How Trump's most consequential policies have changed America
Posted January 17, 2021 6:12 a.m. EST
CNN — Donald Trump's presidency has largely been defined by his disregard for political norms and his historic two impeachments.
Trump purposefully sought to upend conventional domestic and foreign policy, fundamentally altering America's role in the world. And he disrupted the status quo in Washington, recalibrating the federal government's role in everyday American life in ways both temporary and for a longer term effect.
Some of Trump's most consequential decisions, such as his judicial appointments, will dictate the ideological make-up of the courts for decades. And the physical reminder of his immigration and border security policies, in the form of a US-Mexico border wall, will likely remain etched into America's landscape well past his presidency.
Other actions, including many issued through the use of executive authority, can be undone through the regulatory process or with the flick of Joe Biden's pen once he's president. Still, those actions will have sometimes had a years long impact on American lives, affecting everything from their jobs to their schools to the kinds of lightbulbs they can buy.
Here are some of the most significant ways Trump's policies and actions changed the country:
Coronavirus and public health
The federal response to the coronavirus pandemic was the Trump administration's biggest focus during the President's final year in office -- and its biggest failure.
Trump made apparent political calculations that put optics ahead of the health of Americans. He held large rallies in the final months of the election filled with throngs of unmasked crowds as the pandemic was hitting a new peak, he declined to wear a mask or social distance in front of cameras and he publicly downplayed the seriousness of the virus while privately knowing its deadliness.
Early on, the White House and the President were heavy on talk, but took little immediate action. The federal government struggled to deliver personal protective equipment and medical supplies to US hospitals and nursing homes. Testing efforts were disorganized. And, though not an official policy, Trump and his allies blatantly disregarded the guidelines his administration touted -- such as wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding travel and avoiding large gatherings. It led to outbreaks among members of the administration (including Trump himself) and supporters.
The US currently boasts more coronavirus cases and deaths than any other country.
The one victory was the quick development of two coronavirus vaccines that were authorized by December. But the rest of the handling on the pandemic was defined by major, and at times arguably fatal, missteps.
There's no good, specific treatment for coronavirus infection and the US efforts to help speed development of new approaches was middle by an early emphasis on drugs that were proven to be completely useless, notably hydroxychloroquine.
Prior to the pandemic, the opioid crisis was Trump's top public health focus. The President declared a public health emergency over the issue and signed Congressional legislation into law that increased funding for the epidemic.
However, the efforts have had mixed results.
Drug overdose deaths fell slightly in 2018, but there has been a substantial increase in fatal drug overdoses coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trump's immigration policies were always going to be central to his presidency, ever since he announced his candidacy and declared that migrants coming into the US from Mexico were rapists and criminals.
The administration rolled out hundreds of executive actions curtailing both legal and illegal immigration to the United States, starting with one of his first actions as President: the travel ban, which has been derided by critics as an attempt to ban Muslims from the US.
After many legal battles, including some instances where the ban was blocked by courts, the Supreme Court upheld an iteration of the ban in 2018.
Some of the Trump administration's restrictive immigration efforts have been blocked by courts, including an attempt to include an immigration question in the census and end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The Trump administration also separated thousands of families at the US-Mexico border under the controversial "zero-tolerance" policy and built hundreds of new barriers on the border. Refugee admissions to the US plummeted. And in a pair of White House immigration moves this past spring, the administration suspended much of family-based immigration and a number of guest worker visas through the end of the year, with some exceptions, citing high unemployment caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
On Day 1 of his presidency, Biden is expected to quickly issue executive actions undoing Trump's past immigration orders, reinstating DACA and repealing the travel ban. But ultimately, the administration overhauled the US immigration system to largely bar immigrants from the US through successive changes that will be difficult for Biden to undo.
Though Trump has largely leaned on stock market gains, boosted take-home pay and record low unemployment as major highlights of his presidency, his full record on the economy is mixed at best. Many those economic achievements dissipated when the coronavirus hit.
Nearly 8 million more Americans have joined the ranks of the poor since June, according to researchers from the University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame. The poverty rate jumped to 11.7% in November, up from 9.3% in June. That's nearly double the largest annual increase in poverty since the 1960s. The rise in the poverty rate has most dramatically increased among Black Americans, the research indicates.
The President's only major legislative victory was signing new, sweeping tax cuts into law.
