On the morning of May 12, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revealed that he had instructed federal prosecutors to begin pursuing lengthier prison sentences for drug offenders.
It was a draconian change in approach that flew in the face of a growing bipartisan agreement on sentencing reform. “He’s completely discarded what has been an emerging consensus about how best to keep the country safe,” said Matthew Miller, a former Department of Justice spokesman. “[O]ne of the most extreme voices in the country on criminal justice policy just happened to be put into the most important job for shaping its future.”
The move was then largely buried under an avalanche of Donald Trump-related news.
Just hours after Sessions’ policy was revealed, the president tweeted that he may have taped conversations with his recently-fired FBI director, James Comey. With less than 140 characters, Washington was abuzz again over Trump’s potential ties to Russia, which Comey had been investigating.
This is a defining feature of the Trump administration: While scandal and squabble, palace intrigue and provocative tweets suck much of the oxygen out of the room ― and leave the impression of mass government disfunction ― a wide array of fundamentally Trump-minded reform is taking place.
“All of this smoke is missing the steady progress that the modern Republican Party is achieving,” said Grover Norquist, the longtime anti-tax advocate. “The idea that Trump isn’t getting anywhere is wrong. Those free market guys are picking up maybe not all the marbles in the world, but a large quantity of them. And we haven’t thrown away any marbles.”
One reason behind the perception that Trump’s agenda has largely foundered is that it’s made painfully little legislative progress. His efforts to push health care reform through Congress have advanced incrementally, but many hurdles remain. Tax reform appears unlikely to come before the summer, if at all. Trump’s budget won’t get a vote, and his relationship with Congress seems to fall somewhere between fractious and nonexistent.
But legislative progress is only one vehicle that moves a president’s agenda. And there have been profound policy changes on a variety of administrative fronts, often obscured by scandals emerging from the White House.
All of this smoke is missing the steady progress that the modern Republican Party is achieving.
Take reports that Trump will leave the Paris Agreement on climate change, the milestone global accord to lower carbon emissions in the face of overwhelming evidence of human-caused global warming.
The president’s retrenchment will have immense, generations-long geopolitical ripple effects. Yet on Wednesday morning, it competed for media attention alongside the fallout from Trump’s bizarre Twitter typo the night before and the backlash against comedian Kathy Griffin’s vulgar depiction of a severed Trump head.
On regulatory policy, Trump’s impact has far outpaced the coverage it’s often received. He’s made it harder for workers to set up retirement accounts and has delayed the implementation of workplace safety rules. He repealed a regulation protecting workers from wage theft and allowed employers with spotty labor records to get government contracts. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has hit the brakes on a rule that would require firms to report worker injury data online. Trump has given coal companies permission to dump debris into local streams and canceled requirements for reporting methane emissions. Both the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines have been allowed to proceed, and coal companies have been allowed to again lease on public lands.
Elsewhere, Trump has made moves that will fundamentally alter the way our economy operates and individuals live their lives. His appointment of Ajit Pai to head the Federal Communications Commission is one of them. Pai is poised to dismantle net neutrality rules, moving away from treating online content as a public utility and toward a system that allows cable and telecom industry interests to control content and traffic. “That appointment,” Norquist said, “is [determining] 16 percent of the economy.”
Much attention has focused on the way the courts and Congress have stymied Trump’s immigration policy. But even absent a travel ban or a border wall, he has dramatically altered the government’s approach. Deportations of undocumented immigrants have grown steadily under Trump’s watch, especially among noncriminals.
And Trump has had a profound impact on women’s health. He drastically expanded the so-called global gag rule, restricting a larger pool of funding from groups that mention or promote abortion, and he is poised to gut a mandate requiring employers to cover birth control for employees, broadening exemptions to the requirement that extend well beyond religious-affiliated groups.
These are just the domestic consequences of Trump’s presidency. On foreign affairs, his reach is far greater and restraint more limited.
Trump’s ability to do all this is not, as his administration would argue, evidence of an unappreciated wizardry at governance. He has simply utilized the powers afforded to the executive branch.
“He has a lot of leeway, and that’s why winning the White House is so important and losing it is so painful,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former top aide to former President Barack Obama. “The fact is, the bureaucracy is set up in the way that career professionals at government agencies are able to get things done in the way that the class of clowns around Trump aren’t able to.”
Indeed, the Trump administration has seemed to make the most progress when the epicenter of action is removed from the White House itself.
Kevin Ring, the president of the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said he was heartened to see Republicans and Democrats alike pushing back on Sessions’ sentencing guidelines. The impact of the policy change may be overstated, he says, as lawyers and judges could still determine they don’t want to abide by the tougher sentencing guidelines. But Ring concedes that Sessions had proved himself to be a competent and effective governing agent in ways that set him far apart from his boss.
“In every other battle, it is like, ‘Who is winning, Jared [Kushner] or [Steve] Bannon?’ Who is winning Trump’s blessing? And without it, they can’t go forward,” Ring said. “Sessions is at 950 Pennsylvania Avenue [where the DOJ is located] and doing whatever he wants. Which is not to say he isn’t doing what Trump wants. But he certainly has enough authority and discretion to move full speed ahead on all these fronts.”
At some point, Trump, Sessions and the rest of the Cabinet will run out of the low-hanging regulatory changes they can easily make. At that juncture, they will be limited in the policies they can promulgate. But by then, they will have already instituted substantial reforms, many of them without the public’s knowledge and hard to reverse.
Democratic operatives are waking up to the idea that the party should stop acting as if Trump is a rudderless president, desperately trying to pass an agenda as it’s anchored down by continuous scandal ― but rather, prosecute a case against Trump’s actual policy achievements.
“Democrats aren’t making a mistake by focusing on Russia, because it is potentially the biggest political scandal in U.S. history,” said Pfeiffer. “And the pressure they are putting forward has led to new revelations. But there will be a time when voters are interested in stuff beyond this. We aren’t there yet, but it would be incumbent upon the party to point this out.”
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