President Donald Trump’s first seven days in office were historic, chaotic, often astonishing and sometimes unsettling. With a flurry of provocative executive orders, surreal events, unapologetic falsehoods and did-he-really-say-that tweets, Trump continued to obliterate political norms, serving notice that the gaze of history won’t change who he is. He made so much news and did so many unorthodox things that it was hard to keep track of everything that was changing in Washington. The question, though, is what did all that sound and fury signify?
It certainly didn’t signify nothing. Most of Trump’s initial actions won’t have much direct impact on public policy, but many of them suggest huge changes are on the way. Some actions didn’t seem to justify the media hype, like his executive orders reining in Obamacare, blocking a cut in low-income mortgage feeds and freezing all new rule-making, or the typical start-of-term controversies over the alleged muzzling of government bureaucrats. Other developments actually seemed underhyped, like his apparent success in persuading congressional Republicans to support his entire Cabinet and ignore his enormous conflicts of interest, or new immigration restrictions that got overshadowed by Wednesday’s headline about his official push for a border wall. And it’s hard to assess how much hype some of Trump’s pronouncements deserve. Who knows whether he truly meant his threat to “send the Feds!” into Chicago to address street violence, or whether he was just tweeting off steam while watching a Bill O’Reilly segment?
What seems properly hyped is the overall sense that America is careening into strange uncharted territory. With so much jaw-dropping news breaking at such a rapid pace, it can be hard to distinguish the real historical hinge points from the momentary furors. So here is a guide to the first seven days of the Trump administration, rating everything that’s been done on a 1-to-10 scale according to its substantive policy effect now—and its potential significance for the future.
The Obamacare Order:
Trump’s first executive order on Inauguration Day directed his agencies to do whatever they could, “to the maximum extent permitted by law,” to minimize the impact of Obamacare until it can be repealed. This sent a strong Day One message that the president is an enemy of Obamacare.
But everyone already knew that. The order itself didn’t really do anything. It did signal that the administration may try to undermine the law by relaxing enforcement of its individual insurance mandate, and by granting exemptions to provisions whenever possible. Those behind-the-scenes moves could destabilize the fragile insurance market for Americans who aren’t covered through their employers or Medicare. But again, that’s no surprise. Trump is heavily invested in the failure of Obamacare, which is why his White House also cancelled the federal ad campaign encouraging the uninsured to sign up through its exchanges. If anything, the order was a reminder that repealing Obamacare—and especially replacing it with a plan that can attract a congressional majority—will be one of the more daunting and complex tasks that Trump faces. The sporadic hints out of the Trump camp that the president might be open to turning the federal Medicaid entitlement for the poor into a block grant to states—a walkback of his campaign promise to protect the program against any cuts—may pose a more imminent threat to the health care status quo.
Denying Mortgage Relief:
Trump also signed a Day One order blocking an Obama administration plan to cut mortgage fees for Federal Housing Administration borrowers, who tend to have modest means and sketchy credit. Democrats were quick to attack Trump for hurting the people he had promised to help. The National Association of Realtors estimated the move will force more than 700,000 struggling families to pay higher-than-anticipated premiums—about $500 a year on a $200,000 mortgage—and price more than 30,000 others out of home ownership. But Trump didn’t actually raise fees; he just prevented a discount. And less than a decade after a financial crisis fueled by Americans taking out mortgages they couldn’t afford, there’s certainly a case to be made against cutting fees for FHA buyers and potentially exposing the agency to greater losses. Really, this wouldn’t have attracted much attention if it hadn’t been one of the first things Trump did.
The Crowd-Size Lies.
On Saturday, Trump paid an odd visit to CIA headquarters. In front of a wall honoring slain agents, Trump claimed he never had a beef with U.S. intelligence agencies, just a week after he compared them to Nazis. He then launched a campaign-style diatribe falsely accusing the media (“the most dishonest human beings on earth”) of misreporting the size of his inaugural crowd, which he falsely said stretched “all the way to the Washington Monument.” His press secretary, Sean Spicer, then held an even odder briefing to insist the crowd was the largest ever for an inauguration, which wasn’t close to true, and that magnetometers had kept hundreds of thousands of spectators away from the Mall, also untrue.
