Trump Broke Some Promises. He Should Break More.
In his first week as president, Donald Trump followed through on several campaign pledges: suspending immigration and refugee settlement from several Muslim-majority countries; ordering federal agencies to build a border wall; scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement; prepping the Health and Human Services Department for the end of the Affordable Care Act; and resurrecting the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines.
But Trump flinched on other agenda items previously promised for Day One. Instead of terminating Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides protection from deportation to the children of undocumented immigrants, the White House pled for time. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “His priority is first and foremost focused on people who pose a threat to people in our country — criminals, frankly. With respect to DACA, I think he’s continuing to make sure his Cabinet-level team starts to organize and create a plan to move forward.”
Trump hesitated on a commitment to immediately charge China with being a “currency manipulator” and impose retaliatory measures. Trump softened his tone to the Wall Street Journal shortly before the inauguration: “I would talk to them first. Certainly they are manipulators. But I’m not looking to do that.” Spicer pled for time regarding Trump’s pledge to move the Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem, saying, “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.”
And, of course, Trump won’t be locking up Hillary Clinton anytime soon.
By being selective about what he promises to prioritize, Trump is behaving like a normal politician. He is also exhibiting a degree of awareness that not every promise made in the campaign is wise to carry out once in office.
Which makes all the stranger what he is choosing to prioritize. Once you put aside the ideological, feverish rhetoric, it’s clear that there is no crisis that is forcing Trump to prioritize hugely risky endeavors such as a border wall, Affordable Care Act repeal or a refugee ban.
The Mexican immigrant population declined on Obama’s watch. The health care system is not in a “death spiral” of exorbitant premiums driving away healthy customers and leaving an unsustainable pool of sick customers. And as former counterterrorism official Daniel Benjamin notes, “From Fort Hood to Orlando, jihadist killings have been the work of American citizens and green card holders. The strong consensus in the counterterrorism community remains that the principal danger today continues to come from homegrown extremists,” not refugees.
Those with different ideologies than mine may want drastic action in these areas for other reasons: a fundamental belief that immigrants and refugees strain American resources, and that government involvement in health care is antithetical to free market principles. And critics can certainly point to anecdotal examples of problems to justify reforms. But there’s no credible argument that, in these particular areas, the situation is so dire that Trump had to act brashly and rashly.
Preferring the sledgehammer over the scalpel may create crises where none existed. Mexico is already recoiling at Trump’s demand to pay for his border wall. If Trump can’t cajole an embittered Mexico to accept a NAFTA trade deal on terms favorable to the U.S., Trump may abrogate it, sparking higher prices for goods in America. Ask Jimmy Carter how much inflation helped him.
Furthermore, a breakdown in relations with Mexico could prompt our previously cooperative neighbor to, as one former Mexican official recently explained in The Atlantic, “allow Central American migrants to reach the U.S. border [and] stop sharing water with drought-ravaged border states.” Then you’ll see a real border crisis.
The refugee ban may similarly damage security cooperation with our Middle East allies. Recall Jeb Bush’s warning from December 2015: “If we’re going to ban all Muslims, how are we going to get them to be part of a coalition to destroy ISIS? … It will push the Muslim world, the Arab world away from us. … He’s a chaos candidate and he’d be a chaos president.”
You think Obamacare is costly now? A “repeal and delay” strategy may create the “death spiral,” as many insurers conclude there’s no point waiting around for the replacement and abandon the state marketplaces, while the remaining insurers jack up premiums to cover their risk. And an actual replacement that scraps the integral component of the Affordable Care Act, the individual mandate, removes the Jenga piece that prevents the risk pool from becoming top-heavy with the sick. (Health care policy is so complicated that Democratic operative James Carville recently observed, “The mover on health care loses. To do something is to lose.”)
Sure, these policies galvanize his supporters. But as Trump himself noted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.” He has already chosen to delay, if not bury, other campaign pledges. He has flip-flopped before and will flip-flop again. He is quite comfortable making ludicrous excuses for his actions. There is no reason he can’t apply his rhetorical elasticity to make pragmatic governing decisions and minimize political risk. He can pull back from the brink on all these fronts, if he so chooses.
Assuming he doesn’t, the logical conclusion to draw from Trump’s priorities is that these are the policies he wants most. He may believe that these policies are so important that they are worth the political risk, even worth losing re-election. But he might want to consider the wisdom from the song he often used to close his campaign rallies: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”