Donald Trump rode a tidal wave of populism to the Republican nomination, but a President Trump would face a different reality: major limits on executive power and a stingy Congress that would block him at most every turn.
POLITICO deployed its policy experts to study a week’s worth of Trump commentary and decipher what he’s saying, how his ideas would work and how far he could really go with positions that are unorthodox at best, and often heretical to his party’s ideology.
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Here’s what we found: Trump bounces across the political spectrum, sounding like John McCain on defense spending, Ross Perot on trade, Joe Biden on crumbling roads and bridges, and, well, Donald Trump on border security. He even has a little bit of Bernie Sanders in him when it comes to prescription drug prices. On other issues, like Common Core, his ideas are disconnected from reality, since the federal government doesn’t have any say over the educational standards.
But there’s also a tougher takeaway on Trump’s policies: Many of his proposals are either unrealistic in terms of executive power or would run into a brick wall with Congress, making a Trump administration borderline impotent on the very issues that are driving his supporters to the polls.
A little bit about our methodology: We turned loose our team of beat reporters to listen to a week’s worth of recent Trump speeches and answer a series of key questions for each proposal, analyzing the policy itself, the cost and the likelihood of success.
With that in mind, here’s POLITICO’s guide to decoding nine of Trump’s most frequently mentioned policy ideas and what would really happen to a Trump administration in a divided Washington:
What did Trump say? “But a lot of the equipment that we get in the military is not the equipment that the generals want. It’s forced down their throat by a company that is politically good but doesn’t make the equipment that is good. All of that stuff adds. That’s why they’d much rather have somebody other than Trump.” (May 1, Fort Wayne, Indiana)
What’s he really talking about? The pitfalls of the “military industrial complex” that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about more than a half-century ago. Trump first began talking about unnecessary military equipment during the fall of 2015, when he was critical of the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program, the F-35 fighter jet. He was referencing a leaked report to the military website War Is Boring, in which a test pilot said the cutting edge plane was outperformed by the older F-16. In the months since, Trump has broadened his criticism of the F-35 to military programs generally — and he is correct that Congress often adds to weapons programs or refuses to retire them against the Pentagon’s wishes.
Where does his view come from? Railing against defense contractors for adding pork to the military’s budget fits neatly into Trump’s worldview that lobbyists and special interests are what’s wrong with Washington. His stance against the defense industry puts him in the same camp as many liberal Democrats — and some fiscal conservatives — who have targeted programs big and small in the Pentagon’s budget. It also aligns with McCain, the Arizona Republican senator who has railed against failing and over-budget weapons programs and has a rocky relationship with the defense industry.
How can he do it? Trump’s budget proposal could try to cut all the weapons programs he desires — but ultimately it’s Congress’ decision. And lawmakers routinely ignore the wishes and desires of whatever administration is in power when it proposes cutting favored DOD weapons programs
How far can he go? Trump could theoretically play hardball and veto any defense spending bill that added weapons his generals did not want. But would he really shut down the Pentagon over an extra dozen F-35 fighters?
Who won’t like this? Congressional Republicans — and many Democrats — along with a defense industry that’s among the most politically connected in Washington. Indeed, many of the weapons Congress adds to the Pentagon’s budget actually come from the military brass themselves: The service chiefs send a “wish list” of unfunded programs that lawmakers often use as a road map when adding money to the military budget.
How would a divided Congress react? Congress typically unites to pass defense spending bills by wide, bipartisan and veto-proof margins. They’d likely unite against Trump if he tried to block their spending bills, too.
How much would it cost? Liberal and conservative watchdog groups proposed $38.6 billion in savings by cutting a host of the weapons programs, including $4.4 billion by canceling the F-35 and buying current fighter aircraft instead. Look to this as a road map in a future Trump administration if he is serious about cutting Pentagon programs.
