Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 following a campaign of pledges to build a wall along the border with Mexico, repeal and replace his predecessor’s signature health care legislation, “drain the swamp” of special interests in Washington, D.C., and cut through the federal government’s bureaucracy, all to “Make America Great Again.”
Trump ultimately fell short on many of his signature promises, but his administration’s successes in cutting taxes, rolling back regulations and reshaping the judiciary will cast a long shadow, with the national debt reaching historic highs, weakened federal agencies and conservative judges who will remain in position for decades.
President Joe Biden has begun undoing some inherited policies via executive orders, yet much of what the new administration ultimately hopes to achieve cannot be accomplished by presidential fiat. Like Trump when he was reversing Obama-era regulations, Biden will need cooperation from Congress, including compromises with at least some Republicans in the Senate, to enact significant swaths of his agenda, and he faces a ticking clock to undo some of Trump’s “midnight” rules.
Here are some of the most important ways Trump changed Washington and the federal government:
From the start of his term, Trump staffed his administration with lobbyists — hundreds of them, by our count — some of whom remain in career positions. He signed an executive order on ethics that was supposed to bar his political appointees from lobbying their former agencies for five years after they left government, though ProPublica found in 2018 that the order was not being enforced. Then, one of his final acts as president was to rescind that order, calling into question whether the swamp was drained or if Trump had built a yacht club along its murky waters.
Trump’s deregulatory successes left some federal agencies understaffed, underfunded and unable to function properly, as demonstrated by his administration’s botched response to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Even if Biden is able to restaff and Congress allocates the money to restore slashed budgets, it will take years to reverse rules put in place by Trump.
Biden has set about trying to reverse at least some of Trump’s actions that rolled back the rights of LGBTQ Americans, like the military’s ban on transgender service members, and a 2020 “conscience rule” that helped to shield federally funded health care providers who refused to provide services on religious or moral grounds.
The new administration will almost certainly have to employ one of the tools Trump used to halt or undo former President Barack Obama’s regulations: a little-known law called the Congressional Review Act.
The law, passed in 1996 by a GOP majority in the House, which was led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, gave Congress the ability to pass a simple resolution of disapproval and thereby reject any new major regulation implemented by a president. It also permanently prevents these voided regulations from being resurrected in any similar form without a subsequent act of Congress. In the two decades after it was enacted, the CRA was only used successfully once.
Then came Trump.
His 2016 election resulted in a flood of regulatory rollbacks — 15 in the first year of his term alone.
Now that the Congressional Review Act has been established as a political power tool, Biden and a Democratic-led House and Senate will likely use it to repeal as many of the Trump administration’s midnight regulations as they possibly can in the limited window of time available to them.
ProPublica tracked more than 75 such regulations from Trump’s final months in office, at least 50 of which were finalized before Biden’s inauguration.
Among federal institutions, the judicial branch will remain in Trump’s shadow the longest. The one-term president was responsible for installing more than 225 federal judges and three Supreme Court justices to lifetime appointments. A ProPublica analysis highlighted the relative youth of Trump’s judicial appointments. Given the age of many of these judges, they are likely to remain in their positions for 30 years or more before retiring.
The Senate’s then-majority leader, Mitch McConnell, handed Trump a gift by refusing to hold hearings in 2016 for Obama’s nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. In April 2017, that seat was filled by Neil Gorsuch, who, at age 49, was the youngest justice on the court.
The subsequent appointments of Brett Kavanaugh (53 when confirmed) and Amy Coney Barrett (47 when confirmed) made clear Trump’s goal of placing young, deeply conservative justices into lifetime appointments.
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