Presidents want to leave a lasting legacy. If you believe Donald Trump, he has already left a lasting imprint:
It is not surprising that President Trump would say this, even though the last time he said this, he almost got laughed out of the building. To be fair, however, more neutral observers agree that Trump has left his imprint on particular policies. There is no denying that Trump is leaving his imprint on the federal judiciary. And the Tax Cut and Jobs Act is in effect.
FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. notes that Trump’s effect on immigration policy has been considerable even without any appreciable funding for a wall: “Trump, in his two years in office, has already made U.S. policy much, much more resistant to immigration — without Congress agreeing to his wall or really any of his immigration ideas. There is no physical wall, but there are all kinds of new barriers for people who want to come to the United States and for undocumented immigrants who want to stay.” He has data to back him up.
On the other hand, The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Philip Rucker have quite a paragraph tucked into the middle of their article about White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s planned departure:
Facing the dawn of his third year in office and his bid for reelection, Trump is stepping into a political hailstorm. Democrats are preparing to seize control of the House in January with subpoena power to investigate corruption. Global markets are reeling from his trade war. The United States is isolated from its traditional partners. The investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference is intensifying. And court filings Friday in a separate federal case implicated Trump in a felony.
I mean, that’s certainly a legacy, but not exactly one that any president would want. It’s more appropriate for a Star Wars opening crawl. And matters have gotten worse since that article was published Saturday. Nick Ayers, Trump’s choice to replace Kelly, declined the job because he refused to commit to two years. With Trump now scrambling for a replacement, possible candidates keep withdrawing from consideration. According to Politico’s Nancy Cook, “[the] list of potential replacements for Kelly shrinking by the hour.” Pro tip: When no one wants to be your chief of staff, that is a sign that your administration might not be leaving the best and most lasting legacy.
This story dovetails nicely with two of my Post colleagues' arguments from late last week about Trump’s incompetence getting the better of his administration’s policy efforts. Greg Sargent argued that, on almost every facet of Trump’s foreign policy — China, trade wars, trade deficits and immigration — he has sabotaged his own agenda. Similarly, Max Boot looks at Trump’s latest screw-ups — U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, the turmoil at Justice, overall White House chaos — and concludes that the president’s incompetence undercuts his malevolence: “President Trump is either oblivious to, or simply disdainful of, what for good reason has become conventional wisdom in politics. No president has attempted more coverups — and with less success. ... This administration can’t do anything right; even its coverups are incompetent. That is, of course, its saving grace. Trump would be far more dangerous if he were more adept at concealing evidence of his misdeeds.”
So on the one hand, Trump is having an effect on some areas of policy; on the other, many of his efforts seem hapless and unfocused. Is it possible to reconcile these two contrasting narratives? I believe so. First, one has to acknowledge that the appointments to the judiciary do represent a legacy, though that has as much to do with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Federalist Society as with Trump.
Second, and more important, almost everything else that the Trump administration has done could be undone by the next president. In 2021, Trump’s successor could completely reverse all of his immigration and foreign policies without much effort. There are no new bureaucracies or agencies that exist because of Trump, particularly if the Space Corps never comes to pass.
Trump’s predecessor faced this problem to a lesser degree. Many of his signature foreign policies — the Iran deal, the Paris climate deal and the Cuba opening — were executive-branch-only exercises. Trump was able to reverse all three. This is a function of what some scholars describe as “executive-centered partisanship.”
Still, three factors make Trump’s legacy particularly thin. The first is how little his administration accomplished in its first two years despite unified control of Congress. Second, Trump’s management of the executive branch has been detached enough to bog down any attempt to implement policy through executive action alone. The man cannot get a military parade; more serious policy changes are that much harder. And, finally, Trump’s scandals pose a more existential threat to his presidency than all of the Obama administration’s scandals combined.
Trump’s capacity to destroy is much greater than his capacity to create. The next president will have to devote considerable effort to cleaning up the current president’s messes. But there will be very little policy to change after the first 100 days of a new administration. There is simply not that much Trump policy to alter.