versions have significant challenges ahead.
Sanctuary cities no harbor for Trump’s policies
In another early executive action, Trump signed an order seeking to “ensure that jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable Federal law do not receive Federal funds, except as mandated by law.”
Delivered days before the travel ban, this too set off an avalanche of protest, both in the streets and among mostly Democratic leaders in major urban centers like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Smaller cities like New Haven, Connecticut, and Austin, Texas, have also threatened to fight back in court.
And in an ironic twist, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (among others) pointed to a 2012 Supreme Court case to explain why they’re so confident. The ruling in NFIB vs. Sebelius, which allowed states to reject Medicaid expansion without the threat of losing pre-existing funds, set a precedent Trump’s opponents say will prevent him from using federal money as a tool to coerce local governments.
In the private dealings of his family business, Trump’s decision-making went unquestioned — at least publicly. But the presidency is ruled by a different calculus, one its new resident, three weeks into his four year term, is struggling to command.