Obviously, these brazen propaganda efforts had zero impact on public policy. But they laid down a marker about the irrelevance of facts to this White House. As the muckraker I.F. Stone said, all governments lie, but this Week One saga staked out new territory in Orwellian up-is-down-ism, forcing Americans to choose whether to believe Trump or their lying eyes. Trump often indulged in this postmodernist approach in the campaign—falsely claiming that President Barack Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen, that thousands of U.S. Muslims cheered 9/11, that Ted Cruz’s father helped kill JFK—but it was still jarring now that he’s commander in chief. It is not normal for a new president to inform his spy agency he’s fighting “a running war with the media”—or to send a tweet that congratulated Fox News, which he’s apparently blessing as an unofficial state outlet, and blasted CNN as “FAKE NEWS.” This communications approach could cast doubt on every Trump administration statement and statistic. And it gives the United States a banana republic feel.
Abandoning Free Trade:
Another one of Trump’s early orders announced his intention to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, keeping promises he made while bashing free trade on the campaign trail. The TPP agreement would have been a huge deal, transforming the U.S. relationship with Asia, but Congress never ratified it, and everyone has known for months that it wasn’t going to, so withdrawing now doesn’t really change anything. Renegotiating NAFTA could be a big deal, too, but no one really knows what Trump means by that. So this order was mostly Trump telling the world—and especially his anti-globalism supporters—that the United States is rethinking its approach to international commerce. It didn’t impose tariffs or export subsidies or any other changes to America’s foreign trade posture.
In fact, Spicer’s suggestion Thursday that Trump wants to pay for his border wall with a 20 percent tax on all Mexican imports—in defiance of NAFTA—was a more tangible harbinger of Trump-era protectionism. It’s not clear how Trump would impose that tax, which would boost consumer prices for avocados, tequila, automotive parts and other Mexican products, and invite retaliation against U.S. exports. And Spicer already appears to be walking it back. But the mere threat suggested that a new day in trade has already dawned.
The Federal Hiring Freeze:
Trump also announced a freeze on new federal hires, which prompted a lot of howling from unions and liberals. But his memorandum exempted the military and anyone deemed vital to national security or public safety, and it lasts only 90 days; in fact, a separate order a few days later called for the hiring of 10,000 new immigration officers and 5,000 Border Patrol agents. Trump did include language in his freeze memo directing his budget director to develop a long-term plan to shrink the federal workforce through attrition, which could have a longer-lasting impact. Trump has echoed conservative rhetoric slagging the federal bureaucracy, and his nominee for the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, is a hard-core conservative. But unless Congress passes legislation to shrink the workload of the federal workforce, any attrition in the civil service is likely to be offset by new hires of private contractors.
The Federal Rule Freeze:
New presidents routinely instruct federal agencies to stop pending regulations until they can be reviewed; Trump’s instructions came via an Inauguration Day memo from chief of staff Reince Priebus. But the Obama administration knew it had to finalize its important rules before leaving town; in fact, it knew that any rule it failed to finish before June would be vulnerable to congressional intervention. So the more consequential Obama rules were already done. The Priebus memo could block Obama’s efforts to tighten regulation of pipelines and oil trains, put a bumblebee on the endangered species list, and reduce electricity use of walk-in coolers and several other appliances. But most of those energy-efficiency standards were developed with industry support, so Trump might not overturn them. And none of the imperiled rules are stop-the-presses news.
The Global Gag Rule:
That same Monday, in an awkward ceremony featuring a bunch of white men in suits, Trump signed an executive order reinstating the Mexico City policy, or “global gag rule,” banning overseas funding to groups that provide abortions or abortion referrals. Every Republican president since Ronald Reagan has supported this policy, so it wasn’t a surprise.
At least, not at first. Once the White House released the language of the order, it became clear that the ban would apply not only to about $600 million worth of U.S. family planning funds, as it had in the past, but to all U.S. global health funding, about $9.5 billion worth. This was a real surprise that could reshape foreign aid, forcing all kinds of groups fighting AIDS and other diseases to decide whether to forgo U.S. funding or change the way they do business. It was perhaps Trump’s only Week One action that will have an even larger substantive impact than it initially seemed. And it suggested that anti-abortion social conservatives might have greater-than-expected influence in his White House.
The Illegal-Voter Lies:
At a White House reception on that very busy Monday, Trump told befuddled congressional leaders that he lost the popular vote in November only because 3 million to 5 million undocumented immigrants cast fraudulent ballots. This was rank baloney, although Spicer semi-defended Trump by explaining that he “believes what he believes,” and incorrectly claimed a Pew study found massive voter fraud in the past. In fact, the study had nothing to do with voter fraud, which other studies have found virtually nonexistent in the U.S. Elections are run by the states; as Trump’s own lawyers have argued in court during the Electoral College controversy, there simply wasn’t some organized conspiracy to rig the vote. But Trump still tweeted he “will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD.”
