Donald Trump’s first term isn’t over, but I’ve decided to score him for the period of January 21, 2017 – April 15, 2020, to see where he falls in my president series. As I post this today, the Covid-19 virus is peaking in New Hampshire and is close to peaking in other states. The political climate is tumultuous to say the least, and who knows how things will look months down the line. This evaluation is obviously subject to change. For now, here’s how I rate our current president.
1. Peace (Foreign Policy)
Of the three categories, Trump scores highest in this one.
The Moratorium (“Ban”) on Immigration
Trump used his authority over border control to keep out thousands of Muslim immigrants from seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Later Iraq and Sudan were removed, and North Korea and Venezuela (non-Muslim majority countries) added in. The moratorium (often incorrectly called a “ban”) was hardly justifiable in the interest of security, and it didn’t even include the critical country of Saudia Arabia, which spends millions of dollars promoting jihadist warfare all over the world, and where most of the 9/11 hijackers came from. All Trump did was lift a template from an executive order signed by Barack Obama against the same nations two years before: the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, listing Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and North Korea. (Obama’s order had been as needless as Trump’s.)
Nonetheless, the Supreme Court was correct in upholding Trump’s order. In Trump v. Hawaii (6/26/18), the majority ruled that Trump lawfully exercised the broad discretion granted to him to suspend the entry of aliens from countries construed to be jihadist hotspots. The Supreme Court has no power to second-guess the president’s executive decisions, no matter how disagreeable, only to decide if the president’s decisions are constitutional or not. Aliens who have never set foot on U.S. soil have no constitutional rights, and nor should they. While the Constitution prohibits discrimination in the issuing of visas, it does not limit the president’s authority in any way to block the entry of nationals from certain places — just as several presidents have done before Trump. And while the Establishment Clause prohibits unduly favoring one religion over another, there were many majority-Muslim countries that were not subject to Trump’s order. The moratorium was not a sweeping ban against any and all Muslims, but a suspension against certain countries for purpose of national security. Whether or not one agrees that such a suspension was necessary or effective (I do not), the Supreme Court was correct that the president has the right to enforce such suspensions as he sees fit. Presidents have wide discretion on questions of alien entry into the U.S., and that is as it should be.
In sum, Trumps’ executive order wasn’t unconstitutional, but it was misguided and pointless, especially without the inclusion of Saudi Arabia.
Jerusalem: Recognizing Israel’s Capital
After the failures of three presidents, Trump upheld the law passed by Congress in 1995, which stated that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the state of Israel and the US embassy be moved there, by no later than May 31, 1999. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had invoked waivers to this law every six months, postponing the move (absurdly) on grounds of national security. Trump had also signed a waiver in June 2017, but in December of that year ended the stalling.
Personally, I wish the state of Israel had never been created. Not because Israel is the Big Bad in the Mid-East, but because the two-state solution has made a battleground of Palestine. What the Allies should have done in 1947 was carve out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust) and given that land to the Jewish people. But for better or worse, Israel does exist, and has controlled the entire city of Jerusalem since 1967 — for over 50 years now. Every other nation on earth gets to choose its capital, and Israel should be treated no differently.
Protesters claimed that making Jerusalem the capital of Israel would play into the hands of jihadis, but that’s kowtowing to thuggery. When groups like Hamas threatened to launch a new intifada, they were doing as they do anyway, per the Islamic mandate for holy war. Trump should be applauded, not criticized, for standing up to jihadist intimidation. Repeating failed solutions in Middle-East — the failed solutions of all Trump’s predecessors going to back to Jimmy Carter at Camp David — will only continue to bring failed results. Muslim jihadists will never be satisfied or agree to work towards a peaceful goal as long as the state of Israel exists at all, regardless of where its capital is. It was about time that the Congressional law of 1995 be enforced.
Involvement in the Middle-East, The Iran Nuclear Deal, Striking at Soleimani
Trump isn’t consistent about much, but on the singular issue of war in the Middle-East he has been absolutely consistent and reliable. He doesn’t want it. He has dramatically reduced the number of troops in certain U.S. war zones overseas, and kept America out of war. He ended the vain, costly and counterproductive nation-building strategies of Bush and Obama that sank the American economy and made things far worse in the Middle-East, and indeed for the world. The dictators toppled by Bush (Saddam) and Obama (Mubarak and Gaddafi) gave us ISIS in Iraq; unrest and instability in Egypt; chaos and anarchy in Libya; the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups all over. Trump is to be applauded for putting an end to our misguided Mid-East ventures. The Arab Spring rebellions were never about democracy and pluralism; they were about imposing Islamic law.
