The president’s successes so far depend on whether voters look at his immediate actions or their possible long-term consequences.
When GOP lawmakers gathered on the South Lawn of the White House last week for a rally to celebrate their long-sought passage of a tax cut, some of the praise showered on President Donald Trump rivaled those usually reserved for the nation’s founding fathers.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin lauded his “exquisite presidential leadership,” while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky dubbed the accomplishment “extraordinary.” Vice President Mike Pence described it as a “pivotal moment in the life of our nation” and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah gushed that the feat would’ve never happened without Trump, suggesting that it could just help make his presidency “the greatest presidency . . . maybe ever.”
Of course, Trump is only wrapping up his first year in the White House — a year consumed by division and grievance, chaos and resistance, “alternative facts” and turbulent Tweets, and investigation and re-litigation about how he got there in the first place.
But the day of the tax cut passage — his 334th day as president — marked arguably his best as commander-in-chief. It showcased a united Republican Party — functional, governing and locking arms with its idiosyncratic president, who was uncharacteristically gracious and cheerful, even abandoning his trademark scowl for a seemingly authentic smile.
“It seems like — it was a lot of fun,” Trump acknowledged, before adding the crucial caveat: “It’s always a lot of fun when you win.”
And with that legislative win — a prospect in doubt even just a month ago — Trump ended the nagging drumbeat that his administration had not scored a major policy achievement in his first year, and simultaneously handed his defenders a bulwark against the notion he was ineffective.
“It’d be very hard to say he didn’t get anything done when you have the biggest tax reform in 31 years,” says Charlie Black, a longtime GOP lobbyist and consultant in Washington.
Doug Wead, a presidential historian and former assistant to President George Bush, notes that Trump achieved his tax package much more quickly than President Ronald Reagan, who sealed his during his second term.
“I’m surprised,” Wead says. “A tax reform that took Reagan five years, he got in a year. I think it’s big and I didn’t think they’d do it, especially because of offending [Sens. John] McCain and [Jeff] Flake and [Bob] Corker. It’s amazing to me he was able to get it passed.”
And Trump did it without losing a single Republican senator.
While the tax cut was the capstone, there’s much more for conservatives to be celebrating at Trump’s first year marker: The opening of oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (a nearly four-decade goal tucked in the tax bill), the repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate (also included in the tax bill), a rising stock market, the approval of a dozen Circuit Court Judges (the most in a president’s first year in office since they were established in 1891), the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch (situating the nation’s highest court to the right of center for likely another generation), the lowest unemployment rate in 17 years, double-digit percentage reductions in illegal crossings at the southern border and a wholesale stripping of the nation’s federal regulatory state, saving an estimated $8 billion, according to the White House.
“On policy there are more achievements than people have cataloged,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “They’re not really aimed at the famous base he campaigned for, they are more aimed at the traditional corporate wing of the Republican Party.”
But Zelizer still maintains Trump’s first year was a “mixed bag” due to “unprecedented disruptions” mostly created by his own worst impulses.
After all, if everything was going so well, he wouldn’t be shouldering a 37 percent approval rating, swimming around historic popularity lows and jeopardizing his party’s control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections.
“The negative part of ledger is pretty overwhelming,” Zelizer says.
Critics contend that the long-term effects of Trump’s decisions are undermining the standing of the U.S. on the international stage, and have caused setbacks in anti-discrimination policies, social justice and stability for the middle class at home.
But Trump’s true Achilles Heel is not his substance, it’s his style. Days often begin (and end) with a flurry of caustic, offensive, score-settling, self-immolating tweets — missives even his supporters would rather he not send. What’s more is they aren’t only reserved for the opposition; sometimes they’re directed at his own team, whether it be Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or GOP leaders on Capitol Hill. The president’s internal frustrations and consternations are regularly leaked to the press, exposing a chaotic environment of uncertainty and distrust as well as a significant volume of staff disloyalty.
There are the pronouncements he makes out loud — many of which are blatant falsehoods that he weaponizes as epithets against the media. And then there are those that are even-more unprecedented and potentially dangerous — like his belittling of nuclear-armed North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un as “Little Rocket man” or showing sympathy for white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, following the violent death of a counter-protester.
“The willingness to play in the same sandbox with right wing extremists has definitely been unsettling and something we haven’t seen from other presidents,” Zelizer says. “Even though there hasn’t been a military conflict, he’s done things that have put us dangerously closer to that.”
Wead presents a counter-theory: That Trump’s unconventional style is not only why he was elected, but is proving to be the key to his promise of “draining the swamp,” or quite simply “messing things up.”
“Outlandish? Outrageous? Comical? Does it drive me up the wall? Yes,” Wead concedes. “I look at Jeff Sessions, Tillerson, they’re doing what I would do, what you would do — they’re coming in measured and trying to do it right. And that hasn’t worked in the past.”
“Here comes Trump, a bull in the China closet,” he continues. “Most logical people hold out he could have done this less abrasively. I don’t know that that’s true. I’m having doubts. I’m thinking, good grief, maybe as an amateur he’s doing something that couldn’t or wouldn’t have been done as a professional.”
The largest existential threat to the Trump presidency remains Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating his campaign’s potential collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential race. It has been the constant shadow that’s already resulted in criminal charges and cooperating witnesses. Mueller wields a broad scope that has no end in sight, despite what the White House professes publicly. Trump may be trying to turn public opinion on the investigation but Mueller isn’t subject to the fickle whims of popularity or an election. His appointment was triggered by Trump’s risky firing of FBI Director James Comey — something that, ironically, may make Mueller too big to fire.
Both the president’s friends and foes have wondered how different his first year might have been if Trump actually followed through with his campaign promise to “act presidential,” to stand down on the pettiest of fights, to acknowledge missteps, to own responsibility, to show more empathy.
“Imagine if he didn’t do all of the things he does, how much further he could have taken his presidency. Maybe his approval rating wouldn’t be at 30 percent, it would be at 60 percent.
Imagine how different how all this could be,” Zelizer says.
But trying to compare Trump to any of his predecessors is only useful to a point.
He’s a public figure unlike any other, who won an election unlike any other, who is conducting a presidency unlike any other. That’s a statement that could be applied to many, but it’s most true when explaining Donald J. Trump.
“It’s important to note,” Zelizer says, “he is truly in a different category.”