NPR, “Could Trump ‘Undermine The Legacy Of The Obama Presidency’ With The Stroke Of A Pen?” 15 Nov 2016:
New Yorker writer Evan Osnos talks about the executive orders and other actions that Trump can use to undo existing agreements on climate change, immigration and foreign policy.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How reliable are campaign promises as a predictor of a president’s agenda in office, and will Trump be different?
EVAN OSNOS: I assumed that, like, I think like a lot of Americans, that campaign promises are not very valuable in terms of actually predicting the course of a presidency. We - you know, we tend to remember when campaigns say things that they don’t then fulfill. But actually, the political science on this is pretty clear, and it tells a very different story, which is that if you go back over the history of the presidency, you find that presidents tend to achieve the majority - the overwhelming majority of the things that they set out to accomplish when they were candidates.
DAVIES: Now, when people look at Donald Trump, some would say it’s not clear that he has any deeply held political beliefs. I mean, he used to be pro-choice. He used to be a Democrat. He’s kind of been all over the place over the course of his business career, and a lot of what he says seems kind of improvised, but we have some clues. I mean, there are two big appointments just announced. The Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, will be Trump’s chief of staff, and at the same time, his campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, who is from the right wing Breitbart News, will be a senior adviser with equal status to Reince Priebus. What does this tell us about Trump’s likely agenda?
OSNOS: Right. Well, I think a lot of us were very wary of the idea that Trump as president would actually do a lot of the things that he said as a candidate partly because he was, you know, obviously from way outside the mainstream and - of previous presidents. So perhaps the political science was useless. But there are a couple of things that I think are important to keep in mind. One is that the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist and a counselor to the president is an extension of something that was very clear when this piece was written, which was that Donald Trump will move around on a lot of issues. He’s fluid, for instance, on what he would do on the technical basis of an H-1B visa, for instance, or whether or not he would allow school teachers to carry guns in the classroom.
But on three core ideas, he has stayed completely consistent. One of them is his belief that the United States is fundamentally being damaged by immigration. Number two is his belief that trade deals have done more damage to the United States than they have helped. And number three is his belief that the United States does too much for the world. As he said in 2015, I want to take back everything that the United States has given the world.
Steve Bannon, in his career at Breitbart, really transformed that organization into the principal exponent of those three ideas. So what you see today is Donald Trump is trying to balance the strategic objectives that his campaign road to victory in the form of Steve Bannon with the practical necessity of how do you actually operate within Washington. And for that, Reince Priebus, the new chief of staff, is the ultimate Washington professional. He has been here for his professional life. He has really risen to the top ranks of the Republican establishment, and he’s now in the position to be able to try to help Donald Trump achieve his objectives.
DAVIES: You know, there’s a point of view that says, yeah, ideologues can have their say, but it’s the chief of staff who controls the president’s schedule that really moves the levers of power. Do you have an opinion about whether one will be more important than the other?
OSNOS: I think if you look at the way that those two roles have been used in recent history, you find that they are both important, and in many ways, that’s the design here. Steve Bannon has called Breitbart, which was his media organization, quote, “the platform of the alt right,” unquote. And that is the previously fringe movement on the conservative far-right edge, which was founded by Richard Spencer who lives in Montana and believes in the separation of the races. And that has now moved sort of further into the mainstream as a result of Steve Bannon’s rise within the Trump campaign and now his installation in the White House. But in order to get those ideas accomplished, you need somebody who really is just as skilled as anyone in sort of managing the levers of inside power in Washington, and that’s where Reince Priebus comes in.
DAVIES: OK, I want to talk about some of the areas of policy that will matter here. And we’ll try and figure out, you know, what Trump has said, what he believes, what he is really committed to and what he can actually accomplish by himself and what he needs congressional action for. One thing that people have talked about is that President Obama has done a lot with executive orders because of the gridlock in Congress and that President Trump, once he is inaugurated, can immediately undo a bunch of stuff simply by signing executive orders, repealing President Obama’s initiatives. Is that true?
