Worried by the prospect of being scored poorly on his first 100 days in office, President Donald Trump took to his favourite megaphone to prepare the grounds for it last week: it’s a “ridiculous standard,” he fumed on Twitter, adding that no matter how much he accomplished — “it’s been quite a lot”, he threw in helpfully — he will be killed by the media.
The next day, when he felt somewhat reassured perhaps, the president announced a “big rally” in Pennsylvania on Saturday, the day he completes 100 days in office, which also happens to be the night of the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association, which Trump is skipping, over a fraught relationship with the media.
Very soon, the administration was queuing up as many accomplishments as it could to prove not only that Trump had done well, but that he had outperformed his predecessors — 30 executive orders, which was the most by any president in decades, said a White House note titled, “President Trump’s 100 days of historic achievements”.
And, “despite historic Democrat obstructionism”, the note said, Trump worked with Congress to pass more legislation in his first 100 days than any President since Harry S Truman — 28 to the latter’s 55.
Numbers, like quarterly returns and TRP ratings, matter to the real estate tycoon turned reality TV star-turned politician, but these numbers concealed more than they showed.
While Trump struck down presumably debilitating government regulations, froze government hirings, rolled back his predecessor’s climate-related restrictions and ordered a review of H-1B temporary visa programme with these orders, as he had promised as a candidate, he also stumbled or failed to come good on some others.
Chiefly, an executive order he signed on January 27 temporarily barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US and blocking all refugees. As egregious as it was in letter and spirit, it was a campaign promise the administration blew up through amateurish handling, leading to chaos at airports around the United States and abroad, international outrage and court injunctions and stay orders.
It was dead very soon. And its replacement, a narrower order targeting six, and not seven, nations, and sparing their nationals on Green Card in the US, also ran into trouble with courts, eliciting another round of derogatory remarks from the president and his aides, including his attorney-general Jeff Sessions.
The White House memo extolling the president’s legislative achievements did not, because it could not in that existing format, capture the spectacular failure of the president, and the Republican party that now controlled both chambers of Congress, to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s legacy healthcare legislation that Republicans had railed and ran against since its passage in 2011.
Still smarting from the setback, the Trump administration has tried to resurrect the effort in recent days with mixed prospects of passage, possibly to allow the president to tell the Pennsylvania rally on Saturday he had tried or delivered.
But what will be tell them about China, a country he had raged against as a candidate, accusing it of “raping America” among other things? He had promised to designate it a currency manipulator and his rhetoric on the issue had triggered fears of a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.
Trump appeared to have changed his mind since assuming office, and hosting Chinese president Xi Jinping and his wife at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, which he has taken to calling the winter White House, over the weekend recently. Trump said he liked Xi, adding he hoped to work with him.
And, in fact, the most unifying and defining moment of the Trump administration came during Trump’s dinner with Xi — actually over the “most beautiful” chocolate cake — when he informed the Chinese leader cruise missiles were hitting a Syrian airfield that was used by the country’s air force to drop chemical weapons on a rebel-controlled part of the country.
The air raid struck a chord with the country, and was welcomed even by his fiercest critics on the left who had felt frustrated by President Obama’s failure to follow through on his threat of US retaliation to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. “The president was “right to strike at the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using a weapon of mass destruction, the nerve agent sarin, against its own people,” wrote Antony J Blinken, deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, in an op-ed in The New York Times the morning after.
That was high praise and a welcome break from the relentless criticism Trump and his administration had complained of having faced from the time they took charge, specially, and among other flashpoints, about alleged links of his campaign aides to Russia.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, was caught lying to the White House about his interactions with the Russian ambassador to the US, and was fired after days of high drama that continue to this day.
Trump’s attorney-general Sessions found himself in similar trouble for concealing his contacts with the Russian envoy during his confirmation hearing. Trump saved his job with a diversionary Tweet alleging he was surveilled by Obama.
That charge was without merit and has continued to dog Trump and the White House with unforeseen side effects — wild conspiracy theories, reports of coverups, collusion by congressional leaders and recusals. In short, a mess.
A mess that has dovetailed into questions about the administration’s personnel issues stretching from failure to fill key administration positions to turmoil in the White House as competing factions jostle for supremacy.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a real estate businessman like his father-in-law, is emerging as the president’s go-to-guy for almost everything from West Asia peace to Xi’s visit to upgrading the creaky infrastructure of the federal government.
Fortunes of power centres not led by members of the Trump family, such as those aligned with chief strategist Steve Bannon, a uniquely divisive and inspirational figure in this team, and chief of staff Reince Priebus, soar or sink by the day.
But, remember, this is just about 100 days.