President Trump signaled Monday through a flurry of directives and pronouncements that he will put a priority on remaking U.S. trade and tax policy, even as he quietly backed away from a pledge to end protections for nearly 750,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
The moves punctuated a busy first weekday for Trump’s White House. He also banned funding for groups overseas that refer women to abortion clinics and froze most federal hiring, in between meeting with business leaders and lawmakers.
Altogether, Trump underscored his populist bent and previewed his anti-globalization agenda. Trump’s immediate shift away from multinational trade agreements in favor of bilateral talks evoked his campaign promise to pull back from deals that he said had left U.S. workers behind.
"We've been talking about this for a long time," Trump told reporters as he signed a memo withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade pact among 12 Pacific Rim nations. Trump called his move a "great thing for the American worker."
Trump left it to Press Secretary Sean Spicer to indicate the administration has put off ending a controversial program that temporarily shields from deportation more than 742,000 young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children, despite promising during the campaign to “immediately terminate” it.
Officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that issues the work permits, were still accepting applications Monday for two-year permits and protections from removal under the program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, said agency spokesman Steve Blando.
Trump, who made enforcement of immigration law a centerpiece of his campaign, will concentrate on deporting more people who threaten public safety, Spicer said, in a continuation of the Obama administration’s policy on prioritizing deportations.
“The president's been very, very clear, that we need to direct agencies to focus on those who are in this country illegally and have a record — a criminal record [or pose] a threat to the American people," Spicer said. "That's where the priority’s going to be and then we're going to continue to work through the entire number of folks that are here illegally.”
Asked about it again later, Spicer said, “Give us a little bit of time; we'll see what Congress moves forward with.”
Trump aides have signaled in recent days that the president is also looking at ways to punish so-called sanctuary cities for not cooperating with immigration officials trying to deport people who have been booked into local jails.
But the centerpiece of what the White House called the president’s “first working day” was the economy. He met with business leaders, organized labor and members of Congress and will will have breakfast Tuesday with representatives of the auto industry, including executives from GM, Chrysler and Ford. Aides portrayed his schedule as emblematic of how this “listening president” will develop policy.
Trump told CEOs he will seek a more business-friendly climate, “cutting taxes massively” and “cutting regulation massively.”
Of the corporate tax rate, currently 35%, “we’re trying to get it down to anywhere from 15 to 20%,” he said. Regulations could be cut “by 75%,” he said without explaining how that would work or be measured.
He also warned that companies will face consequences if they move their workforce out of the U.S.
“If that happens, we are going to be imposing a very major border tax on the products when it comes in,” he said.
Trump aides also indicated that they would measure economic success not just through unemployment data, long the standard for administrations of both parties. They did not detail what benchmarks they were considering.
“Often in Washington, we get our heads wrapped around a number and a statistic,” Spicer said. “And we look at and we forget the faces and the families and the businesses that are behind those numbers.”
Scuttling the TPP was also a rebuke of former President Obama, who made the pact a priority during his second term while both Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton campaigned against it.
Failure to ratify TPP, whose death knell was sounded by Trump’s election, could pave the way for China to seek its own regional agreement, at the expense of U.S. interests. Obama had pushed for the deal in part to serve as a check on growing Chinese influence in Asia.
Trump instead signaled a new approach to America’s trade relationships with key global allies, focused more narrowly on economic benefits for American workers and on individual relationships with trading partners, rather than the multinational pacts that administrations of both parties have pursued in recent decades.
On Friday, Trump will welcome British Prime Minister Theresa May, who took office last year as part of a populist wave herself, to the White House for his first meeting with a foreign leader.
The agenda is expected to include the possibility of a bilateral trade agreement as Britain looks to realign its own economy after voting last year to exit the European Union.
Trump also signed memos ordering the reinstatement of a Reagan-era ban on contributing to nongovernmental groups that "perform or actively promote abortion,” which reverses another Obama policy, and a freeze in government hiring except in key national security positions.
Spicer also indicated the White House would move at a deliberate pace on Trump’s pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is disputed territory claimed by both the Israelis and Palestinians. Moving the embassy to the city, where no other country has its embassy, would be a de facto declaration that the U.S. sees it as the capital of Israel and would thus inflame the Arab world.
The administration is “at the beginning stages of this decision-making process,” Spicer said Monday.
The frenetic pace of activity at the White House followed a weekend of celebration and then grievance-airing over the media’s accurate reporting on the size of inaugural crowds and other perceived slights.
A Gallup tracking poll showed Trump began his presidency with just a 45% job approval rating, making him the first to begin his tenure in the Oval Office below 50% since Gallup began asking the question.
Aides seemed eager to pivot from the negative tenor established in Trump’s early hours. Spicer, whose first foray in the briefing room over the weekend included an angry, five-minute rebuke of what he considered “deliberately false” reporting about the administration’s earliest hours, more amicably asked Monday to “be afforded the same opportunity” to correct the record when he sees the need.
5 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Press Secretary Sean Spicer and details on Trump’s meetings.
This story was originally published at 9 a.m.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said British Prime Minister Theresa May was elected to the post. She was appointed as leader of the governing Conservative Party, not popularly elected.