Welcome to a presidency like no other, with every week an epic saga. There is never a dull moment.
Here the truth is a regular casualty, the optics are haphazard, governance and policy appear to be afterthoughts, and all meaning lies in the political messaging.
That’s what President Donald Trump treated us to in his budget proposal Thursday. His $1.1 trillion plan hikes military spending by $54 billion while slashing dozens of critical programs. Some of the cuts are to services so vital to the health and well-being of Americans that for many members of Congress, supporting the budget would be the equivalent of announcing retirement. Because it can’t possibly pass as is, the document is not a blueprint for next year’s fiscal spending. It is, instead, a guide to the goals of the people running the White House, and a declaration of war against the federal government as we know it.
Budget Director Mick Mulvaney unleashed a wonderful turn of phrase to explain it: “We went to what the president said during the campaign — we looked at his speeches, we looked at what we had written about him, and we also talked to him — and we turned those policies into numbers.”
Much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric was ugly. It isn’t any prettier in numerical form.
In broad campaign strokes, Trump supporters might agree with a plan that bolsters defense by slashing, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services or Community Development Block Grants. But members of Congress know the support those programs have in their communities, and even some representatives fiercely supportive of Trump in the past are coming out against this budget.
Trump’s cuts to Health and Human Services include ending the $3.4 billion Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that, in bad years, has helped 60,000 Long Island households stay warm. His cuts to the Department of Energy could mean the loss of thousands of jobs at Brookhaven National Laboratory. His environmental cuts would devastate efforts to keep Long Island’s waters clean and its aquifer drinkable. Other cuts — 62 agencies and programs would shut entirely — would leave students in Long Island’s poorest communities with less access to the food and recreational activities that can be their strongest lifelines.
By putting out a budget so draconian that Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), one of Trump’s most consistent supporters, has to demand local funding be restored, Trump makes it clear the document is a manifesto on ending the “regulatory state,” as adviser Stephen Bannon puts it, not a serious spending plan.
The same is true of the American Health Care Act. It cannot become law without major changes because it faces huge opposition from both conservative Republicans in the House and moderate Republicans in the Senate. It would leave 24 million fewer Americans insured by 2026, cut $880 billion in Medicaid spending and cost 14 million people their Medicaid coverage by 2026, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Medicaid pays for more than half of all nursing home care, and is crucial to fighting addiction. This plan also would bankrupt Medicare by 2023. It’s not a serious fix.
What else happened in the week that was Trump? News broke that 1,000 additional Army and Marines troops were hitting the ground in Syria and Iraq, tripling our forces there.
In South Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said our “strategic patience” with North Korea is over, drawing a line in the sand with a nation led by a psycopath, while Trump attacked China over the issue in a tweet.
Spokesman Sean Spicer accused British intelligence of spying on Trump for former President Barack Obama, a statement the administration reportedly had to apologize for. Trump continued to be unintelligible in attempts to explain why he accused Obama of tapping his Trump Tower phones. And, thanks to campaign promises to ban Muslims, Trump saw another try at a temporary travel ban on six mostly Muslim countries stymied by the courts.
Arenas like the budget and health care presented the most sensible reasons to elect Trump, sold as a canny businessman who could make systems more efficient and cut through bureaucracies. But there is nothing in this budget about making programs run better. And there’s nothing in the health care plan about covering everyone or making the system better or cheaper.
There is still a chance for Trump, who has plenty of business acumen, to grab control of this situation, but odds are growing longer.
Every week brings seven days full of drama and incompetence, lies and blame games, and not a hint of the superbly competent manager Trump promised to be, or the talented professionals he promised to hire. Right now, this ship is wandering off course; the people are increasingly scared and angry; the president, his staff and congressional leaders are lurching from disaster to disaster; and the politics of extremism are taking precedence over the moderate art of governance.