And as Trump kept America out of quagmires, he also knew when to strike, as he did at the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. This was in response to (a) Iran burning the American embassy on top of (b) engaging for a full year in other aggressions — attacking ships in the straits of Hormuz, shooting down American drones, firing on American bases, and arming terrorist groups across the Middle-East. The accusations that Trump was looking for an excuse to go to war in the Middle-East were proven empty, when the next day Trump announced there would be no declaration of war on Iran by the U.S.
Withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal (in 2018) was also a good move. The appeasement under Barack Obama — in bringing Iran to the table and giving Iran money — had born the expected rotten fruit. I had mixed feelings about the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015. On the one hand I could justify it as a lesser of two evils, especially coming as it did in the midst of Obama’s pointless war-mongering in every other corner of the Mid-east. But while negotiating with a terror-sponsored nation may have kept us out of conflict, it increased Iran’s determination to escalate conflict, and that is what Soleimani and others had been doing.
Trump’s strike against Soleimani was risky in the manner of most military strikes, but it was the right move. On moral grounds, if I had to decide between taking out a threat like Soleimani and bending over backwards for Iran — which allows the ayatollahs to continue being as violent as they want with impunity — my compass aligns with the former.
On the downside, if Trump has broken with most of the policies of his predecessors, he has followed them in cultivating warm relations with Saudi Arabia — calling the nation a “great ally”. The Younger Bush held the hands of Saudi King Abdullah, and Barack Obama bowed to him. Trump did neither for King Salman, but he has nonetheless treated the Saudis as allies when they should be America’s #1 enemy.
When North Korea stepped up its missile testing efforts in 2017, Trump threatened the country with “fire and fury”, using shockingly inflammatory language that no other president has ever used in the context of nuclear armaments. His incendiary aggressiveness — on top of the missile testing and mounting military presence on the Korean Peninsula — sparked fears of a nuclear conflict. Even members of the White House staff were appalled. Though a friendly détente began to develop between Trump and Kim Jong-un in March 2018, the year of 2017 was a harrowing one that yielded the speculative novel, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, by Jeffrey Lewis. The novel portrays a realistic nuclear attack by North Korea against the U.S., triggered in part by Trump’s tweets on Twitter.
In sum, Trump’s first year was one of reckless brinkmanship with North Korea, and we are fortunate that missiles didn’t end up flying.
Trump has cultivated warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and denied collusion with Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, despite the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies. On whole, his policies towards Russia have been a mixed bag.
In terms of his presidential actions (though not his rhetoric), Trump has been harsher on Putin than Obama ever was. Trump armed the people of Ukraine against his “friend” Russia with deadly weapons, which Obama would not do. Two hundred Russian soldiers were killed in Syria by U.S. forces under Trump, not Obama. Obama was the one who said (to Dmitry Medvedev) that he wanted to be flexible with Russia in 2012. Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia not under Trump, but under Obama, who turned a blind eye. The list goes on. Throughout his entire presidency, Obama underestimated the challenge posed by Putin’s regime. Obama dismissed Mitt Romney for “exaggerating the Russian threat”, and his foreign policy was grounded in the premise that Russia was not a national security threat to the U.S.
So while Obama didn’t like Putin, those personal feelings never translated into policy. Trump has had better policies on Russia (Obama apologists have made fools of themselves fumbling over this), but that does not excuse Trump’s reverential praise for Putin, his cozying up to the Russian president, nor his refusing to endorse the mutual aid clause of NATO (Article 5), which requires that other NATO allies come to the aid of an ally under attack.
Mexico: Immigration and the Border Wall
The worst stain on Trump’s foreign policy record is Mexico. From day one he has crusaded for an expanded wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, in efforts to stop illegal immigrants, gangs, and drugs from entering the U.S. A border wall is an impractical and expensive way of addressing those issues. The largest border challenge involves the hundreds of thousands of Central American refugees applying for asylum. They travel as family units and voluntarily surrender to US authorities. A wall wouldn’t stop anyone from claiming asylum at a port of entry, only border crossings. Nor would a wall stop the flow of drugs, most of which are smuggled through legal ports of entry. The only way to stop drug traffic from Mexico would be to completely shut down trade with Mexico. The drug war (which was always wrong to begin with) has taught that as long as there is a demand for drugs, there will always be a supply and ways of getting through.
The most hideous outcome of Trump’s border-wall crusade came in April 2018, when he enacted zero-tolerance for illegal border crossings, leading to mass detentions and the separation of children from their parents. The public outcry was so great that the administration pledged to end the family separations; but that doesn’t undo the ugly stain on Trump’s record.
