Trump draws on populist campaign roots as 100th day nears

Published 10:00 PM EDT, Tue April 18, 2017

Story highlights

Trump traveled to Wisconsin Tuesday

He signed an executive order there

(CNN) —  

“America First, you better believe it. It’s time. It’s time, right?”

Nearing the 100-day mark of his presidency, President Donald Trump posed this question to a roomful of manufacturing employees and technical students here Tuesday as he promoted a “Buy American, Hire American” executive order and flashed the populist persona that helped make him the first Republican to win this state in three decades.

He pilloried the World Trade Organization as “another one of our disasters,” tied the closure of thousands of factories in recent decades to China and slammed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, as a “complete and total disaster.”

“Big things will be happening on trade with other countries in the coming months. And I mean very big,” Trump promised.

Trump’s words struck at the core of the hand-wringing that has taken hold of some in his political base in recent weeks who have watched warily as Trump has softened some of his positions on China and as headlines shared insider accounts of the waning influence of Trump’s chief strategist and guardian of his populist campaign promises, Steve Bannon, while the sway of moderate New Yorkers swelled.

Trump’s return Tuesday to his promises of re-imagining US trade policies and reviving American manufacturing signaled how the President hopes to cap off the first 100 days of his presidency, mindful that voters are watching. The executive order he signed Tuesday is just the first of four trade-focused orders Trump is expected to sign this week, a senior administration official said.

“Finishing like we started,” the official said, referring to the flurry of activity via executive actions that defined the President’s first weeks in office.

But the sudden and conspicuous return to the populist roots of his campaign in his speech also signaled a recognition that his actions in office thus far have come up short of his goal of radically revamping the US trade policies and heralding a manufacturing revolution. And the executive order – which calls for stricter enforcement and launches a review of “Buy American” statutes and the doling out of skilled worker visas – will barely dent his attempts to match his bold campaign rhetoric with policy action.

So far, his administration has signaled it intends to push for only modest reforms to NAFTA, rather than the bold overhaul Trump championed on the campaign trail.

While he held China responsible for the loss of tens of thousands of US factory jobs since it joined the World Trade Organization, Trump has thus far shown no signs he plans to follow through with the massive tariffs he threatened to impose on the Asian powerhouse during the campaign and this month declined to label China a currency manipulator.

“Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?” Trump tweeted on Sunday.

Trump has taken action on other fronts, clinching a series of accomplishments that tick off campaign promises on trade and other areas. On trade, he withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as promised in his first week in office, put NAFTA partners on notice by initiating a review of the accord and signed a series of executive orders aimed at strengthening US trade laws. And he launched a 100-day action plan with the Chinese President to make changes to the US-China trading relationship.

But beyond the international juggling Trump pointed to, the President has also faced a challenging domestic political landscape.

His domestic agenda has effectively been stalled since his attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare stumbled on the starting block, dealing a blow to Trump’s political capital amid already fierce opposition from congressional Democrats.

Amid an off-script tangent on his legislative challenges, Trump shed light on the frustrations he has faced, revealing a keen awareness of the 100-day marker and the extent to which he and his brash campaign rhetoric have been boxed in by the realities of the presidency.

He is becoming saddled with a growing share of responsibility for the state of affairs in the country – numbers of manufacturing jobs, trade deficit totals and all.

He pressed the roomful of Wisconsinites to help him move forward on his agenda the best way he knew how – inspiring supporters by sticking to his populist roots and enlisting them into the effort.

“Press every one of your congressmen, press everybody,” he said.