Unemployment numbers in 2019 dropped to their lowest point since 1969, but that was before the coronavirus pandemic upended American businesses and the economy, skyrocketing unemployment claims. Now, more than 10 months into the pandemic, the US jobs market continues to flounder. And there's mounting evidence that the pandemic has dealt a lasting blow to the US economy, with about 4 million permanently lost jobs. He also promised to revive the coal industry and failed.
And he will have overseen smaller growth in economic output than any of the previous 12 presidents.
The Dow, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq have reached record highs during the Trump presidency, even as unemployment increased due to Covid-19, but those market gains have largely been driven by low interest rates set by the Fed.
And while Trump can boast a higher-than-average 3.32% annual gain in real per capita disposable income, that average conceals the extent of those gains that flowed to the affluent, who benefited disproportionately from his tax cuts.
Trump cast himself as a businessman-turned-politician that would not allow the US to be taken advantage of by the rest of the world. That nationalist mindset manifested itself in several ways, but especially on trade -- impacting the cost of goods from around the world and altering the US labor market.
Trump exited the Trans-Pacific Partnership during his first month in office. His administration waged a steel and aluminum tariff war against key US trading partners, causing prices of many products made with the metals to rise. His administration also threatened to issue and, sometimes, followed through with tariffs against a range of European products -- including cars, cheese, wine and whiskey.
His administration renegotiated the NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico, renaming it USMCA. The administration also struck a trade agreement with China, but after phase one of the deal was agreed upon earlier this year, relations with China were put on ice, largely due to fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
The reasoning behind much of Trump's trade moves, he and his allies asserted, was to bring back jobs from overseas. But tacking on tariffs, relaxing economic regulations and lowering taxes could have a limited effect on the repatriation of job opportunities for Americans lost to cheaper labor abroad, and foreign direct investment in the US declined significantly during the first two years of Trump's tenure.
Trump's tariffs ultimately levied $80 billion of new taxes on Americans.
The President seemed to acknowledge that his trade war hurt farmers, and that to offset their struggles, he celebrated the implementation of subsidizing tactics that ran counter to the anti-socialist principles he said he believes in.
The pandemic set off new crises for the industry, including damage to supply chains. Farm bankruptcies before and during the pandemic soared.
Despite Trump's efforts to repatriate US companies' production to the US, American auto plants closed. And in 2020, major US car companies shifted into survival mode because new car sales entered a steep decline and production halted.
The judiciary and the Justice Department
Of all the President's policy legacies, his judiciary appointments promise to be the most enduring: He successfully appointed hundreds of federal judges and three Supreme Court justices, ensuring a strong conservative influence for decades.
But Trump's approach to the Justice Department, a federal agency traditionally understood to work independently from the President, can best be understood by the fact that he has said he sees himself as the country's chief law enforcement officer. Still, he's made history as the first US president to be impeached twice.
Throughout his presidency, Trump was vocal about his distrust of the Justice Department and fundamentally misunderstood its mission.
He refused to accept losing the 2020 presidential election for months, directing a storm of Trump campaign lawsuits that largely failed in court and fomenting so much distrust in the democratic process among his supporters that it led to deadly violence at the US Capitol.
Trump fired FBI Director James Comey and publicly railed against his successor, Chris Wray. He fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and late last year, his successor, Trump loyalist Bill Barr, resigned less than two months before the end of the presidential term after publicly splitting with the President on several high-profile issues.
And the President essentially adopted a pardoning policy that put his friends, former associates and individuals with connections to the administration before other formal petitioners.
The Trump administration announced in July 2019 that it was reinstating the federal death penalty. Thirteen federal death row inmates have been executed in the six months since it has been reinstated.
Trump faced an arguably unprecedented mountain of lawsuits challenging his policies, his business practices and his own personal behavior. Many of those legal fights will follow him once he's out of office.
Trump's efforts around education largely revolved around school choice and symbolic efforts appealing to culture war issues.
The administration had a few small-term successes on school choice, including the increase in annual fund for charter expansion and allowing 529 savings plans to be used for K-12 education. Adding to those victories, Trump also signed legislation passed in Congress that secured Historically Black Colleges and Universities with permanent funding.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also rolled back two Obama-era policies that were key to the previous administration's crack down on predatory for-profit colleges.
In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida in 2018, Trump established a school safety commission that led to the rescinding of Obama-era guidance meant to address racial disparities in how students are disciplined. Two years after the shooting, the commission rolled out SchoolSafety.gov, a federal clearinghouse of information to help schools. Trump and the White House also proposed arming teachers.