Then came the government shutdown. When the House of Representatives refused to give Trump money ($5.7 billion in federal funds) to build the border wall, he shut down the federal government so as to force the congressional funding. It was the longest government shutdown in American history, lasting 35 days (December 22, 2018 – January 25, 2019). When that strategy failed, he then declared a national emergency on the border, which allowed him to divert funds from various sources (the Pentagon, anti-drug funds) to build the wall. (The House and Senate voted to end the national emergency, in February and September of 2019, but Trump vetoed their bills each time.) The Border Wall remains a national embarrassment.
2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)
If Trump’s foreign policy record is a mixed bag, his domestic policy record is a disaster.
Trump’s tax cuts aren’t as bad as some have claimed, or at least in principle. Here’s the problem: tax cuts mean nothing without cuts to federal spending, and like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (though not George H.W. Bush), Trump has deficit-spent up the wazoo while giving tax breaks. It’s always astonishing to me, as a fiscal conservative, when self-avowed “fiscal conservatives” make tax cuts a priority, and yet willingly overlook the more sly tax increases and massive federal spending.
Trump’s tax cuts could have been a good thing — if he had cut federal spending significantly, and if he had substantially paid down the the trillions of dollars of national debt. Trump has done neither. But voters love government programs from which they benefit and for which they don’t have to pay; and because the impact of budget deficits is severe but mostly invisible in the short term, presidents like Reagan, the Younger Bush, and Trump easily win their second terms. The ones who really pay are America’s future generations. They’re the ones who will have to repay the borrowed money (plus interest) while not benefiting nearly as much as their sires. And of course they’re too young to vote.
Those who fancy themselves “small government Republicans” are not in fact for small government when they endorse spendthrifts like Reagan, the Younger Bush, and Trump (especially Bush and Trump). Eisenhower was the last really good Republican. After him, no Republican president has cut federal spending as a portion of U.S. economic output. The Democrat Bill Clinton did, however, putting all post-Eisenhower Republicans to shame.
Trump called the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the worst trade deal ever made, and he has launched trade wars by enacting tariffs. This is backwards. Tariffs are bad, because global free trade is ultimately better for everyone, businesses and consumers alike. Tariffs increase the prices of imports to consumers and decrease their buying power, and also cause U.S. exports to decline as other countries retaliate with tariffs of their own.
The irony about tariffs is that they are considered a “conservative” policy, but they often lead to non-conservative fiscal rescue operations. For example, Trump’s tariffs have hurt farmers in particular, and to compensate for that, the Trump administration has tried to steer government funds towards some of those areas — which is far from a conservative economic policy.
Free trade and low tariffs are the truly conservative policy, and are best for everyone. The only post Eisenhower Republican president who understood this was the otherwise less than impressive George H.W. Bush.
Trump appointed department heads whose agendas oppose their mandates. For the Labor Department he chose a serial violator of labor law (Eugene Scalia); for the Education Department a woman with contempt for the public education sector (Betsy DeVos); for the Environment Protection Agency a climate change denier (Scott Pruitt), then replaced him with someone hardly better (Andrew Wheeler); for the Energy Department a former state governor who had called for its abolition (Rick Perry).
In other words, the Trump Administration was set up from the start as a self-parody. It would be amusing if it were satirical fiction, but this isn’t a novel, it’s real life.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Trump fired the Pandemic Response Team in 2018. This spelled serious consequences with the recent outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. As late as February, Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, comparing it to influenza and saying that the disease was well under control.
In March he wised up and declared a national emergency, allowing states to access more than $40 billion in additional funding from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). He signed a bill providing for free testing, paid sick leave, and expanded unemployment insurance, as well as a $2 trillion stimulus that includes direct payments of up to $1,200 for individuals, hundreds of billions of dollars in loans and grants to businesses, increases to unemployment benefits, and support for health-care providers.
On April 15, he announced that the U.S. was placing a hold on funding to the World Health Organization (for 60–90 days) for “failing in its basic duty” to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever WHO’s shortcomings in the early period, it’s an appalling decision to cut funding to the organization best equipped to fight pandemics.
Trump’s handling of the crisis has left much to be desired, but there has also been misplaced outrage, not least over his calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus”; as if pointing the finger at China is necessarily racist. That Trump himself is a racist in no way mitigates the root cause of Covid-19, and the necessity of speaking honestly about the way Asian dietary habits have killed millions of people: SARS, the bird flu, the Hong Kong Flu, the Asian Flu, Covid-19 — and there will be more if exotic foods continue to be marketed and eaten.
