Take a breath. It’s been a hectic first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency. We have a new Supreme Court justice, Obamacare is still standing (for now), the U.S. military struck Syria with Tomahawk cruise missiles, and Saturday Night Live has material for ages thanks to the tweeter in chief — and press secretary Sean Spicer. We’ll leave further recaps to others and take a look at Trump’s next 100 days, with the standard caveat that this president lives to be unpredictable.
A nuclear-powered standoff
The biggest misconception about Kim Jong-un is that he’s insane. Waving around a nuclear arsenal like a child brandishing a new toy, allegedly ordering the assassination of a half brother with a nerve agent in another country’s airport, warehousing 100,000 political prisoners in forced-labor camps — these are not the actions of a well-adjusted world leader. But North Korea’s accelerating nuclear ambitions and provocations toward South Korea and the United States are perfectly rational as the authoritarian regime seeks to satisfy its elites, rally the masses and hold onto power. They’re also the most explosive test of Trump’s foreign policy over the next 100 days.
But short of preemptively bombing missile sites — Trump has indicated he’s willing to do it, with the Syria strike and “mother of all bombs” drop in Afghanistan under his belt — there’s little direct impact the U.S. can have. China, then, is the key.
China has long helped prop up the rogue nation for fear of the instability a collapse would bring, but there are signs that Beijing is growing tired of Kim’s antics. China announced this year it was cutting off coal imports from its neighbor. The next step could be to halt crude oil exports to North Korea.
If China won’t move, Trump could impose second-order sanctions on Chinese companies that deal with North Korea— locking banks out of the critical U.S. financial system, for example. Previous administrations have avoided such a step for fear of angering Beijing. For its part, North Korea shows no signs of changing course as it tests missiles and threatens nuclear war. “When you normalize provocations, and then people will think, ‘Oh, yeah, the North Koreans, they are just doing what they do,’ that’s great for North Korea,” says Kent Boydston, a Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Beware the crazy-uncle excuse.
Coming soon (maybe): Trump Wall at Rio Grande
It was one of his first and most prominent pledges: a big, beautiful wall on America’s southern border, which would be paid for by Mexico because of the Donald’s negotiating acumen.
Within days of taking office, Trump signed an executive order to start “immediate construction of a physical wall” along with other border security measures. But he needs Congress to follow through with the money, as Mexico’s president has made it clear he’s disinclined to write a check for the wall. Trump has responded with vague pledges about how Mexico might pay indirectly.
So how much will the great wall cost? The Trump administration requested $4.1 billion over two years, but that’s a fraction of what a physical barrier across the entire border would cost. Senate Democrats extrapolated from prototype proposals that a 1,827-mile wall would cost at least $64 billion — and $150 million more per year to maintain. An internal Department of Homeland Security analysis, Reuters reports, pegged the cost at $21.4 billion to shore up the 1,250 miles of the border that are not already fortified.
Democrats are digging in, vowing to block any spending bill that includes wall money — and for more than fiscal reasons. “It stems from a value: Are you somebody who sees the humanity in our neighbors, or are you not?” asks Faiz Shakir, national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is pushing Democrats to stand firm. The result was Trump backing off his demand to include wall funding in a government spending bill, postponing the fight.
This is in part because even border-state Republicans who are hawkish on immigration say electronic surveillance in some places might be preferable to a barrier. And the government would have to seize some property under eminent domain to build a wall, a tactic not likely to sit well with landowners. The Houston Chronicle recently quoted House Homeland Security Committee chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, telling local college students: “I don’t think a 30-foot concrete wall is going to be the answer.”
The easygoing investigator who could derail the presidency
The topic was serious, the tone sober when Republican Sen. Richard Burr shared a news conference podium with Democrat Mark Warner to talk about Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their investigation of it. But Burr wore a slight smirk when setting a ground rule in his light North Carolina drawl: “We will not take questions on the House Intelligence Committee.”
As the Russia investigation unfolds, it’s the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who will be charged with maintaining the professionalism and bipartisanship critical to making the probe credible. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who soaked up the attention during the first 100 days, showed himself too chummy with Trump to assess impartially whether the president’s campaign collaborated with foreign interests, and he stepped aside from leading the probe. Thus, Burr has taken center stage in the casual manner he handles most everything else.
Burr is known around the Capitol for his quirks — wearing loafers without socks, driving a 1974 open-air Volkswagen Thing — and for being tight with former house speaker John Boehner. Burr took over the chairmanship of the intelligence committee early in 2015. It’s a job that makes one privy to the nation’s darkest secrets and biggest fears, and it requires lots of time locked away with classified materials, unreachable to the outside world. Burr’s longtime political consultant Paul Shumaker tells OZY that Burr told him early on: “There would be times in his re-election that we would have to run a campaign without a candidate, because he was going to put that responsibility of the committee chairmanship first.”
Burr’s lack of interest in campaigning was often interpreted in D.C. circles as laziness, but he won an unexpectedly tight race last year and says his third term in the Senate will be his last. Though he typically votes the party line, Burr is now free of political shackles as he pursues the ties between Moscow and Trump Tower. Last year Burr was more steadfast than many GOP senators in supporting Trump, and Yahoo! News recently reported growing frustration among the committee’s Democrats that Burr is slow-walking the probe. If it appears to be tainted by politics, pressure will grow for a special prosecutor to come in. Ask Ken Starr and Bill Clinton how that works out.