On another culture war front, the administration also withdrew Obama-era protections for transgender students in public schools. And in his final year in office, as Black Americans protested police brutality in widespread protests, Trump issued a salvo against attempts to more accurately portray racism and slavery in school history including creating the "1776 Commission" to "promote patriotic education." But with Trump's presidency coming to an end, it's unlikely to have an impact on future US curriculums.
The bathroom guidance and executive orders can easily be reversed by Biden.
Energy and the environment
Trump announced in his first year in office that he intended to exit the Paris Climate Agreement. He said during the announcement, which was aimed at curbing climate change, that the accord placed "draconian" financial burdens on the American people. It's one of many instances of Trump exiting an international agreement where he felt the US was treated unfairly.
Biden has said he plans to have the US rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office. The US is about halfway toward achieving the accord's goal to cut emissions, but not on track to meet it, according to the New York Times.
Besides Trump's decision to pull out of the accord, the Trump administration's record on energy and the environment was largely headlined by efforts to roll back a slew of environmental protections in favor of perceived economic opportunity. Much like Trump reversed many of Obama's environmental policy achieved through executive order, Biden is expected to do much the same of Trump's.
The Republican's administration targeted 50-year-old Clean Air Act protections, carbon emissions caps, methane regulations, energy efficient light bulb requirements, the length of environmental impact studies for infrastructure projects and gas pipelines, animal protections, herbicide limits and limits for auto emissions.
They've downsized major protected lands and proposed allowing logging in the nation's largest national forest. In Trump's final year in office, the administration has pushed forward regulatory changes that would remove penalties for killing birds, loosen water efficiency standards for showerheads, and loosen energy conservation standards for washers and dryers.
The US has also opened vast stretches of land and water offshore to oil and gas drilling. But Trump has issued a moratorium on offshore drilling in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia and North Carolina. In 2018, the US became the world's largest oil producer, a feat fueled by the shale boom and Congress' 2015 decision to lift a ban on crude oil exports. The boom allowed Trump to take credit for lowering prices at the pump and encouraging economic expansion.
The President has frequently touted that the US has the "cleanest air" and "cleanest water" in the world, but the US ranks 16th in air quality in the world and the US ranks 26th in quality of sanitation and drinking water, according to the Environmental Performance Index.
However, one analysis shows that after rising sharply in 2018, US greenhouse gas emissions reversed course and dropped an estimated 2.1% in 2019. But that drop is largely due to drops in coal power generation -- an industry the Trump administration has attempted to revive.
National security, defense and foreign affairs
Trump's defense strategy was headlined by efforts to push the US to exit foreign wars. And his foreign affairs strategy was dominated by his belief that the US was being taken advantage of by other nations, including allies.
He approached foreign relations much like his businesses, leaning on loyalists outside official diplomatic and military channels to push his most controversial efforts while insisting that he alone had the deal making prowess to deliver wins with dictators such as Kim Jong Un. Still, those efforts consistently fell short.
While Trump was in office, the United States withdrew troops from Syria, Germany, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Trump authorized the use of America's most powerful non-nuclear bomb, killing nearly 100 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan in 2017. He authorized the killing of the terrorist group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2019.
The US and the Taliban signed a historic agreement setting into motion the potential full withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan.
Trump increasingly isolated Iran, pulling the US out of the Iran Nuclear Deal and ordering the killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani.
His administration brokered Middle East peace agreements and moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
The administration also put many of President Barack Obama's attempts to warm relations with Cuba on ice, with the US recently naming the country a state sponsor of terrorism. His administration also targeted Nicolas Maduro's regime in Venezuela.
Despite his repeated calls for the US not to serve as the world's policemen, he also successfully sought increases to military spending. And when Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law in 2019, he created the the newest military service and the first new service since the US Air Force came into being in 1947 -- the United States Space Force. His administration also repeatedly attempted to slash foreign aid.
He also went over the heads of military commanders to institute controversial policies, blindsiding the US Joint Chiefs when he announced via Twitter that he would institute a blanket ban prohibiting transgender people from serving in the military. The ban went into effect in 2019, prohibiting transgender people from joining the military. It's likely to be reversed by the Biden administration.
