international analysis and commentary

Envisaging Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office


In October, the Trump campaign made public a document called “Donald J. Trump contract with the American voter.” It began: “What follows is my 100-day action plan to Make America Great Again” and promised no less than 18 sweeping actions to take “on the first day of my term in office.” This heavy lifting starts with a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress.

The “100-day” cliché comes from an article by Walter Lippman, who in 1933 wrote about the accomplishments of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the first three and a half months of his administration: “At the end of February we were a congeries of disorderly panic-stricken mobs and factions. In the hundred days from March to June we became again an organized nation confident of our power to provide for our own security and to control our own destiny.” Since then, unimaginative journalists have gossiped, speculated, and built castles in the air about what every new president-elect would do as soon as he enters the White House.   

Donald Trump proposes 18 measures to take “on the first day,” the first six of which are the following:

  *   FIRST, a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress;

  *   SECOND, a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce the federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety and public health);

  *   THIRD, a requirement that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated;

  *   FOURTH, a five-year ban on White House and Congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave government service;

  *   FIFTH, a lifetime ban on White House officials lobbying on behalf of a foreign government;

  *   SIXTH, a complete ban on foreign lobbyists raising money for American elections.

What did Roosevelt do in his first day, Saturday, March 4, 1933? He simply directed his advisors to study the most pressing issue, saving the banks. It was only on the second day, on Sunday, March 5, that he issued two proclamations: one calling Congress in session on March 9, and one declaring a “bank holiday,” that is closing all banks pending emergency legislation. On March 9, 1933, Roosevelt sent the Emergency Banking Act to Congress, which was passed and signed into law the same day. It provided for a system of gradually reopening banks under Treasury supervision.

This brief historical aide-memoir is useful in evaluating Trump’s proposals, whose timing do not appear realistic. While the administration may decide on a hiring freeze on all federal employees, all other measures probably require legislation, meaning Congress’s approval. Therefore, while in principle the new president can count on narrow Republican majorities in both chambers, it is far from certain that senators and representatives will welcome a constitutional amendment to impose term limits to them. Nor will a ban on Congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave government service (shutting down the well-oiled Washington revolving door) spark enthusiasm on Capitol Hill.

The next section of Trump’s “contract,” seven actions to protect American workers, shows how ignorant the tycoon is about the basics of American government: “I will direct my Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator […] I will direct the Secretary of Commerce and US Trade Representative to identify all foreign trading abuses that unfairly impact American workers” the text says. However, “on the first day” there will be no Secretary of the Treasury, or Secretary of Commerce, because all cabinet members need to be confirmed by the Senate and some names circulating today, such as Jamie Dimon, CEO of Morgan Chase, will certainly face a strong Democratic filibuster in the Senate. FDR’s cabinet was confirmed the same day he took office, but in 1933 the urgency to act was quite different, and the Democratic majorities that supported the president far larger than the Republican ones today.

The substance of Trump’s proposals is a mixed bag of announcements that cost nothing but postpone every practical decision to the future, like renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement or withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and vague ideas of environment-damaging developments, like lifting the restrictions on the exploitation of American energy reserves, that will certainly be challenged in court, perhaps for years.

He could, however, appoint a group of global-warming deniers to run the Environmental Protection Agency, or even initiate legislation to abolish the agency altogether, in order to erase environmental regulations long-fought by the oil and coal industry, with help by Republicans in Congress. The most symbolic step in this area would be to announce the exit from the Paris agreement dealing with greenhouse gases emissions mitigation (which has just entered into force on November 4, having being, recently ratified by 110 countries); the US has ratified the deal, and it would be three years before the US could formally withdraw, but of course the intention to abandon it or even a lack of practical steps to implement its provisions would amount to a major political disruption.

Finally, the “actions to restore security and the constitutional rule of law” include some promises that are in the power of the president, such as suspending immigration “from terror-prone regions,” even if the determination of these regions is far from obvious: is staunch ally Saudi Arabia one of them? Congress recently said so, but career diplomats may not agree. And what about that other good ally, Egypt? Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian citizen, is the current leader of Al-Qaeda.

Other things are feasible (“selecting a replacement for Justice Scalia from one of the 20 judges on my list,”) but the timing also depends on the attitude of Democrats in the Senate. Some other key targets, like immigration, require massive investments of political will, budgetary and human resources. “Begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country and cancel visas to foreign countries that won’t take them back” is more easily said than done: just catching two million criminals appears to be a daunting task, while deporting non-criminals would certainly invite a strong public opinion backlash.

So, what can President Trump really do in the first 100 days? Certainly a lot of fireworks on symbolic issues important to his supporters like the environment or the Supreme Court: he will be able to appoint a very conservative justice to replace Antonin Scalia and maybe have him confirmed. His ambitious infrastructures rebuilding plan could start, if deficit-obsessed Republicans in Congress will agree, which is not 100% certain. And finally he might float the idea of tariffs on foreign goods, in order to protect American manufacturing, but trusted advisors will whisper in his ear that this move could trigger a Wall Street crack, not the best way to inaugurate an era of peace and prosperity.

Unfortunately, the area where he will be most active will be immigration, even if stopping tourists at airports will be easier than invading barrios with militarized police in order to arrest thousands of men, women and children, something that the next Attorney General will probably try to do.