What did Trump say? “NAFTA has destroyed every place it has touched. We are going to renegotiate our trade deals, folks, so fast. … People now are working at Carrier and they announce they’re leaving. Goodbye, they’re going to Mexico. And I stop it. Wanna know how to stop it, real easy?” (May 1, Terre Haute, Indiana)
What’s he really talking about? Trade agreements favor big corporations at the expense of ordinary workers. That view puts Trump on the side of labor unions who have made the same critique for years. He’s also railing against the offshoring of American jobs using the example of Carrier Corp., which announced earlier this year it was moving 1,400 jobs to a manufacturing plant in Monterrey, Mexico.
Where does his view come from? His attacks on NAFTA echo arguments made by both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaigns, as well as businessman Perot, who ran as an independent for president in 1992, and Pat Buchanan, the cultural conservative who challenged George H.W. Bush for the 1988 Republican party nomination.
What’s his proposal? Using tariffs as a punitive tool to discourage companies from moving production overseas, and to force other countries to open their markets to more U.S. exports. In Carrier’s case, Trump wants to discourage it from moving jobs to Mexico by threatening to impose a 35 percent tariff on any products they ship back to the United States. In China’s case, he is proposing to declare the Asian nation a currency manipulator and impose high “countervailing anti-subsidy duties” on their exports to the United States to force them to open their market to more U.S. goods and services and address other trade irritants.
How far can Trump go? U.S. law allows the president to raise tariffs 15 percent against an individual country for 150 days, but Congress would have to approve any plan to permanently increase import duties. But Congress has control over tax and tariff policy, so Trump would have to get congressional approval to punish companies that move production abroad or to hike duties on Chinese or Mexican goods. Trump could use existing authority to declare China a currency manipulator, as he has vowed to do on his first day in office, but that doesn’t trigger any immediate penalty under U.S. law.
Who won’t like this? Carrier wouldn’t like getting slapped with a 35 percent duty on goods it ships to the United States. Mexico and China would also be upset if they faced similar penalties. The U.S. business community would probably fight any threat to their ability to invest overseas. Consumers could protest too if Trump imposed a high tariff wall that pushes up the price of clothing, food, computers, TVs, smartphones and automobiles. Many U.S. companies would suffer if Trump were to withdraw from current trade pacts and those countries respond by raising tariffs on U.S. goods.
How would a divided Congress react? It’s hard to imagine current Republican leadership working with Trump to trigger what could become a trade war with Mexico, China and other trading partners. Democrats are much more skeptical of trade agreements, but it’s still a big step from blocking new trade agreements to unraveling the rules-based trading built up over the 70 years since the end of World War II.
How much would it cost? It could cause a trade war and a recession. Trump’s trade policy would be “a huge loser for this country” by triggering the sort of trade retaliation and currency devaluation that triggered and deepened the Great Depression, Fred Bergsten, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, wrote in a recent blog post. Another economist, Kathy Bostjancic, head of U.S. macro investor service at Oxford Economics in New York, said Mexico and China would likely respond to U.S. tariffs by slapping their own duties on U.S. goods. The resulting trade war “would lower both the level of real GDP by 1.6 percent and employment by 1.4 million by 2020” below current forecasts and push the inflation rate up to 3.5 percent, Bostjancic wrote in a research brief last month.
What did Trump say? “Our educational system is no good. Out of 30 countries we’re ranked 30th. … And yet we spend more per pupil than any other country by so much that there is no second place. It’s so far behind us, and yet we’re 30. Because we have, this Common Core is a disaster, but it’s even beyond that. We’re gonna get rid of Common Core and bring it local in all of them.” (May 2, Carmel, Indiana)
What’s he really talking about? Trump sees a problem with American schools and he thinks he’s got a solution, which is to get rid of the Common Core education standards. But this is far from a viable plan because the U.S. president doesn’t set education standards and by law isn’t even allowed to do so.
Where does his view come from? Opposition to Common Core has been a conservative talking point. Sometimes it’s even dubbed “Obama-core.”
How far can Trump go? Nowhere. The federal government doesn’t set the state standards, so there’s really little he can do that would make much of a difference.
Who won’t like this? Some teachers and school administrators would challenge Trump by arguing that the U.S. needs to have high quality education standards.
