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October 19, 2018

In certain respects, a review of the Trump Administration going into the critical 2018 mid-term election can be summarized as “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” His campaign rally schedule has intensified, and he is now campaigning for GOP House and Senate candidates, but the rallies all look and sound the same as those of the last 20 months.

The White House remains chaotic and unpredictable, caused in large part by the continuing historically high staff turnover. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institute, the turnover rate less than halfway through the President’s first term was a crippling 51 percent. In mid-June, the turnover increased yet again with the announced departures of two senior staffers, Deputy Director of the National Economic Council Shahira Knight and head of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs Marc Short.  Yet a month later, it was announced that Shahira Knight would remain in the White House taking over for the departed Marc Short.

Most notably recently, in a high-profile departure, White House Counsel Don McGahn left the Administration. McGahn shepherded through the nomination and confirmation process the dozens of Trump-appointed judges now sitting on the Federal bench, including that of now Justice Brett Kavanaugh; his shoes will be very difficult to fill.

Chief of Staff John Kelly remains on the job despite the almost non-stop rumors after he took over that he was already on the way out. Those rumors have now stopped as the establishment has come to terms with the reality that it really doesn’t matter who has the title because President Trump effectively serves as his own Chief of Staff.   But the churning of senior staff is expected to continue.

More problematic than the record high staff turnover in the White House is the still glacial pace of Trump nominations to fill senior policy positions in the government.

There are 1,200 positions in the Federal departments and agencies subject to Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation; among them are 704 considered to be “key” senior positions. The Partnership for Public Service tracks executive branch nominations and Senate confirmations, and as of October 18th 2018, only 381 of the 704 key positions had been filled; even worse, for 143 of those positions there was still no nominee.  In other words, almost half of the senior policy-making positions in the Trump executive departments were either vacant or still filled by Obama Administration officials.

The glacial pace of presidential nominations is due in no small part to the cumbersome White House vetting process, especially in the critical first months of the Administration. The President’s “drain the swamp” mission was a huge problem – it’s very difficult to find qualified individuals to nominate to critical government positions when experience in the Washington “establishment” was a disqualifying credential. Additionally, potential nominees were carefully screened to determine if they had ever posted anything critical of candidate Trump on social media, and some were disqualified based on that scrutiny.

Adding to the problem, Senate Democrats broke with the historical tradition of affording a new President quick confirmation of his key appointments. Instead, they slow-walked virtually every nominee, even highly-qualified and non-controversial candidates, and they continue to do so with many nominees now.  With Senate rules providing for up to 30 hours of debate on each nominee, each confirmation could take almost a week of time on the Senate floor.

In addition to the critical personnel problems, the White House – and Republicans in general – have an inexplicable tendency to step on their own messages. There’s no doubt that the establishment media has run a steady of stream of stories hostile to the President and will continue to do so.  Unfortunately, there’s also no doubt that the President’s constant, and often intemperate, tweets feed that media frenzy, and the GOP in general cannot seem to stay on message.

While it is fair to criticize the establishment media for their unrelentingly negative coverage of the President, it is also only fair to note that the President provides a consistent stream of off-message stories to cover. For example, as of this writing just three weeks before the mid-term elections, heading into those elections with the best economic story to tell in decades…the press has been delighted to cover the President’s tweet referring to Stormy Daniels as “horse face.”

Despite the chaos, the Administration has an impressive record of accomplishment:

The Judiciary:  The most lasting legacy of the Trump Administration – and of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell – will be the confirmation of judges to the Federal bench. Including the confirmations of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, 84 Trump-appointed judges now sit on US Courts; significantly, 29 of those judges now sit on the Circuit Courts of Appeals.  Moreover, there are currently 11 vacancies on the appellate courts, and 3 additional vacancies will arise before the end of this year.  If all of those vacancies have nominees confirmed by the Senate, President Trump will have filled 43 seats on the appellate courts in his first two years in office – almost a full quarter of the 179 appellate court judges will be Trump appointees.  And if the Republicans retain control of the Senate in the November election, the nomination process begins again.

Regulatory reform and relief:  Almost as important, the President is keeping his campaign promise to implement significant regulatory reform by instructing his departments and agencies to reverse the regulatory overreach of the Obama Administration where possible and to promulgate new regulations only when and where necessary. (See NAW’s separate Issue Brief on the Regulatory Agenda.)

In addition to these two very high profile items, the list of accomplishments and actions taken by the Trump Administration is impressive – and very business-friendly:

  • America’s energy independence is more secure today with the approval of the Keystone and Dakota Pipelines, his reversal of a drilling ban in Alaska, opening up of a small slice of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration, and repeal of the ban on fracking on public lands;
  • An executive order cut the time for infrastructure permit approvals;
  • An Executive Order expanded apprenticeships in a public-private partnership which is now being implemented by Labor Secretary Alex Acosta;
  • The appointment of pro-business members of the National Labor Relations Board began the process of reversing the actions of 8 years of pro-labor Obama Boards (See NAW’s separate Issue Brief on Labor and our Legal Update);
  • The most significant tax bill in decades was signed into law at the end of December, 2018 (See NAW’s separate Issue Brief on Taxes);
  • Economic growth is up and unemployment down – while some argue that the Trump Administration cannot take credit for the good economy, there is no doubt they would be blamed for a weak one!

It can hardly be said that a review of the entire record of the Trump Administration would earn only high marks – the chaotic handling of Obamacare repeal in the earliest days right through to the disastrous handling of the separation of immigrant/refugee families at our southern border give Trump critics plenty of ammunition.  But it is also noteworthy that most of the media has completely ignored the accomplishments noted in this article, and they continue to write consistently negative stories.  So we are left with a seemingly endless Catch 22:

  • The Administration does something positive and the economy continues to grow;
  • The media ignores the good news and instead writes a story critical of the President;
  • The President responds to the negative coverage with an angry tweet, also ignoring the good news;
  • The media covers the angry tweet; and
  • The President responds angrily … and on it goes.