The President tries to score some points before Day 100
White House pushes on many fronts, but a big win is elusive
Donald Trump’s first 100 days as President is ending as it began, in a tempestuous flurry of activity, executive power flexing and controversy.
And just like the President’s first few days in the White House, it’s not immediately clear what exactly it all adds up to.
On the one hand, the White House is insisting, like the boss in the Oval Office, that the First 100 days milestone is ridiculous, but on the other hand they are by all indications racing to make the most of every hour until Saturday’s deadline.
All of this activity is taking place as the threat of a government shutdown apparently fades, after the White House backed off of demands for money for a Mexican border to be included in a funding package.
With Washington once again slipping into a Trumpian vortex, the hyperactive President is trying to leave an impression that far from floundering, his administration is on a roll.
“This is a big one, are you ready?” Trump said as he prepared to sign an executive order on rolling back prohibitions on development on public lands, just one of a long list of events jammed into his day on Wednesday.
The main event was the unveiling of proposals for massive personal and business tax cuts.
“This is quite an historic day for us … we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something really big,” Trump economic advisor Gary Cohn told reporters as he appeared in the White House briefing room alongside Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a show of administration firepower.
But in an apt metaphor for the early months of the Trump presidency, so much was going on, it was tough to work out what was really significant.
Trump aides for instance leaked news that the President was considering an executive order to pull out of NAFTA, on the heels of several days of Canada bashing that recalled his tough campaign rhetoric on trade.
In another unusual move, the President summoned all of the members of the Senate to a briefing at the White House complex on the worsening showdown with North Korea. Anonymous White House sources meanwhile floated talk of a vote on repealing Obamacare as soon as Friday.
A few hours later, another top official was briefing the press – this time off camera, and focusing on Trump’s first 100 Days as a world leader. And the president deployed his pen again with an executive action on education.
He also found time to fire off a new broadside at the federal judiciary, after another foundational campaign pledge, a vow to crackdown on sanctuary cities, came a cropper in the courts.
There will be no break in the pace on Thursday.
It’s all leading up to a first 100 days capping rally on Saturday night in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, designed to renew the bond between Trump and his loyal supporters in a state that helped pave his way to the White House. The event was scheduled by the White House to clash with White House correspondents’ dinner that Trump is boycotting in a mischievous swipe at the Beltway press.
It’s not difficult to work out what the White House is trying to do. Trump wants to show the people who sent him to Washington that he is doing exactly what he said he would do, taking aim at political taboos, living up to his rhetoric on trade and education, and building a significant presidency.
There’s no denying the White House is busy and having a ball. But the quickening pace left nagging questions hanging in the air.
Just how lasting, significant and realistic are the actions that Trump is taking in the run-up to Saturday’s 100-day mark?
And is there anything really new here – from the briefing on North Korea, to the fairly vague outlines of a tax bill to the chatter about a new health care vote?
Trump’s education order for example was only a first step – requiring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to commission a study on federal overreach in public education.
The North Korea briefing did not seem to break new ground – other than to reaffirm the gravity of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threat.
“What was discussed I already knew,” said Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
His GOP counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, added: “I didn’t hear anything new because I have been heavily briefed before.”
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said there was “no revelation” in the meeting and suggested that the event as much about theatrics as new developments in the nuclear crisis. The White House seized a “chance to convey they’re serious,” he said after the meeting.
Talk of a health care vote meanwhile looks like a new case of smoke and mirrors from the White House – absent any clear sign that differences between moderates and conservatives in the GOP caucus have been narrowed sufficiently to prompt GOP leaders to schedule another floor showdown.
There’s a similar air of unreality about the White House tax plans, which on paper at least fall short of the grand billing offered by Cohn and Mnuchin.
For sure, it was a first offering from the administration, but the one page handout of broad principles didn’t seem to amount to the generational tax reform package that the administration promises.
“It’s not tax reform,” said one senior GOP aide. “Not even close.”
Another Capitol Hill aide added: “We get that they want make a big show of leading the way on this, but that’s not how this is supposed to work.”
There were similar doubts about the threat to quit NAFTA. It was not immediately clear whether the leak was a genuine threat to the key agreement involving Canada and Mexico, or a message to the Trump base and an opening gambit in trade talks with the two neighbors.
Late Wednesday, news broke from the White House that the agreement would stay in place after the President had separate chats with both countries’ leaders and vowed to improve the deal for all three nations.
One of Trump’s most consequential moves Wednesday could turn out to be the executive order on public lands – which in theory at least appears to roll back the actions of the last three presidents.
But as in the early days of the Trump administration, the executive actions also hinted at political weakness.
Given that much of Trump’s penmanship was canceling out aspects of the Obama administration’s legacy, a future president could wipe away his action with similar dispatch.
And as Trump hits the 100-day mark lacking a legacy-defining legislative achievement and weighed down by the lowest approval ratings of any modern president, his search for a permanent place in history remains elusive.
If a health care bill passes soon, if he solves the North Korea riddle, if he passes a huge tax bill, if he turns education policy upside down and negotiates a better deal on NAFTA, the frenzy of the last few days could mark a turning point.
But until then, he has work to do to live up to his declaration in the inaugural address that started it all nearly 100 days ago: “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.”
CNN’s Jeremy Herb, Phil Mattingly, Jim Sciutto, Lauren Fox and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.