How would a divided Congress react? Congress likely has little appetite to tackle this issue again: It just passed a major education law in 2015 after more than a decade of gridlock on K-12 issues.
What did Trump say? “Think of how strong Iran has become. We gave them $150 billion, they got tremendous other concessions, they will have nuclear, they can now buy nuclear, they don’t have to develop it, with the money they have now, they can buy nuclear.” (May 1, Terre Haute, Indiana)
What’s he really talking about here? Trump is poking at the Iran nuclear deal, warning that the agreement could give them nuclear capabilities beyond the limits of the international accord.
Where does his view come from? This is one area where Trump aligns neatly with the Republican Party. Many in the party, as well as Israeli and Arab leaders, fear Iran’s ultimate intentions. They also worry the nuclear deal will strengthen Iran economically while paving the way for it to eventually obtain nuclear weapons.
What does he want to do? Trump has said he’d like to “renegotiate” the deal, but has stopped short of saying he’d rip it up.
How far can Trump go? The notion that other world powers or Iran would be up for a renegotiation of the multilateral deal is specious; it took years to reach the one in place now. But a President Trump could abandon the deal, which is a political arrangement, not a treaty. He could then re-impose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran through executive orders and also re-impose sanctions on other countries that do business with Iran.
Who won’t like this? The Iranians. They already think the U.S. has been too slow to allow sanctions relief. He’d also upset the five other world powers that helped negotiate the agreement: Germany, China, Britain, France, Russia. The Europeans in particular would see the move as a blow to international diplomacy, not to mention a downer for their businesses eager to tap into the Iranian market.
How would a divided Congress react? Many Republicans have called for the U.S. to scrap the deal, arguing Iran can’t be trusted. But so far, Iran appears to have held up its end, dismantling its nuclear infrastructure. If Iran doesn’t commit any violations by the time a President Trump takes office, some Republicans might think twice about quitting or tinkering with the agreement.
How much would it cost? The American economy isn’t likely to be hurt much by getting rid of the deal because U.S.-Iran trade is still so highly restricted. But the cost to America’s global standing could be significant. European allies may think twice before working with the United States on future multilateral agreements.
What did Trump say? “We have no growth. … It’s so little, it’s not even really measurable. I bet you it’s wrong. I bet you it’s negative growth. So we have to change what’s going on folks. We have to bring our jobs back. … We have $19 trillion in debt, soon going to $21 trillion.” (May 1, Terre Haute)
What’s he really talking about? Trump is exaggerating how slowly the economy is growing, and suggesting the national debt is to blame. It’s true that government red ink can hurt the economy by pushing up interest rates. But Trump appears to be relying on some curious logic. He suggests the debt is currently a drag on the economy, though interest rates right now are extremely low. At the same time, Trump ignores the effect his own $10 trillion tax plan would have on the debt and interest rates. The Tax Policy Center says Trump’s plan would require so much borrowing that it could cancel out the benefits of cutting taxes. Also, Trump is using the wrong debt figure. The government’s gross debt is $19 trillion, but the economically important measure is publicly held debt, which currently stands at $14 trillion.
Where does his view come from? Political challengers typically bemoan the economy, saying it should be doing a whole lot better, while incumbents emphasize its strengths or highlight how much progress has been made. So Trump is not breaking any new ground, though in perhaps typical hyperbolic fashion he’s exaggerating how badly the economy is doing (“I bet you it’s negative growth”). The economy grew last year, in inflation-adjusted terms, by 2 percent, and the Congressional Budget Office predicts it will grow by 2.7 percent in 2016.
Does Trump have a plan on paper to tackle this? Not to fix the debt. Actually, Trump’s tax plan would make it much worse, cutting revenues by more than 20 percent. And he’s promising not to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits, which budget experts call the main drivers of the government’s long-term debt.
How far can Trump go? This proposal has a shelf life that typically expires on Election Day.
Who won’t like this? Deficit hawks.
How would a divided Congress react? Many Democrats will be happy to see Trump swear off cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits, but congressional Republicans have taken tough votes, at the urging of Paul Ryan, to partially privatize Medicare — which Trump appears to be foreswearing. So that would be awkward.