OSNOS: Yeah, that’s true, and that’s an explicit part of the incoming Trump administration’s plan. Campaign advisers described it to me as a first-day project, by which they meant that on the first day or within a few days Donald Trump would seek to sign as many as 25 executive orders, or uses of executive power in other forms, that would, in the words of one adviser, erase the Obama presidency.
I should point out that every president when they come in uses executive powers in one form or another. Barack Obama, for instance, signed nine executive orders in the first 10 days. Doing 25 would be ambitious. People who have been through transitions before tell me that’s not realistic. But he could do several things that would significantly undermine the legacy of the Obama presidency. His team has talked about this since Election Day, that one of the things that’s important to them is to restart exploration of the Keystone Pipeline.
They will significantly expand the pace and intensity of deportations. They will seek to, if not formally remove the United States from the Paris climate agreement, then they will be able to take steps that basically undermine it so they can make sure the United States is not enforcing restrictions on carbon output. They can restrict funding and so on. So they can do things right away with the stroke of a pen that would pretty significantly undermine the legacy of the Obama presidency.
DAVIES: Is there some fine print here? I mean, I believe I’ve read that when some executive orders have gone past the rulemaking stage…
OSNOS: That’s right.
DAVIES: ...There’s a process. What does that mean?
OSNOS: Yeah, that’s right. The hyperbole in saying that they would undermine the Obama presidency is that once an executive order has gone beyond what’s known as the rulemaking stage, then that means that in order to undo it there has to be, for instance, a period of public comment. There has to be other bureaucratic steps. And that can take as much as a year or more depending on how efficiently the bureaucracy goes about it. And that’s meaningful because I think the question of how civil servants will interpret efforts to try to undermine previous initiatives matters. But the relevant point is that by issuing the executive order the clock on that process begins.
DAVIES: OK. Well, let’s look at some specific policy areas and figure out what might happen. Let’s start with climate change. You just mentioned that. Do we - what do we know about his views on climate change and the extent to which he is committed to them based on his appointments so far?
OSNOS: Well, as a candidate and before, Donald Trump has expressed a lot of skepticism about climate change. He’s called it a hoax. At one point, he described it as a hoax that was perpetrated by the Chinese in order to try to undermine American competitiveness. He later said that was a joke. Since Election Day, some of the appointments that he’s made have made clear that he’s going to make good on his belief that American energy policy and attempts to combat climate change are going in the wrong direction. So, for instance, Donald Trump’s transition team for the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency is run by somebody named Myron Ebell who has been really one of the most outspoken skeptics of climate change, runs a program here called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and it opposes regulation. It’s not clear exactly who funds it, but in the past, it was funded by fossil fuel companies including Exxon Mobil and others.
So this would be, I think, safe to say a radical change in the way the United States has talked and thought about climate change. One of the people that he has also indicated could be powerful in terms of shaping energy policy is Harold Hamm who was a billionaire who founded the shale oil company Continental Resources. He’s been a big contributor to the Koch brothers fundraising network, and there is so far no indication that Donald Trump did not mean what he said when he talked about climate change being a hoax that has damaged American competitiveness.
DAVIES: Are there some specific things President Trump could do immediately to change the direction of climate policy?
OSNOS: Yeah, he could. The Paris climate deal is a formal matter, requires four years to unwind. So in the interim, he could immediately suspend American payments to the deal in effect. These are the payments that the United States would make to U.N.-affiliated agencies that would be in charge of both implementing the deal and then also helping developing countries pay for making some of the concessions and transitions that are required in order to implement it.
DAVIES: You talk to some experienced people in immigration for your piece in The New Yorker about what it would take to affirmatively go out and find millions of undocumented workers and get them out of the country. You want to share a bit of that with us?
OSNOS: Yeah. I spoke to Julie Myers Wood, for instance, who was the head of Immigration Customs and Enforcement under George W. Bush, and she is opposed to Donald Trump-stated policies on immigration in many ways. But she also said that it’s a big mistake to assume that his ideas are so radical as to therefore be impossible, and that was her major point to me was that there are tools that are at the disposal of a president that would allow them to do this dramatic escalation of deportation. For instance, a president could give the IRS files to ICE, to Immigrations Customs Enforcement. So IRS files are considered to be the most reliable source of home addresses because a lot of undocumented immigrants who pay taxes, for instance, put in a reliable home address so that they can receive their refund.