Trump's style of diplomacy both eschewed the conventions of the US' preferential treatment of allied nations and its intolerance of dictators. He led a charge to get NATO country members to pay more toward collective defense. He pushed allies to bring Russia back into the fold of the G7. He also attempted to warm relations with North Korea and embraced controversial, often nationalist leaders -- such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Hungary's Viktor Orban and Poland's Andrzej Duda.
Another hallmark of his foreign policy was his approach to Russia -- namely, his hesitation to single out Russian aggression and, at times, embrace its leader, Vladimir Putin, against his allies' and advisers' warnings.
He declined to condemn Putin or his government over their role in foreign election interference and spreading misinformation, hacking federal agencies, the poisoning of dissidents, and the reported bounties on the heads of US troops in Afghanistan.
Trump's health care efforts were largely motivated by attempting to undo his predecessor's landmark law -- the Affordable Care Act. He also implemented a slew of regulations aimed at appeasing his evangelical base, such as religious freedom objections. In apparent efforts to appeal to seniors and his longtime nationalist focus -- fighting for the US not to get "ripped off" -- he also pursued policies aimed at price transparency and matching the prescription costs in other countries.
The Trump administration did many things to weaken Obamacare -- including cutting the open enrollment period in half to six weeks, slashing the advertising budget by 90% and severely cutting funding for enrollment assistance. Also in 2017, the President eliminated federal payments that help reduce deductibles and out-of-pocket costs for low-income participants, prompting insurers to raise premiums to cover the loss of these cost-sharing subsidies.
Sign-ups on the federal exchange, healthcare.gov, slipped in the first three years of the Trump administration before rising amid the pandemic in 2020. After the President's tumultuous first year in office, premiums edged down for three years straight and the number of participating insurers grew.
Most notably, the administration is supporting a coalition of Republican-led attorneys general who are seeking to overturn the landmark health reform law. They argue that Congress' reducing the penalty for not having insurance to zero invalidated the individual mandate, and the entire law must fall. The challenge is currently before the Supreme Court.
The Trump administration released a 44-page blueprint of how the President would reduce drug prices in 2018, but few of the measures have taken effect or made a dent in prices. Some were blocked by courts, including his recent rule to tie Medicare's reimbursement of certain drugs to their cost in other countries and an attempt a few years ago to require drug makers to include list prices in television ads.
The Trump administration also waged a multi-front battle looking to chip away at abortion access throughout the President's tenure.
In 2019, the administration introduced a rule barring federally funded health care providers in the Title X family planning program, which provides taxpayer funds to health clinics that offer sexual health services, from referring patients for abortions.
Trump reinstated and expanded the so-called Mexico City Policy, a ban on funding for foreign nonprofits that perform or promote abortions, during his tenure.
The Trump administration also reversed a directive which ordered that states cannot bar Medicaid funds from going to qualified providers that separately provide abortions, such as Planned Parenthood
Trump frequently celebrated signing a "Right to Try" bill passed by Congress into law, which was aimed at helping terminally ill patients access drug treatments that have not been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The social safety net
The Trump administration sought to remove millions of people from public assistance programs over the last four years, but in many cases, these efforts failed to be finalized before the end of the President's tenure or failed to hold up in court.
Prior to the pandemic, Trump saw poverty decline during his time in office, but as the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have continued to ravage the US, hunger and poverty have surged.
In 2019, the US Department of Agriculture proposed three rules that could strip an estimated 3.7 million people of their food stamp benefits.
Like its efforts with food stamps, the Trump administration in 2018 also began allowing states to institute work requirements in their Medicaid programs, but federal courts struck down several of the approvals. The Supreme Court agreed last month to review the issue.
Separately, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently granted Tennessee's request to turn its federal Medicaid funding arrangement into a so-called modified block grant. It is the first state to receive such permission to receive a lump sum of federal support in exchange for increased flexibility in administering its Medicaid program and an opportunity to share in any savings with the federal government.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development also sought to strip protections for transgender Americans seeking housing in federally funded homeless shelters. The department argued that the change would "better accommodate religious beliefs of shelter providers," as well as other practical concerns, but it came during the coronavirus pandemic, worrying advocates who feared that it could leave some transgender Americans without housing in the middle of a public health crisis. The rule has yet to be finalized and Biden will likely seek to keep the existing rule in place.
And for years, the administration also fought to implement its controversial "public charge" rule -- which would make it more difficult for immigrants to obtain legal status if they use public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers. It was immediately met with pushback, and in December, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the administration, saying the rule has a chilling effect on immigrants who may need to seek medical assistance.