PRESCRIPTION DRUG PRICES
What did Trump say? “So when the pharmaceutical companies call me, they say, ‘We don’t want to go to bidding. We don’t want to bid. We want to just sell you whatever it is. We don’t want to have bidding.’ We’re going to start bidding.” (May 1, Fort Wayne)
What’s he really talking about? Medicare is prohibited from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies over drug prices. Trump has repeatedly endorsed implementing negotiations as a way to slash federal spending.
Where does this view come from? Many Democrats, including Clinton and Sanders, have backed empowering Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies. However, the idea has been anathema to most Republicans, who perceive it as an assault on free-market economics.
Does Trump have a plan on paper to tackle this? Nothing of substance, though it’s interesting to note that President Obama included a proposal to permit Medicare to negotiate the price of high-cost drugs in his 2017 budget request.
How far can Trump go? Federal law explicitly prohibits Medicare from negotiating with drug companies. So that would need to be changed for Trump’s idea to be implemented.
Who won’t like this? Big Pharma. Drug manufacturers bankroll one of the most successful influence operations on Capitol Hill, with $63.2 million in lobbying expenditures last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
How would a divided Congress react? Not well. Trump probably wouldn’t find much enthusiasm for his plan on Capitol Hill, where the drug companies usually get what they want. A recent example: The Obama administration proposed a pilot program in its latest budget designed to reduce Medicare drug costs and received bipartisan blowback from legislators.
How much would it cost? Trump has claimed nonsensically that his plan would save $300 billion annually — a figure roughly equivalent to what the entire country spends on prescription drugs each year. It’s impossible to discern how he came up with this fairy-tale figure. A study released last year predicted the federal government could save at least $15.2 billion each year by bringing costs in line with what Medicaid and the Department of Veterans Affairs pay for drugs.
What did Trump say? “We’re spending probably $4 trillion in the Middle East, and we have to rebuild our infrastructure, our roads, we have to rebuild our bridges, our airports, our hospitals, in this country. We’ve become close to a third-world country. You look at our airports, and then you go to other countries and you see places like you’ve never seen.” (May 3, New York City/Indiana victory speech)
What’s he really talking about here? More than 45 percent of roads in most states are indeed considered to be in poor or mediocre condition. America’s airports are also no match for their foreign rivals, like Singapore’s Changi Airport, which has an outdoor swimming pool and butterfly garden. But luxury is far from the only measurement: U.S. airports are expected to need about $76 billion in infrastructure investment over the next three years just to take care of basics like accommodating passenger growth and doing necessary rehab. Besides lacking the glamour of major foreign hubs, U.S. airports have also grown more congested in the past year as the Transportation Security Administration’s screening workforce shrinks.
Where does his view come from? Joe Biden has described U.S. infrastructure as “third-world,” too. And here’s the veep last year in Philly talking about airports: “If I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you must think: I must be in some third world country. … I’m not joking.”
What does he want to do? Trump hasn’t said where he’d get the money yet for infrastructure specifically. But Trump does support one of the bipartisan approaches often mentioned for paying for infrastructure: repatriation of corporate earnings.
How far can he go? Only as far as Congress lets him. Trump could be intricately prescriptive about how much he wants Congress to spend on rebuilding, as well as the source of the funding. But it still falls to lawmakers to actually write the bill.
Who won’t like this? It really depends on how he proposes to raise the money. Both sides of the aisle would balk if Trump pursued an increase in the gas tax. If he tries to get higher funding levels than legislators can offset, he would anger many budget hawks, including House Speaker Paul Ryan. Repatriation of corporate earnings is another approach bandied about in Congress, and Trump has mentioned this approach on his website. But he’d face opposition from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who argues repatriated money shouldn’t be used on transportation projects.
How would a divided Congress react? Rounding up support for more infrastructure investment is politically feasible no matter the makeup of Congress as long as common ground can be found on how to come up with the cash. The proof: The current Republican-controlled Congress was able to muster the votes to enact a five-year, $305 billion transportation infrastructure bill last year with overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle and the Obama administration’s blessing.