If the president allowed it, that would then make it much easier for enforcement agents to be able to go out and find people. Another thing that would be at the disposal of a President is what’s known as 287-G of the Immigration Act which would allow the local and state agents, basically cops of one kind or another, to be enlisted in service of the deportation project. So that’s how you begin to see, for instance, local police being brought in for the purposes of raiding farms or factories and beginning to achieve the deportation numbers that he’s talked about.
But in order to do so, it would take a significant escalation of manpower and also of resources. But what came clear from my reporting on the subject was that it’s a big mistake to assume that it’s - this is binary that you either will have the system as it exists today or you would have some completely unimaginable system that Donald Trump has talked about. There is in fact a spectrum in between that Trump could move fairly substantially down the road to achieving his objectives on immigration.
DAVIES: Let’s talk about trade and the economy. You know, one of his core principles you said is the belief that trade deals have harmed America’s economy and killed jobs. What authority would he have immediately to remake or undo American trade policy?
OSNOS: The president has broad authority on trade. So, for instance, right away, the president could end American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I think it’s fair to assume that the TPP as it’s known is now dead. But beyond that, he could also force Canada and Mexico to renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw from it eventually.
There is a process in the case of NAFTA. He couldn’t just do it immediately. But when it comes to slapping tariffs, for instance, on other countries, there’s two ways to do it. One requires Congress and one doesn’t. If he goes after specific categories of goods - so if he says, for instance, that, you know, Chinese exports of one specific type, let’s call it, you know, chicken or tires or something like that, then he can use his own presidential power to do that sort of on an emergency basis. But if he’s going to try to impose a broad-based tariff against a country, that would actually require the consent of Congress.
But I think the important point is that he has the ability to change the tenor of the trade relationship with a country by talking about it in other ways. And as we all know, you know, he talked about China in very harsh terms during this campaign. My own sense based on talking to his trade advisers and his China specialists was that that was a kind of theater. I don’t believe that Donald Trump is prepared actually in any way to go to a trade war with China, I think, meaning that, you know, one of the things that his advisers said to me was that Donald Trump’s persona that he - you know, he’s confrontational, he says outrageous things, that that would have a chilling effect on the other side and that China would then fall in line. That’s their theory. They’re not actually prepared for the full economic consequences, which would be severe and profound, of a trade war with the world’s second-largest economy.
DAVIES: Well, this is an interesting and important question. And you can’t predict the future, but if, in fact, one of his core beliefs is that this is a big problem, we have to fix this to rebuild the American economy, what do the economists you talk to expect to happen? Are we going to have a trade war? What would it do?
OSNOS: A trade war could be a really dramatic turn in American economic history. If you talk to independent analysts, people who are not involved in either campaign, somebody - there’s a guy, for instance, named Mark Zandi, who’s an economist at Moody’s Analytics. And he’s worked for Republicans and he’s worked for Democrats in the past. And what he says is that Trump’s plan, if he actually did the things that he said he would and triggered a trade war with China that that would put probably somewhere around 4 million Americans out of work. And then over the ensuing recession that it would also cost the economy another 3 million jobs that would have been created otherwise.
Most economists broadly agree that a trade war would be hugely damaging to the United States.
DAVIES: One of the things he also says he wants to do is immediately cut the regulatory burdens on businesses on Wall Street. Can he do that himself?
OSNOS: He can. The president has authority, ultimate authority over 15 executive agencies. And he would be able to direct them to change the pace and spirit in which they are issuing regulations. He has said - I’m not clear on whether this is legally possible - that he wants to do a version of what Vice President-elect Mike Pence did in Indiana.
Pence created an agency that was dedicated to suspending the creation of all new regulations except for public health and safety.
DAVIES: He’s promised big tax cuts. Will they really happen?
OSNOS: That, I think, is one of his better bets. He’s got a Republican Congress on his side. And at this point, it’s hard to see them not doing it.
DAVIES: And what kind of tax cuts are we talking about? I mean, for those of us who haven’t carefully followed his campaign positions, are they upper income, middle income, everybody?