There are hand-wringing Americans who insist that Chinese people don’t eat bats — that it’s a racist myth — even though the diet has been known and documented for some time:
“Bats are not specifically protected in China and many species are eaten, especially in southern China, where bats are found regularly in markets. Requests from international agencies following the SARS outbreak, (which resulted in several hundred human deaths) that wildlife legislation be introduced in China prohibiting inter alia hunting and sale of bats have been ignored.”
That being said, Trump has reveled in finger-pointing China for the wrong reasons. His primary concern has been deflecting blame away from his administration’s poor handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
Besides withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump has taken actions that prove he is no friend of the environment — nor even something so basic as clean water. In February 2017, his administration reversed the Obama administration’s decision to deny permits for the Dakota Access Pipeline, approving its construction. In June 2019, he directed the Environmental Protection Agency to rescind the Clean Power Plan (2014), a regulation that would have required states to move away from coal-based power plants. In January 2020, his administration rolled back the National Environmental Policy Act (1970) requiring government agencies to carefully consider public health before permitting projects on federal lands, and which gave the public a voice in that process. Later that same month, his administration rewrote the Clean Water Rule (2015), removing protections for more than half of America’s wetlands, along with many rivers and streams — threatening the drinking water for millions of people.
This environmental record speaks for itself. Green isn’t Trump’s color.
3. Liberty (Freedom, Justice)
The worst danger of the Trump presidency has been his unbridled authoritarianism. He has played the boorish king since his presidential campaign, and in the past year has defended his monarchical attitude with startling appeals to the constitution itself. In July 2019, he said that “Article II (of the U.S. Constitution) gives me the right to do whatever I want.” The article in question establishes the powers of the executive branch, as well as the powers of Congress to oversee the presidency. Obviously it doesn’t make the president a king.
More recently, in April 2020, Trump reaffirmed that “the authority of the U.S. President is total”, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. He believes that he can decide when to lift quarantines and shutdown restrictions imposed by local officials. In fact, it is those same local officials — governors, mayors, and school district heads — who have the power to decide when to lift their own restrictions. There is no legislation that gives the president the power to override states’ public health measures. Trump can order federal employees to return to their offices, and to reopen national parks and other federal property, but he cannot order state, city, and district employees in the way that he imagines. That won’t stop him from trying.
His declarations of executive supremacy actually aren’t that surprising to those who know American history. Other presidents have believed as Trump does and acted as if they were kings. Teddy Roosevelt — who is undeservedly enshrined on Mount Rushmore — openly flouted the Constitution, and was railroaded by congressmen for having no more use for the Constitution “than a tomcat has use for a marriage license”. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson maintained that it was actually his Constitutional job to do as he damn well pleased — that a president should behave more like a British prime minister, or even a king, than a leader constrained by the American system of checks and balances. Most presidents who have feelings of executive supremacy follow the Wilsonian tactic rather than Roosevelt’s. They at least try to preserve the illusion that they are doing their Constitutional duty, as they really expand their power that the document does not bestow on them. The Teddy Roosevelts and Donald Trumps are just more honest about it.
It doesn’t help matters that lan Dershowitz — a modern liberal Democrat, who was one of Trump’s defenders in the Senate impeachment trial — tossed in the following grenade: “The president is far more powerful than a king. The president has the power that kings have never had. He has a very, very powerful office, and the framers wanted it that way.” No lie: Dershowitz actually said that. The framers are rolling in their graves.
Trump and his Democratic defender — and indeed many Americans — are clueless as to what the Constitution says about executive power, and sadly many people are used to the idea of an uber-powerful president bearing no resemblance to what was envisioned for the office at the nation’s founding. We have primarily Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) to thank for that, though certainly others set horrible precedents in this regard: Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945), and George W. Bush (2001-2009). This catalog is party-blind; there have been as many power-happy Democrats as Republicans.
So far under Trump there have been no blows against free speech or the press, but there has been cause for alarm. He has repeatedly bashed the news media, and even threatened to pull NBC’s nonexistent “license”. He has used the Stalinist phrase “enemy of the people” against NBC. This sort of rhetoric, coupled with his authoritarian complex, leaves no room for doubt: if he could get away with censoring the media he would.
It’s not being paranoid to worry about a martial law under Donald Trump. In March 2020, his attorney general, William Barr, submitted a proposal that would strip American citizens of their habeas corpus rights during the Covid-19 pandemic. If the bill passes, American citizens could be held indefinitely without a trial, for whatever reason, without being able to challenge their detention.
Only two presidents have suspended habeas corpus, Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush, and both wrongly. Bad enough as a violation of civil liberty, the suspension of habeas corpus could be a stepping stone to martial law — which would be a nightmare under an executive like Donald Trump.
