The Trump Presidency: Assessing His Accomplishments, One Year After Election
WASHINGTON — On Nov. 8, the country marked exactly one year since the unexpected election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States.
A year after the election, the country is just as divided as it was on election night, with pessimism gripping both major political parties. A recent study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that more than 6 in 10 Americans think their side is losing.
At the same time, Pew reported the most motivated groups are the most conservative and most liberal in the respective Republican and Democratic Parties, forecasting even more polarization, division and disagreement.
President Trump’s bare-knuckles approach, and the hostility of his political opponents, has exacerbated an already-angry and uncivil age of political discourse. The acrimony has continued in the year after the election, with the president waging a Twitter war with his foes — above all those in the media — while the secular media has been relentless in its negative and hostile coverage.
Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center found, for example, that in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, 80% of the coverage was negative and only 20% was neutral or positive. In comparison, President Barack Obama’s coverage in early 2009 was 59% positive and 41% negative.
The media has also been focused intently on Republican disarray on Capitol Hill and especially Trump’s supposed unfitness for office and the investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump administration and Russia in the 2016 election.
The president has struggled to move on politically from the investigation, and his efforts have been hampered further by the recent indictment of Paul Manafort, one of his former 2016 presidential campaign managers, by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
For both those who support Trump and those who oppose him, the question can be asked: What has he accomplished in the first year in this context of deep division?
Trump carried a solid majority of the Catholic vote in 2016, and there were high expectations that he would implement policies that advance the pro-life cause and promote religious liberty both at home and abroad.
Following are some of the key areas that Catholics have watched closely over the last year. These include foreign policy, health care, religious liberty and the Health and Human Services’ mandate, pro-life issues, gender ideologies and immigration.
The president has confronted several crises in this first year, including the genuine threat of nuclear war with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the risks associated with rising nationalism and continued terrorism in Western Europe, and the collapse of Venezuela into a failed state because of its socialist policies.
Trump’s approach to the challenges was clear from his address to the United Nations in September, when, emphasizing national sovereignty, he declared, “Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens — to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights and to defend their values. As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.”
Foreign policy has provided a significant opportunity to break sharply with the policies of his predecessor. The tone of the new administration in its dealings with the United Nations was set within weeks of the election, when Trump appointed pro-life Gov. Nikki Haley of North Carolina as his new U.N. ambassador. In April, the administration withdrew U.S. funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) because of its active role in funding China’s policies of forced abortions and sterilizations. In October, the U.S. additionally ended its support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), seeking instead to establish a permanent observer status because of “mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias.”
In September, the agency promoted a report that advocated sex changes and abortion for children.
In the area of international human rights, in July, Trump appointed pro-life Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to the post of ambassador for International Religious Freedom. On Oct. 25, Vice President Mike Pence announced at a dinner for the organization In Defense of Christians that the State Department will cease funding “ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations. From this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID,” a government agency that provides foreign aid (see related stories here and here). The move was welcomed by Catholic leaders who see this as an important moment for helping the Christians of the Middle East in one of their darkest hours.
Less positively, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — who had a history of supporting abortion and the politics of gender identity when he ran ExxonMobil — acknowledged “Gay Pride Month” in June in an official statement and also chose to keep open the office of Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons, first established by the Obama administration in 2015, that promotes that cause worldwide.
After years of protracted legal battles involving the federal government, including cases that reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, on Oct. 6, the Trump administration kept one of his most public promises and issued an order ending the federal requirement that employers violate their consciences and participate in the HHS mandate and providing a broad religious and moral exemption.
The U.S. bishops hailed the decision, and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee for Religious Liberty, called the action a “return to common sense, long-standing federal practice and peaceful coexistence between church and state.”
And Oct. 12, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a broad-reaching memorandum for all executive departments and agencies on the subject of “Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty.” The order was praised by Archbishop Lori, who said, “The attorney general’s guidance helpfully reaffirms that the law protects the freedom of faith-based organizations to conduct their operations in accordance with their religious mission.”
Candidate Trump made one of the pillars of his presidential campaign the pledge to repeal and replace “Obamacare.” Even with the GOP in control of both houses of Congress, the repeal proved impossible, chiefly because of Republican infighting. The lack of repeal meant the defeat of numerous pro-life provisions, including a serious effort to defund Planned Parenthood.
In reply to the defeat on Capitol Hill, on Oct. 13, Trump signed an executive order on health care to allow the sale of health insurance across state lines, expand certain insurance options and end subsidies to insurers. Part of an indirect approach to ending Obamacare, the order prompted concern by the U.S. bishops because it might hurt lower-income individuals. Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, wrote, “In general, robust options for people to obtain health coverage, as well as flexibility and approaches aimed at increased affordability, are important strategies in health care. However, in implementing this executive order, great care must be taken to avoid risk of additional harm to those who now receive health care coverage through exchanges formed under the Affordable Care Act.”