OSNOS: They provide the greatest relief to the upper stratum of the tax base, so the highest earners will do best. There is also tax relief for the sort of upper-middle-class. Then corporate tax rates will be substantially relieved.
DAVIES: Let’s talk about foreign and military policy. He’s criticized the deal with Iran. Can he scuttle that deal by himself?
OSNOS: Yes, he can. What he has said he wants to do is renegotiate the deal with Iran, and renegotiate is a sort of a flexible word. It’s not clear what he means entirely. But were he to try to reopen that deal, that could actually - that could really change the course of things more broadly beyond just the Iran deal because at that point what happens is that Iran - and Iran specialists told me as much months ago - would regard the United States seeking to renegotiate the deal as an abrogation of the deal.
At that point, they would say that the United States has basically not held up its end of the bargain, and they would have the right - the legal authority and the right - to restart the development of nuclear energy. So I think he’s going to find once he begins to get into the details of this that by simply announcing that he’s going to renegotiate that might not achieve the effect he has in mind. It might actually hasten the restart of the Iranian nuclear program.
DAVIES: When you wrote about Donald Trump and his policies towards the military and towards foreign affairs, the issue of temperament comes up. This is a loaded word. He hated being criticized for his temperament. But you have - you found a quote from his book “Think Like A Billionaire.” It can be smart to be shallow, that he has a penchant for making big decisions quickly, that he trusts his gut. Share what - some of what you learned about what that might mean from your conversations with military and intelligence officials.
OSNOS: Yeah. When you talk to a broad range of people who have been involved in the most sensitive national security questions, you know - these are the people who’ve been in the Situation Room at crucial moments particularly from Republican administrations what they’ll tell you is that the crucial ingredient is whether or not a president is impetuous, whether or not the president makes decisions before they have as much information and as many competing points of view as possible. And often as one - James Woolsey who is a former director of the CIA is now an adviser to the Trump administration - before he became an adviser to Trump, he said to me in an interview that very often the first information that a president receives is wrong. And we’ve seen that beginning all the way from Vietnam up to the present day. And part of the sort of crucial patience that’s required is the ability to both wait until you have a fuller picture and then also be prepared to act. But if you act on the basis of limited information, history suggests to us that we would have made a lot of catastrophic choices.
DAVIES: You know, last year, you wrote about white nationalist groups that have embraced Trump, and they feel he’s expanded their reach, given them some legitimacy and, of course, since the election there have been some very troubling cases of swastikas, racist graffiti, some assaults racist hate speech. You know, some would see this as just a fringe that is an embarrassment to most Republicans and conservatives I’m wondering what you make of this and what the impact will be of Trump being in the White House?
OSNOS: Well, in some ways, this was a storyline that I think people who generally covered politics didn’t initially embrace, you know, the idea that somehow the alt-right or the white nationalist world would be even talked about in a discussion of an incoming presidential. It was so ludicrous that we didn’t even really do it. And then it just became very clear early on in the Trump campaign that they were a part of this phenomenon. The neo-Nazi website endorsed him for president 12 days after he announced. And later you follow it all the way through 20 months later. He was endorsed by the newspaper the KKK. Steve Bannon has been - who is now chief strategist in the White House - has been really the sort of principal thinker in terms of how do you take ideas that exist way out on the far right and get them in front of people’s eyes that are more conventional readers?
And at Breitbart, that’s really what he did. He sort of - it became the platform for the alt-right. When I spoke on Election Day to a white nationalist leader named Matthew Heimbach as the sort of results became clear, I said, you know, how are you feeling? And he said vindicated. And what he said was that this campaign and that the victory of Donald Trump has shown that there is an appetite out there for his ideas, even if people can’t quite bring themselves to say so.
You know, I just have to say, I mean, this was so preposterous that we’d be talking about this a couple of years ago, that it’s a reminder of how much politics have changed and been changed by the candidacy of Donald Trump. Now, look, how that actually translates into a White House, we don’t yet know. But Steve Bannon is now a couple of steps from the Oval Office, and that’s - we’re in uncharted territory there.
DAVIES: Evan Osnos, thanks so much for speaking with us.
OSNOS: Thanks for having me, Dave.