Like Trump’s whoppers about his inaugural crowds—or for that matter his false claim that it stopped raining when he began his address, then started pouring when he was done—these wild falsehoods do not have the force of law. But Trump’s crusade against phantom illegal voting is likely a prelude to an effort to increase voting restrictions, as Republicans have been trying to do throughout the nation. Obama’s Justice Department fought those efforts, arguing that they intentionally targeted minority voters, but this is an area where Trump wants major changes. His Justice Department’s civil rights division has already asked a federal judge to delay a case the Obama administration had filed to block a voter-ID law in Texas. And there is a lot more Trump can try to do to make it harder to vote in ways Republicans like.
Installing the Cabinet:
The initial news about Trump’s Cabinet nominations focused on its unusual whiteness, wealth and extremism. His picks for EPA and Labor had crusaded to dismantle the agencies they hoped to lead; Mulvaney was a leader of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus; the Senate had once rejected his attorney general nominee, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, for a federal judgeship because of a series of racial controversies. A series of Trump nominees then admitted errors that had scuttled past nominations. Billionaire Wilbur Ross had an undocumented household worker when he was nominated to be commerce secretary. Mulvaney failed to pay Social Security taxes for a nanny. Treasury nominee Steve Mnuchin somehow omitted $95 million in real estate holdings from his financial disclosures. Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price had traded medical stocks while pushing medical legislation that would benefit his portfolio.
But the real news about all this is that Senate Republicans don’t seem to care. Not one Republican has announced plans to vote against any Trump nominee. This is important not only because it means his entire Cabinet is likely to be confirmed, but because it suggests the Republicans who control Capitol Hill intend to let Trump govern as he pleases. Marco Rubio and John McCain both raged about Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s close ties to Vladimir Putin, but both are supporting him anyway. Congressional Republicans don’t seem too eager to investigate Russian interference in Trump’s election, either, or to push back against Trump’s delusional claims about illegal voting. And after eight years of austerity politics, demanding offsetting cuts for all new spending, including aid for disaster victims, they now seem willing to pour cash into Trump’s wall and much of his agenda without offsets.
In other words, Americans looking for politicians who will stand up to Trump will probably have to look outside the Washington GOP.
The Demonization of Immigration:
The main problem with Trump coverage is that he’s a news-making machine, constantly feeding the media beast with new material, violating so many norms that it’s hard to focus on one at a time. On that visit to the CIA, Trump casually mentioned the U.S. might get another opportunity to seize Iraq’s oil, a nonchalant hint at a renewed Middle East war that was mostly ignored amid his stretchers about inaugural crowds and inaugural weather and his relationship with the intelligence community. It’s hard to know when Trump is just being Trump and when he’s fundamentally transforming the American experiment.
On Wednesday, Trump visited the Department of Homeland Security to sign two executive orders about immigration—more are coming soon—that felt like a real turning point. Much of the reaction focused on his long-promised demand for a border wall, which will depend on congressional funding, and his directive to gut federal grants to sanctuary cities that shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, which was vague and probably vulnerable to a court challenge. Citing an “unprecedented surge” of illegal immigration from the south—in fact, there has been no such surge-Trump also ordered the termination of “catch-and-release,” to ensure that undocumented migrants (including children) who get detained are kept in custody. He is reportedly preparing new orders that will ban all refugees from war-torn Syria and put a hold on visas from seven other Muslim nations, none of which have produced any terrorists responsible for attacks on American soil.
The policy details are striking, and it will be crucial to see how Trump implements them, but what was even more striking was his official designation of “many” undocumented immigrants as “a significant threat to national security and public safety,” essentially putting gardeners and hotel maids working without papers under suspicion as enemies of the state. Trump ordered DHS to produce “a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens,” a weekly public naming and shaming of only one variety of criminal. He also called for the creation of his first new government bureaucracy, an “Office for Victims of Crimes Committed by Removable Aliens.” It would produce quarterly reports “studying the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens,” and would provide “proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services” to crime victims whose assailants happen to be undocumented.
Trump did not hide his intention to crack down on illegal immigration during his campaign; it was the policy most central to his nationalistic appeals to cultural resentments. But it’s still a big deal, a frontal assault on traditional American values, an official rejection of the American creed of welcoming the huddled masses who yearn to breathe free and instead designating some of them, in formal terms, our enemies.
Whatever you think of Donald Trump’s first week, he got stuff done.