What did Trump say? “I believe global warming is the single biggest problem in our country, but it’s made of the nuclear variety, do you understand that? That’s the one we have to be careful of. … Because we have a president that talks about global warming and he doesn’t talk about the other problems that we have.” (May 1, Terre Haute, Indiana)
What’s he really talking about here? The seemingly far-fetched threat of nuclear-induced climate change has been on Trump’s mind since at least June, when he warned of “nuclear warming” during a visit to The Chicago Tribune. His concern: The environmental impact of a potential nuclear blast gets far less attention than the greenhouse gas emissions that are already raising sea levels and temperatures worldwide.
What’s his solution? Trump’s underlying policy goal here is actually dismissing calls for federal action to cut U.S. emissions by raising the profile at a presidential level of both national security and nuclear containment. It’s a counter-argument as well to both Obama and Clinton, who have described climate change as a threat on par with terrorism.
How far can he go? Trump can stop work on any pending Obama administration plans to stem global warming, but how much he’d be able to unravel the marquee greenhouse regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency depends in large part on whether they survive a legal challenge that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Who won’t like this? Democrats and environmental groups would lash out if Trump tried to unravel Obama’s EPA regulations.
What did Trump say? “Believe me 100 percent, we’re building this wall. … Who is going to pay for the wall? Mexico! Not even close, folks. A trade deficit with Mexico, $58 billion. The wall’s gonna cost $10 billion. Are there any bad business people here? … It’s gonna be beautiful ‘cause they’ll call it Trump someday maybe. Nah, I don’t want a wall with my name.” (May 1, Terre Haute, Indiana)
What’s he really talking about? Building the wall is Trump’s bumper sticker slogan. Trump has vowed to deport all 11 million immigrants here illegally, while letting the “good ones” back in. He’d turbocharge border security by erecting a wall along the 1,989-mile U.S.-Mexico boundary.
Where does his view come from? Building a fence along the southern border has long been one plank of overhauling the immigration system. About 670 miles of fencing is already up there (about 350 miles are in pedestrian areas) and a 2013 comprehensive reform plan introduced by a bipartisan group of eight senators called for 350 more miles of similar fencing.
What does he want to do? Trump’s six-page immigration platform released last August suggests building a wall, and making Mexico pay for it. He plans to force Mexico’s hand by blocking all of the remittances earned by immigrants working here illegally sent from the United States back home until the Mexican government hands over the money. He’d also boost fees for visas for Mexican nationals and may even deny issuing them altogether.
How far can Trump go? Not very far. One thing Trump can do unilaterally is to hike fees for visas, which can be done through agency regulations, as long as proposed rules are publicized. But the wall itself would have to be approved by Congress, just as lawmakers in the past have signed off on smaller-scale fences.
Who won’t like this? Mexico, obviously. The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has flatly said there is “no scenario” under which his country would cough up the money for Trump’s border wall. Advocates and lawmakers who have long pushed immigration reform would decry Trump’s security-only approach.
How would a divided Congress react? Democrats would reject it outright since it’s a security-only method that doesn’t come attached with a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States. Among Republicans, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a longtime proponent of immigration reform, has pointed to Trump’s ideas including the wall and another proposal to ban Muslim immigrants from the United States as reasons why he can’t see himself backing the presumptive GOP nominee. Trump’s plan, however, is likely to gain traction with key conservatives including Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
How much would it cost? Trump insists that his wall will cost $10 billion (and nothing for the U.S. taxpayer, since Mexico would surely pay for it). That seems remarkably optimistic on Trump’s part. A POLITICO analysis last summer found that finishing the existing U.S.-Mexico fence cost $5.1 billion at a bare minimum, but likely much more. That’s because the remaining 1,300 miles that haven’t yet been fenced off are in considerably more difficult terrain. The Government Accountability Office estimated in 2009 that it costs an average of $3.9 million to build one mile of fence, although it could go as high as $15.1 million.
Seung Min Kim