The Trump administration has brought a significant cultural change at the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump has appointed leading pro-life advocates and authorities to HHS posts, including Charmaine Yoest, the former president of Americans United for Life, as assistant secretary of Public Affairs; Teresa Manning, a law professor, as deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Population Affairs; Shannon Royce, the former chief of staff at the Family Research Council, as the director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships; and Roger Severino, formerly of the Heritage Foundation, as head the Office of Civil Rights.
The impact of these appointments was clear with the publication of HHS’ strategic plan issued Oct. 16 that stresses protecting citizens “from conception to natural death.” (See related story.)
The Trump administration has taken a number of initiatives to reverse the Obama administration’s aggressive policies regarding so-called “LGBTQ” rights and other gender issues. In February, the Trump administration announced it would not defend the Obama administration’s “transgender school-bathrooms mandate.” That same month, the Trump administration repealed the May 2016 guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education, entitled “Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students,” instructing that public pre-K through 12th grade schools, as well as all colleges and universities, should treat “a student’s gender identity as the student’s sex.”
In August, Trump signed a directive that the U.S. military would end the policy of accepting “transgender” individuals. Defense Secretary James Mattis was given six months to develop a plan to implement the directive, including wide discretion in determining whether those already in the armed forces will be permitted to remain.
In October, the Trump administration reversed the three-year-old Obama administration policy asserting that “gender identity” is a protected civil right under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Trump made a number of major promises to the pro-life contingent, including nominating pro-life judges and defunding Planned Parenthood. Catholics generally have expressed considerable surprise at the degree to which the Trump administration has rescinded a number of pro-abortion policies and directives from the Obama era.
One of the first actions by Trump after the inauguration in January was to reinstate the Mexico City Policy that bans U.S. funding for non-governmental organizations that promote abortions overseas. To drive home further the commitment of the administration, Trump sent Pence and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway to speak at the March for Life in Washington in January.
In April, the State Department announced it would withhold federal funding from the U.N. Population Fund because of its support of Chinese agencies that perform forced abortions and sterilizations.
Trump also began leaving a potentially significant pro-life mark on the judicial branch, with his nominations of new judges for the federal courts. The most significant appointment so far has been naming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court as successor to the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Gorsuch was approved by the Senate April 7.
The Senate has also confirmed to date eight federal judges to the courts of appeal or district courts, although confirmations have been slowed by procedural maneuvering by the Democratic minority in the Senate and the unhurried pace with which the Trump White House is sending appointments to the U.S. Senate for confirmation. Still, the president has already begun shaping the judiciary in ways that will be felt for many years to come. Appeals court nominee Amy Coney Barrett was approved by the Senate Oct. 31.
Then-candidate Trump pledged to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to bring a comprehensive reform of the largely broken U.S. immigration system.
He has largely worked to honor both pledges, although in doing so, he has faced strong opposition from the U.S. bishops and many Catholic agencies that assist migrants.
On Jan. 25, the president issued an executive order to construct the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and to increase immigrant detention and deportation. Two days later, the president issued an executive order that suspended issuance of visas and other immigration benefits to nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days; indefinitely suspended resettlement of refugees from Syria, with a possible exception for those who are “religious minorities” in their home countries; and suspended virtually the entire U.S. refugee-resettlement program for 120 days, also subject to a possible exception for such “religious minorities.” The so-called travel ban was immediately subjected to legal challenges that continue, despite modifications by the administration.
Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, vice president of the USCCB, condemned the travel ban, and the bishops have been in opposition to most of the administration’s immigration policies so far.
In March, the administration issued an executive order that placed the historically low cap of 50,000 refugees allowed to be resettled in the United States for Fiscal Year 2017. This was followed in September by the proposed “Presidential Determination for Refugee Admissions” that would admit up to 45,000 refugees to the United States in 2018, the lowest since the founding of the program in 1980.
Also in September, the administration announced the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program after six months. Cardinal DiNardo and Archbishop Gomez declared “cancellation of the DACA program is reprehensible.”
As the calendar moves toward the start of the second year of the Trump presidency in January, there remains a lengthy legislative agenda still waiting for action by Congress and the White House. The Trump agenda on health care and taxes has largely been stymied on Capitol Hill, and the intensity of the legislative fights will only increase with each month as the 2018 midterm elections loom increasingly on the political horizon.
And then there are the ongoing foreign-policy challenges — from North Korea to the spread of Islamists in Africa, to the political and social crisis in Europe caused by mass migration, jihadist terror, Brexit and increasing nationalism.
While President Trump has already left a significant mark on American political life by his election, the next months will provide the president key opportunities to craft his own legacy of lasting and meaningful governance.
Matthew E. Bunson is a Register Senior Editor.