President Donald Trump has dismissed the idea of measuring the success of his first 100 days in office as “ridiculous.” But the president and his top officials have made a number of startling moves this week with the deadline in mind, and Trump has privately obsessed over getting a win before the cutoff.
The last-minute moves have frustrated some of Trump’s allies, caused a scramble across his government and proved once again that decisions are made by one man on his whims — and often with an eye to his media coverage.
To his supporters, it looks like the kind of action Trump promised as a candidate. “That’s how a CEO makes decisions,” said Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican.
Trump’s promise last Friday to deliver a tax plan within five days startled no one more than Gary Cohn, his chief economic adviser writing the plan. Not a single word of a plan was on paper, several administration officials said, and Treasury officials worked all weekend to draft a one-page summary of his principles because the president promised a Wednesday news conference.
“The reason your head is spinning on this is that the plan isn’t even written yet,” one senior White House official said this week as conflicting details emerged about what would be in the plan. “This was all about doing something in the first 100 days and really it’s doing the process backwards.”
When White House officials demanded last week a health care vote by the 100-day mark, Speaker Paul Ryan was traveling in Europe and taken aback. The leader of the House of Representatives wasn’t in on the plan, had no desire to vote this week and feared it wasn’t even possible. No one even knew what the bill would say because the language had not been written.
“It was totally insane,” one senior GOP aide said. “It made no sense. There was no reason to say a vote was happening this week.”
A number of White House officials only learned of the president’s plan to sign an executive order removing the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement — and tout it during a 100-day rally in Pennsylvania — after it appeared in news reports. It was going to be “another accomplishment of our 100 days,” a senior official said. “The president wanted to do it this week.”
The looming 100-day marker has sent the White House into overdrive this week. Senior administration officials — chief of staff Reince Priebus, son-in-law Jared Kushner, legislative affairs head Marc Short, chief strategist Steve Bannon and Cohn — have held late-night sessions with reporters to sell the 100 days. Trump repeatedly asked aides for ideas with the marker in mind and has demanded plans for the event and lists of his accomplishments to highlight every single day of the week, administration officials said.
Trump ordered an event with Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin based on the 100-day marker, a person familiar with the planning said, leaving staff to rush and make it happen. It often takes weeks to plan an event.
The fear inside the West Wing, these people said, was that bad news coverage could lead to a staff shake-up, and many live with varying degrees of fear of losing their jobs. Priebus, several administration officials say, has been particularly concerned about the marker and the resulting news coverage.
The White House, which didn’t respond for comment, has tried to depict a busy and impatient president who is popular to his supporters because he promised to demand results. While the tax plan is nowhere near ready, the health care vote didn’t happen and Trump ended the week on NAFTA where he began, the president received news coverage of a busy week — and was talking about policies that were potentially moving instead of congressional failures or investigations into ties between Russia and Trump campaign officials.
“I think the paper-pushers may have a system, but he will override the system,” said Trump adviser Roger Stone. “He’s the decision maker.”
Still, aides described the lead-up as mad-dash, even by the typical Trump White House standards, with more focus on optics than substance.
In the case of NAFTA repeal, director of the White House National Trade Council Peter Navarro submitted the Executive Order to the staff secretary on Tuesday. The staff secretary traditionally circulates the policy for review to relevant decision makers including cabinet secretaries and others within the White House who want to weigh in, according to a White House official.
While it’s typical for the staff secretary to kick off the final stages of the decision making process, the process moved at rapid speed, with the President intent on signing the Executive Order just four days later on his 100th day, giving his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross little time to weigh in. Eventually, Trump was talked out of the move by nervous advisers and foreign leaders, who described the basics of the problem if he ended it.
“I was going to terminate NAFTA two or three days from now,” Trump said in the Oval Office on Thursday.
Over on Capitol Hill this week, moderate Republicans and conservatives worried about legislative text — and feared even more would lose their health care coverage, which could cost them their seats. The Congressional Budget Office hadn’t scored the proposal — it previously said 24 million would lose health care coverage — and this plan was likely to be worse, legislators worried.
Priebus, who publicly said it was unfair to expect the administration to vote quickly, repeatedly told aides there needed to be a quick vote, administration officials say, even though Ryan was not in a similar hurry. Some West Wing officials even pondered the idea of having the vote on Saturday — a signature accomplishment on the 100-day mark. Legislators tend to head home on the weekends.
“Their order was vote, vote, vote,” one Republican legislator said. A senior administration official, asked why the White House was rushing the vote, responded: “ I can’t wait for the 100-day shit to be over.”
Senior officials in the White House and Treasury wanted to keep working behind the scenes to create a more fully-baked tax plan that would get support from Capitol Hill Republicans. Then early this summer they could roll-out a detailed blueprint that would address concerns from House Speaker Paul Ryan and other fiscal conservatives worried about blowing up the deficit.
“Nobody wanted to do this now. We weren’t ready to do this now. But we weren’t given any choice,” said a second senior official close to the tax reform process.
Repeatedly peppered for details on how they would avoid blowing up the deficit, what income brackets the new individual rates would apply to and what rate they would charge companies to bring money back to the U.S., Cohn and Mnuchin had no answers. Instead they repeatedly promised more details to come at a later time.
Cohn even wound up snapping at a reporter for pressing for “micro-details” and not accepting the broad brush statements of aspirational goals. The result was widespread dismissal of the entire event by economic commentators.
Jason Furman, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama, said the rollout out was the exact opposite of the way the previous administration put out pages worth of details on the Affordable Care Act, taking some of the pressure off Congress.
“The one pager the White House did was about as useful to the tax reform process as some random summer project of a Capitol Hill intern,” Furman said. “This is doing the process backwards with the White House doing the easy part and leaving the hard part all to Congress. And it makes it even less likely that anything ever gets done.”
Even Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, seen in the administration as one of the president’s staunchest defenders, was irritated, according to a person who spoke with him. Mnuchin had planned a trip to California this week, a White House official said, and left on Thursday, one day after the plan was announced.
A spokesman for Mnuchin said: ”The Secretary was very pleased that the President agreed to let us announce the plan this week.”
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