When trade bluster meets policy
In late April, Trump sat at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office surrounded by steel industry honchos to sign an executive order to “prioritize” an investigation into the effects of low-cost steel imports, implicitly targeting China, a familiar trade foe. Then Trump’s focus shifted to what appeared to be handwritten notes and an unusual target inspired by a visit to Wisconsin two days earlier: “In Canada, what they’ve done to our dairy farm workers is a disgrace.” The “NAFTA disaster,” as Trump termed it, has to do with our northern neighbor’s market protections for its dairy farmers. Then last week, he slapped a tariff on Canadian soft lumber imports. Along with cheap Mexican manufacturing, it’s part of his argument to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been in force since 1994.
Trade policy was one of the most consistent planks of Trump’s campaign. He immediately pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership upon taking office, but that treaty was never ratified. Trump last week said he was backing off plans to pull out of NAFTA altogether, and would start fresh negotiations with Ottawa and Mexico City. Opening up a long-standing deal will take more time and finesse, though commerce secretary Wilbur Ross recently said a revamped NAFTA might look a lot like what Mexico and Canada agreed to in the TPP — such as tougher labor and environmental standards. Though most of Trump’s moves so far have been rhetorical, with pledged reviews and investigations, the Canadian lumber action is the first sign of teeth, with more to come over the next 100 days.
But in the wake of the summit with President Xi Jinping, Trump notably backed down from a campaign pledge to label China a currency manipulator, a move that would lead to tariffs and other punishments. The policy whiplash is often seen as the reflection of the internal struggle between senior counselor Steve Bannon’s economic nationalism and a more moderate approach from chief economic adviser Gary Cohn’s crowd, a debate not likely to go away anytime soon.
From swing vote to porch swing?
Washington’s most scrutinized — and at times inscrutable — octogenarian has a choice to make in June. Anthony Kennedy will decide whether to hang up his robe as the Supreme Court’s swing justice. Though high court retirements are as tough to predict as their decisions, Sen. Chuck Grassley, the head of the Judiciary Committee that would consider a replacement, recently told constituents in Iowa that he expects a SCOTUS vacancy this summer.
On an evenly split court, Kennedy has tilted conservative on some issues (gun rights, campaign finance) and liberal on others (gay rights, affirmative action). Most critically for the fight to come over his seat, Kennedy has repeatedly upheld a woman’s right to an abortion. Add an antiabortion justice, and the legally questionable 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade easily could tumble.
The filibuster already has fallen for Supreme Court nominees in this year’s partisan battle over Neil Gorsuch, so the next justice will face a 50-vote threshold in the Senate. Still, the higher ideological stakes than the Gorsuch–for–Antonin Scalia swap means “the battle for Kennedy’s seat will be Armageddon and will likely take a long while in the Senate,” says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
If Armageddon arrives, keep an eye on whether Trump sticks to the list of conservative Federalist Society–approved judges he put out during the campaign, and the signals from GOP moderates Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. And remember Kennedy himself was Ronald Reagan’s third choice, after the defeat of the severely conservative Robert Bork and the withdrawal of Douglas Ginsburg who — gasp! — admitted to smoking marijuana a few times.
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet
For decades, blowing up the tax code has been the Washington equivalent of Tantalus’ apple from Greek mythology: always just out of reach. Everyone — except, perhaps, the nation’s accountants — agrees that the code is too complex, but every deduction has a lobby attached. Just before the end of his first 100 days in office, Trump announced an outline to slash tax rates for individuals and corporations. Now comes the hard part: steering it through Congress.
Republicans propose that most families will be able to fill out their taxes on a postcard, with a juiced-up standard deduction or itemized deductions for mortgage interest and charitable giving but nothing else. Democrats have sent mixed signals about whether they’d be open to working with Republicans on the plan. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he wants Trump to release his own taxes first — an exceedingly unlikely proposition and a nod to Democrats’ protest-minded base.
Republicans remain divided over the “border adjustment tax” on imports, designed to help American manufacturers and offset the deficit impact of the rate cuts. “There’s no pleasant way to raise $2 trillion,” says Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and an OZY contributor. Norquist adds that his reply to any business complaining about a border tax when the corporate rate has been cut from 35 percent to 15 percent would be: “Shut up.” The border adjustment tax was not in last week’s White House outline, which on its own is likely to increase the deficit, meaning congressional rules would force the tax cuts to expire after 10 years rather than become permanent. As the debate unfolds, look out for competing analyses from the White House predicting huge growth and lower deficits and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Another barometer to watch: the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It has jumped more than 10 percent since Election Day, in part on the promise of a regulation- and tax-slashing presidency. Trump has started to deliver on the former. The latter will be a slog.
Those are the issues we can see coming. Because it’s Donald Trump, there’s always the chance for a wild-card moment, particularly as the country gorges on the latest dramatics in As the West Wing Turns. Perhaps Bannon will end up ambassador to Liechtenstein by the time we hit Day 200.