WASHINGTON – He’s broken his pledge never to take a vacation or play golf for pleasure. His plan to update the nation’s infrastructure has become a running punchline and he’s dropped his threat to throw Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl out of a plane without a parachute. But behind the drama, chaos and tumult that has defined President Donald Trump’s administration, the president has fulfilled a wide range of promises he made during his 2016 campaign.
It’s a theme that will play a major role in the upcoming Republican National Convention, as the president tries to convince a weary nation that he deserves a second term, even when millions of Americans have been infected by the coronavirus, the economy is in tatters and racial tensions are boiling over.
“I’m the only candidate that gave you more than I promised in the campaign. It’s true. I’m the only one ever, maybe ever,” Trump said at a rally in battleground Arizona last week.
Back in 2016, Trump was criticized for failing to release detailed policy plans akin to those of his rival, Hillary Clinton. What Trump did do was lay out a vision for a new America — one driven by a nationalist self-interest and disregard for Democratic norms.
In the years since, Trump has acted on that vision, making good on his nativist immigration rhetoric, tearing back regulations on business and transforming America’s role in the world by abandoning multilateral agreements and upending decades-old alliances, cheered on by many of his most loyal supporters and generating great alarm among his critics.
But will that matter when more than 175,000 Americans have died and more than 5.5 million have been infected by a virus that has hit the U.S. far harder than other industrialized nations?
“I think the golden egg of Trump’s reelection effort is going to be the promises kept, such as getting two Supreme Court justices in power and keeping America out of foreign wars like Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian at Rice University. “The problem he has is that his COVID response wasn’t on the ballot in 2016 and he’s gotten poor marks on how he’s handled the pandemic. So that’s put a wrinkle in his promises kept talking points.”
Arguably Trump's biggest impact has been on immigration.
While Mexico never did pay for the “big, beautiful wall” Trump pledged to build along the 2,000-mile southern border — the signature promise of his 2016 campaign — the project is now underway, with 450 miles expected to be completed by the end of December. (Only a sliver of that, however — just 4 miles — has been built along stretches where no barrier stood before.) And Trump has succeeded in fundamentally transforming the nation’s immigration system, despite resistance from the courts and little cooperation from Congress.
Using more than 400 executive actions, according to a recent analysis by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, Trump has effectively shut down the asylum system at the southwest border and slashed refugee admissions. At the same time, Trump has imposed a slew of new restrictions on legal immigration, with the pandemic spurring many more. With so few visas being processed and immigration fees collected, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has all but run out of money and is about to furlough large swaths of its workforce.
Some specific promises on immigration went unfulfilled: Trump failed to create a new “deportation force,” never met his pledge to deport millions, didn’t end funding for sanctuary cities that don’t cooperate with immigration authorities and didn’t move to end the constitutional right to birthright citizenship. But he did clamp down on “catch and release" of immigrants in the country illegally, enhance background screening of migrants and move to suspend immigration from a host of majority-Muslim nations — an evolution of the Muslin ban he floated during his campaign.
“They have used the tools that the executive branch has on immigration really to their ultimate extent. And they’ve been successful,” said Doris Meissner, the director of the Migration Policy Institute's U.S. Immigration Policy Program and a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “And you know, in many ways remarkably so because there’s been very stiff resistance all the way.”
In other areas, Trump’s record has been more mixed. On health care, Republicans in Congress did repeal the Obama-era individual mandate forcing people to buy health insurance, but he failed to replace the Affordable Care Act with an alternative, despite frequent promises to present his own plan.
On the economy, Trump and congressional Republicans pushed through a promised tax cut early in his term that dramatically slashed the corporate tax rate — as he had promised — and doubled the estate tax threshold, but did not eliminate it. He also did not meet his pledge to reduce the number of individual income tax brackets from seven to three to simplify the tax code, and efforts to bolster manufacturing jobs began to stall by his third year in office.
Trump had promised to boost economic growth to 3.5% per year on average. But he never surpassed 3% growth in any year, and progress on lowering unemployment has been annihilated by the pandemic, which has ushered in the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Some of Trump's more controversial promises have fallen by the wayside, such as his pledge to eliminate gun-free zones at schools and on military bases and to establish a national right to carry concealed weapons that would trump local restrictions. He has all but ignored the spiraling cost of college education and the plans he had proposed to make student loan repayment more affordable. He never made good on his pledge to push a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress. And his pledge to embark on a massive $1 trillion effort to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, including airports, roads and bridges, has become a running punchline.
He also quickly abandoned his promise never to take a vacation while president, making frequent trips to his properties in Florida and New Jersey. And while he claimed he would only play golf with those who might help him govern and never with friends, he has now paid more than 270 visits to golf clubs since his inauguration, according to a website dedicated to tracking his visits. He is often photographed playing with pros.
But he delivered on other fronts. He immediately enacted a federal hiring freeze, as he had promised, and mandated that for every new federal regulation enacted, two be eliminated. He launched an aggressive campaign to roll back environmental protections passed by the Obama administration, including those that protected waterways, encouraged cleaner energy, reduced auto emissions and restricted offshore drilling and oil exploration on federal land. At the same time, he has prioritized tapping the country’s shale oil, and natural gas and coal reserves.
However, courts are undoing many of Trump's environmental rollbacks, calling them poorly reasoned and illegal.
On trade, Trump renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement and withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but failed to decrease the U.S.-China trade imbalance while starting a trade war with the country.
On the international front, the impact has been enormous as he has put his “America First” policy into practice, fundamentally redefining America’s place in the world. He increased funding for the military, joined the race to weaponize space, all but abandoned efforts to curb nuclear proliferation, and has threatened U.S. membership in the landmark alliances of the 20th century, including NATO.
At the same time, he has pulled the U.S. from participation in a host of landmark accords, including the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal (though he failed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to broker a replacement deal, as he had pledged.) At international summits, he has cozied up to authoritarian leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, while picking fights with longstanding allies like the U.K. and Canada.
In a sign of just how far he has broken from the global community, he stopped funding the World Health Organization in the midst of the pandemic earlier this year.
Jeremy Shapiro, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Trump has altered U.S. foreign policy in ways that go beyond what he outlined before taking office.
“I don't think he was really preparing people for the degree of revolution. He didn't say, ‘I don’t care about human rights' on the campaign trail. He didn’t say, ‘I don’t care about democracy.' He didn’t say, ‘I don’t care about alliances,'" Shapiro said.
While Trump complained the U.S. had gotten a raw deal in so many areas, he has failed, Shapiro argued, to negotiate improvements, aside from perhaps the new NAFTA.
“It's easy to destroy a deal. It's much harder to create a better one. And he hasn’t done that,” Shapiro said.
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