Trump has supported the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, signing a 2018 executive order to keep the prison open. Obama had tried to close the facility, but was blocked by Congress (Obama can be criticized for much, but not this). While the Trump administration has sent no new detainees to Guantanamo Bay, Trump did make noise about using it to jail captured Islamic State fighters.
Transgender in the Military
Trump overturned the Obama-era policy of allowing transgender personnel to serve openly in the military. Another setback.
Native American Indians
Trump’s treatment of the Indians has been disgraceful. He routinely insults Native Americans and ignores their concerns about his plans for drilling on sacred land. In 2017 he approved slashing the protected Bears Ears site by 200,000 acres, and later announced that it would be opened for oil and gas bidding.
His most recent targets are the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, who are losing their reservation status for more than 300 acres of land. That land will no longer be held in federal trust, and the tribe won’t have any tribal authority over it.
On a minor plus side, in November 2019, Trump did sign an executive order (“Operation Lady Justice”) for creating a task force to address the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, in particular women and children. But that’s a small amelioration for a mountain of sins.
The Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch
Trump’s positive contribution to the cause of liberty has come in his appointment of Neil Gorsuch, who replaced Antonin Scalia after thirty years of service on the bench. Anyone who doubts Gorsuch’s rightfully earned place can refer to my detailed look at how he has ruled since joining the court. His model of jurisprudence is exemplary; he is the best justice who has served on the court in my lifetime.
He has often been the lone conservative ruling with the four liberals against the other conservatives. He joined the liberals, for example, in favor of Indian tax exemptions (Washington State Department of Licensing v. Cougar Den Inc.); then again for the Indians on the question of Indian treaties (Herrera v. Wyoming); on a ruling about guns during crimes of violence (United States v. Davis); and in upholding the right to a trial by jury for a man convicted a second time of carrying child pornography (United States v. Haymond). If Gorsuch is conservative, he’s certainly no ideologue; he rules with the right kind of conservatism, interpreting the law, not legislating his personal views.
He has also gone where his fellow justices fear to tread. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission was the famous case involving the baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. The court correctly ruled for the baker (in a 7-2 decision), but on a technicality more than on the merits of the case itself. Gorsuch, in a separate concurrence, addressed the issue head on, affirming the free expression rights of a private business owner. There is a huge difference between (a) equal access to a commodity and (b) obliging someone to do creative work. If the baker had been in violation of (a) — in other words, refusing an available service or sale to a gay person — then the baker would be in violation of discrimination laws. That wasn’t the case. The baker, rather, was refusing to create something that he does not provide, period. Gorsuch rightly affirmed the baker’s First Amendment right.
We need more Gorsuchs on the Supreme Court. It’s not that the liberal justices are necessarily bad, but they tend to be more tribal. The judiciary by its nature is a conservative institution, designed to interpret and uphold laws already in place. It’s the nature of a progressive liberal to seek favorable change, but the best place for that is the legislature. The judiciary is restrictive. On issues of civil liberties, abortion rights, and separation of church and state, liberals like Ginsburg have usually ruled well, grounded in constitutional acumen and firm legal precedent. But on questions of economic liberty, and separation of the public and private sectors, the liberal justices have left much to be desired.
Here is Donald Trump’s report card.
Peace (Foreign Policy). For keeping the U.S. out of war (an immense change from the previous 16 years), Trump deserves serious credit. Most of his policies in the Middle-East are also impressive, and his mediocre policies with Russia aren’t as bad as his foes (who focus on his rhetoric more than his policies) have made it out to be. This must be weighed against his brinkmanship with North Korea, his detainment polices for migrant families, and his foolish crusade for the Mexican border wall. It comes to a score of 12.
Prosperity (Domestic Policy). For fake tax cuts, trade wars, tariffs, crony capitalism, undermining departments by appointing them lousy leaders, mismanaging the Covid-19 crisis, and torpedoing environmental progress, he gets almost nothing. I throw him a single point for removing the Affordable Health Care Mandate.
Liberty (Freedom, Justice). For his anti-Constitutional authoritarianism, believing himself to be entirely above the law, threatening the press, trying to suspend habeas corpus, supporting Guantanamo Bay, opposing transgender rights, and routinely stepping on Native Americans, he gets a putrid liberty score of 4. The appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch alone earns him 4 points.
Peace — 12/20
Prosperity — 1/20
Liberty — 4/20
TOTAL SCORE = 17/60 = Very Bad
This makes Donald Trump, in my estimation, the seventh worst president in history, perched above John Adams, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, George W. Bush, and Woodrow Wilson.