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Trust me, I’m the president

Posted by hkarner - 26. Januar 2017

Date: 26-01-2017
Source: The Economist

The new president has brought the habits of his campaign to the Oval Office

WHEN Richard Nixon’s presidency began his attorney-general gave this piece of advice to reporters: “Watch what we do, not what we say.” In his first week in office the 45th president said plenty to comfort loyalists and confound foes with his extravagant and disorientating lies. The press corps dwelt on what it means to have a White House spokesman who makes statements that are readily disproved, working under a president whose claims about voter fraud are entirely bogus. The startling thing is that in these first few days Donald Trump has been just as extravagant in his deeds as in his words.

Incoming presidents like to use their powers to take swift action even when they have majorities in Congress. The order banning foreign NGOs that “actively promote” abortions from receiving federal money is a good example. Even so, it is breathtaking how powerfully this president is signalling that he intends to honour campaign promises that some assumed were just talking points. So, too, is the passivity of congressmen who spent much of the past six years denouncing the previous president for his imperial use of executive orders.The orders signed so far include: giving the go-ahead to two oil pipelines, stipulating that they should use American steel in their construction; withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; dismantling the rules that underpin Obamacare; freezing most hiring in the federal workforce; speeding environmental reviews on infrastructure projects; extending a wall along the border with Mexico; broadening the definition of offences that can lead illegal migrants to be deported; cutting grants for “sanctuary cities”, which are reluctant to deport most immigrants; and increasing the number of border-patrol agents.

Draft executive actions, copies of which have been seen by news organisations including the New York Times and Vox, include putting the CIA back in the business of holding terror suspects by reopening “black sites” in other countries, which were previously used to torture prisoners; cutting back funding for the UN and other multilateral organisations; and ending the settlement of Syrian refugees and temporarily banning visitors from seven Muslim countries (Iran, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq).

Mr Trump has a mandate for speed, having repeatedly promised to act “so fast” on the campaign trail. But America is built on checks and balances, even when one party holds almost all the keys to power, as Republicans currently do. Mr Trump seems to be betting he can govern without them. “We do not need new laws,” he told civil servants at the Department for Homeland Security. “We will work within the existing framework.”

Judged by their previous positions on everything from deficit spending to the dangers of an overmighty executive, Mr Trump should be heading for a clash with Republicans in Congress. But some lawmakers are relaxed about being by-passed. “We expect a lot of actions,” Adam Kinzinger, a Republican member of the House, told Politico. “Obviously I have no idea what it’s going to look like. For me, he’s elected president, he’s got his first days planned and what he’s going to do…there’s no reason that he needs to communicate all the details of executive actions to us.”

And Mr Trump remains convinced, with reason, that he can speak to voters over the head of party bosses. There are signs that they are feeling cowed. Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, a budget hawk and until recently a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, said that Congress will work with the president to pay for the wall upfront, the bill for which is cautiously estimated at $10bn.

Eventually, though, lawmakers may start to cause trouble and to use the power they hold over spending. At the same time, opponents among non-profit and advocacy groups will from the start do their best to ensnare Mr Trump’s actions in the courts.

It matters, therefore, that some of the president’s orders are unclear. The one on Obamacare, for instance, which offers non-specific “relief” from the Affordable Care Act, leaves a lot unsaid. On the face of it, the action tells the government to stop enforcing coercive measures that force people to buy health insurance and are unpopular. But it is silent on how to pay for Mr Trump’s popular promises to offer a replacement that is cheaper and better.

Optimists point to experienced and distinguished generals and businessmen appointed to Mr Trump’s cabinet as a restraint on government by edict. But those outside the president’s innermost circle seem blindsided, too.

On torture, for example, Mr Trump concedes that the retired four-star marine general, James Mattis, whom he has picked as his defence secretary, believes that brutal interrogations are ineffective. Congress, led by Senator John McCain, the Republican former presidential candidate and himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam war, has banned all interrogation methods not found in the army field manual. Mr McCain tweeted this week that Mr Trump “can sign whatever executive orders he likes, but the law is the law—we’re not bringing back torture.”

But Mr Trump told ABC television that, although he would listen to his new defence secretary and his CIA chief, “I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence. And I asked them the question, ‘Does it work? Does torture work?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, absolutely’.”

Mr Trump knows, better than his critics, what his supporters want. In his inaugural address, delivered outside the Capitol on January 20th, he swore to resuscitate a country he described as crippled by deindustrialisation and crime: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Many commentators, including some Republicans, decried this as demagoguery. But it was popular; 65% of Americans liked Mr Trump’s “America First” message. Although Mr Trump’s approval ratings are low for a new president, many proposals, including the promise to protect the country from foreign competition, go down well. Nor is he daunted by the risk that his actions will be unpopular beyond America’s borders, saying: “The world is as angry as it gets. What? You think this is gonna cause a little more anger?”

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