Jules Witcover: Trump’s first report card: Incomplete

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Whether Donald Trump likes it or not, the 100-day measurement of early success or failure in the Oval Office leaves him distinctly on the defensive. Comparisons with Franklin Roosevelt’s energetic kickoff of his presidency in 1933 have set a very high mark for Trump’s chaotic start, marred by his efforts to run the country as if he were still running The Trump Organization.

The chief obvious distinction is that, as president, Trump no longer has absolute control over what he can do. As a corporate chief executive in the Oval Office, he learned almost at once that the nation’s judicial and legislative branches could derail his initiatives in immigration and health-care reform.

Unwisely, in retrospect, the new president chose as his first initiatives to act on matters in which he lacked unilateral power. Federal judges blocked his selective ban on foreign nationals traveling to the United States, and Congress twice failed to ratify his bid to repeal and replace Obamacare. Both were attempts to fulfill principal campaign pledges for swift change.

The judiciary soon doubled down, with another federal judge blocking the attempt of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to deny so-called sanctuary cities the right to shield illegal aliens against federal deportation.

Trump might have fared better in his quest for an early legislative victory by calling on Congress to provide billions of dollars for job-creating new infrastructure across the country, for which there was considerable Democratic support on Capitol Hill. Instead, he chose to play on two of his political base’s most emotional issues, and got his image as a winner muddied in defeat.

The decision to fight should not have come as a surprise to the American public. Trump set a distinctly defiant tone in his inaugural address, disparaging past presidents of both major parties, some of whom were present. He not only promised to “make America great again” but to start doing so at once, feeding on the impetus of his surprising election.

As his first days and weeks as president unfolded amid false starts, political blunders and criticism, Trump became angrily defensive. He repeatedly relied on references to the size of his November victory, including false claims of having won the popular vote.

While getting acquainted with the presidency and adjusting to it, Trump clung to his established public support through “Twitter storms” and returned to campaign mode with large post-election rallies around the country. Yet he also demonstrated signs of discomfort in the office, escaping most weekends to his Florida luxury retreat, to the point of taking along foreign visitors including Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump’s occasional pivots to foreign-policy and national security matters seemed designed to convey cautious decisiveness, as in his military response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the continuing civil war.

When tensions rose over North Korea’s threat of developing and testing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the West, Trump summoned all 100 U.S. senators to the White House for a classified briefing. Many went despite suspicions they were being used as props in a publicity stunt for a briefing that could readily be held at a secure location on Capitol Hill.

As the end of Trump’s first 100 presidential days approached, the White House released a very brief advance summary of his intended tax reforms. It was greeted by many tax experts as another Trump effort to convey movement on another major campaign promise. Treasury Steven Mnuchin in a Fox News interview insisted that the plan would not cut taxes on the rich but was “really about middle-income tax cut.”

The summary reported there will be three new tax ceilings, lowering the top rate for large corporations from 35 percent to 15 percent. The big question for many tax analysts is how the American economic safety net for middle-income and low-income will be protected under the new Trump proposals.

In any event, the early scorecard on the Trump presidency after its first 100 days lacks adequate specifics as the old Washington game of spin goes on, amid much skepticism about the general reliability of administration and various lobbying sources.

Email: juleswitcover@comcast.net