Early Sunday morning, at a time when few people would be likely to tune in save, perhaps, for die-hard fans watching as they got ready for a day on the links, Fox News’s “Fox and Friends” presented its viewers with a six-point list of President Trump’s accomplishments.
- Moving U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem
- Leaving the Iran deal
- Release of prisoners and summit with Kim Jong Un
- Rising approval ratings
- Two judges rebuke Mueller’s investigation
- Making the economy great again
We’ll note that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list; Fox presents it in the context of Trump’s growing list of accomplishments. These, one might then be forgiven for assuming, are simply the most recent additions to that list. It raises the question, though, of how big a window we’re looking at here. These are Trump’s top accomplishments in the past, what, week? Month? Year?
That’s secondary to the other question, of course, the one that likely struck you as you read that list: Do these all really count as accomplishments?
Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. As is so often the case, when evaluating political claims, we can quickly spiral into a college-sophomore debate over the meaning of words. (See: “What is a lie?”) Here the word at issue is “accomplished.”
Generally speaking, “accomplished” is the more mature older brother of “did.” An accomplishment is something you did, certainly, but the implication is that you did it despite something. It’s not an accomplishment when you tie your shoes every day, but it was an accomplishment when you did it the first time, having overcome your previous inability to tie your shoes.
That linguistic throat-clearing dispensed with, it’s certainly true that Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem, a transfer formalized Monday morning. He did that. American political accomplishments are often defined by having reached compromise agreeable to all parties. This wasn’t that; Trump acted unilaterally. What he accomplished was doing it despite the objections of many foreign policy experts who warned that such an action would increase tensions and jeopardize the United States’ role as an arbiter of peace between Israel and Palestinians. He overcame, if you will, the objections that past presidents had heeded.
Leaving the Iran deal. Everything above minus the intro about the meanings of words and swapping “leaving the Iran deal” for “moved the embassy to Jerusalem.”
That’s a little unfair, given that the objections to the Iran deal were more partisan than the objections to moving the embassy. At the time that it was agreed to by the administration of President Barack Obama, Republicans expressed dismay at the deal. Which unfortunately makes the accomplishment a bit more hollow: Doing a thing that you had the full authority to do and which had the blessing of many in your party is certainly something that was done; whether it deserves to be described with the added weight of an accomplishment is another question.
To use a loaded analogy, it’s a bit like giving every kid who participates in a soccer tournament a trophy of accomplishment just for getting there. Some would argue that such recognition diminishes the accomplishments of others — or, in this case, other accomplishments.
Release of prisoners and summit with Kim Jong Un. A negotiated agreement with North Korea that involves an elimination of the threat posed by North Korea’s atomic weapons and which moves toward a normalization of relations between the two Koreas would be historic. It’s also an unalloyed good that three men being held prisoner by the North Korean government are now free.
Experts debate the extent to which Trump’s provocations toward North Korea led to the recent thaw between North Korea and the United States. Many — and many political observers — give him that credit. Trump will have his chance to eliminate any debate over his role during his meeting with Kim next month.
Rising approval ratings. Now we get into murkier territory. First of all, his approval ratings have improved, from a low in the mid-30s in December to the low 40s today. In FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, Trump’s as popular now as he was right before he fired former FBI director James B. Comey.
But now we get into the question about how big a window we’re looking at. Trump and his allies have been trumpeting his improved approval numbers in Rasmussen Reports’s polling since the beginning of April, regularly touting that he has crossed the 50-percent mark in that most friendly of polls.
The rise, per FiveThirtyEight, began in mid-December. Since mid-February, his approval ratings have been fairly static (though in the past 10 days he has been at about 42 percent). If the “rising ratings” began in December, that suggests a lot of other things that might meet the bar of “accomplishments” in the interim. His most significant legislative accomplishment happened after that! If the window opened in December, you would think that would make Fox’s list.
Two judges rebuke special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. I wrote this article because there is no way in which this is an accomplishment of Trump’s.
These rebukes were not anything done by Trump. They were not anything that had anything to do with his administration. They were not cases that had anything to do with Trump directly, one involving questions during the trial against Paul Manafort for financial crimes and the other against the Russians indicted by Mueller. In the latter case, the term “rebuke” is a bit strong; the judge ruled against Mueller on a procedural question.
It’s this bullet point that snaps the entire thing into focus. In this framework, an accomplishment for Trump is simply a loss for Trump’s opponents. The Iran deal was a loss for Trump’s opponents. The embassy move? Same. Even the North Korea shift can be seen in that light: Trump has repeatedly disparaged those who warned that his aggressive language would lead to nuclear war as having misjudged him.
Mueller loses a hearing? Win for Trump simply because Mueller is an equivalent to “anti-Trump” in this calculus. “Anti-Trump loses” equals “Trump wins.”
Making the economy great again. One of Trump’s most remarkably successful rhetorical frames was to argue before the election that the economy was in shambles and that, after, it surged. In fact, the economy had been doing well consistently after the recession, and Trump inherited that trend.
Last week he bragged that the media would have disparaged him had he predicted during the campaign that the economy would have added 3.3 million jobs by now after the election. In fact, the jobs gains have been entirely in line with what projections would have suggested.
He brags about the stock market, which was on a tear since the recession ended. He brags about record-low unemployment for black and Hispanic Americans, which is a bit like the guy who crosses the finish line in a track relay taking credit for winning the whole race. From April 2011 to January 2017, the black unemployment rate fell from 16.5 percent to 7.8 percent. Since then, it has dropped further to 6.6 percent. Had Obama somehow won a third term in office, there’s no reason to think that the black unemployment rate would be much different than it is now.
But, then, that’s not what “Fox and Friends” claims. It claims, simply, that the economy has been made great again. In this case, the accomplishment was apparently overcoming the need for traditional measures and descriptors for economic progress.
Trump has been eager to present his administration as an unmitigated success because Trump is eager to present everything he does as an unmitigated success. “Fox and Friends” is eager to do so as well for less clear reasons, though they certainly involve the symbiosis the show enjoys with the president and his base.
Particularly for conservative Republicans, Trump has done a lot of things that he both promised to do and which his base will support. This overeager list from “Fox and Friends,” though, doesn’t really help make that case.