President Trump, now in the third year of his term, is struggling to maintain the illusion of accomplishment as some of his biggest promises remain unfulfilled.
Though his showy summit diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un collapsed in Vietnam last week, dashing Trump’s prediction of “fantastic success,” the president continues to insist that he’s made unprecedented progress toward getting that nation to relinquish its nuclear arms program — even as his intelligence advisors say otherwise.
Over the weekend, Trump yet again boasted to supporters that his border wall is under construction, as if it were nearly finished. In fact, no new miles of any barrier have been built during his presidency and a Republican-controlled Senate is poised to join the Democratic-controlled House in rejecting his declaration of a national emergency to pay for an installment.
Also, Trump is lately hailing progress in trade talks with China as if a landmark deal were imminent. Yet he’s said so for months, and this week his secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, traveled to politically influential Iowa to persuade farmers hurt by China’s retaliatory tariffs that the president’s trade war ultimately will push Beijing into an agreement benefiting them. Even if a deal takes shape this month in time for Trump’s planned meeting with China’s Xi Jinping, it’s not expected to include the long-sought concessions he’s talked of.
In another blow to Trump’s trade promises, on Wednesday the Commerce Department reported that in 2018 the U.S. trade deficit grew to $621 billion, a 10-year high, and the gap with China set a record — defying the president’s vows to reverse the trend.
His misses, exaggerations and outright untruths carry a political risk. It’s just not clear Trump will pay any price.
“The more tenuous his rhetoric’s connection to reality becomes, it’s harder to sustain the illusion,” said Michael Steel, a Republican consultant in Washington who served as press secretary to former House Speaker John A. Boehner.
“He has big accomplishments: tax cuts, conservative judges, regulatory reforms, a strong economy. But on the big things he’s most focused on — the wall, talks with North Korea — he has not been able to get the results that he’s promised over and over again.”
Yet for the president’s most ardent supporters, the lack of results on his most prominent promises, and his hyperbole, may not matter given the cult of personality Trump has created around himself.
That was evident in the warm embrace he received Saturday from attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Trump spoke for more than two hours in the longest address of his presidency, veering wildly off script, basking in the crowd’s applause and cheers, vastly overstating his achievements and explaining away his failures.
Less than 24 hours after his walkout at the Vietnam summit, he complained that he’s been given no credit for initiating talks — talks, begun at the leaders’ first meeting last year in Singapore, which have prompted North Korea to pause its nuclear tests but also have elevated Kim on the world stage without any concrete steps toward dismantling his nation’s nuclear program.
“In the last days of the Obama administration, rockets were flying all over the place. Nuclear testing was going on,” Trump said, an exaggeration that ignored North Korea’s repeated successful test-fires during his own first year as president.
The president also boasted to the CPAC crowd that his escalation of a trade war brought China to the negotiating table, and to the brink of concessions. Anticipating a trade agreement that could be sealed during a meeting with Xi at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida later this month, he promised that tariffs between the two countries would fall to “zero and zero.”
Yet even if the men reach a deal that allows Trump to lift the tariffs so unpopular with his rural supporters, it is widely considered unlikely to include any enforceable end to China’s practice of requiring American companies to transfer technology and intellectual property to Chinese partners as a condition of doing business in the country.
Trump wrote in his book “The Art of the Deal” that he “plays to people’s fantasies.” He still does.
“You know I’m building the wall,” he said to supporters at CPAC, who immediately broke into familiar chants of “Build the wall!” He went on: “We’re finishing the wall. We got a lot of money. It’s in the thing.”
By “thing” the president apparently was alluding to a spending bill that he’d reluctantly signed, to end a 35-day partial government shutdown he’d provoked by his standoff with Democrats over wall money. Yet the bill included just $1.375 billion to construct new bollard fencing on 55 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border — far short of the $5.7 billion he demanded. So far, the only construction underway has been repairs to existing stretches of wall, built under his predecessors.
Trump could successfully veto the emerging congressional resolution to reject his national emergency declaration, which is his attempt to divert as much as $8 billion for wall construction. Yet he would face strong legal challenges.
“He kind of talked himself into a corner in promoting the wall all the time and gave Democrats an opportunity to stymie him just by refusing to pay for a wall,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Krikorian, whose group supports more restrictive immigration policies and thus is allied with Trump on some issues, disagrees with the president’s portrayal of a wall as critical to border security.
The president believed he had to declare a national emergency “because he has made the wall such a high-profile objective,” Krikorian said. “It’s important, but it’s not job one and it’s certainly not the reason we have a crisis at the border.”
Such rebuttals would have been lost on the crowd at CPAC, or among Trump’s supporters generally.
“That crowd was rooting for him,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and organizer of CPAC, who likened the president’s long speech to a “conversation among friends.”
“If you love Trump, as 95% of the people in that audience do, it was a very emotion-laden experience,” he said.
Among Republicans, Trump’s support stands at an astonishing 90%, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday. His overall job approval rating had ticked up slightly to 46% following a dip after the shutdown and emergency declaration last month. A separate Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday put his job approval rating at 38%, the same level of its poll in January.
While the president already is making “Promises kept” a slogan of his reelection campaign, Schlapp said Trump’s supporters are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt if some big promises remain unfulfilled.
“Maybe 50% of Americans look at Donald Trump as struggling to accomplish things, but the other 50% looks at him as willing to take on challenges other presidents weren’t,” he said.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has toggled between taking credit and passing blame — often declaring, especially on Twitter, that “progress is being made” on issues while complaining about “obstructionist” Democrats fighting his agenda and the “fake news” media not giving him credit.
“Trump is a grievance candidate, and I think that’s the base of the support he has,” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime Republican strategist who helped guide Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and has been consistently critical of Trump.
“We have a Republican president who’s spent a lot of his presidency attacking the Constitution, attacking law and order, attacking the whole concept of personal responsibility,” Stevens said. “He’s soft on dictators and a professional victim. But it just makes people feel that whatever score they need settled, he’s going to settle it.”
Yascha Mounk, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and an expert on the worldwide rise of populism, believes it’s foolish to expect the president’s backers to punish him for overpromising and underdelivering.
“I don’t see why it would happen if it hasn’t yet,” Mounk said, though he noted that a severe economic downturn or other unexpected calamitous event could change that calculus.
“People are perfectly aware he lies all the time and that he boasts and probably delivers only on a fraction of those things. But because so many Americans have become deeply cynical and think that no politician ever delivers on their promises, they may discount what he promises but still think that that is a better bet than politicians who don’t promise anything.”
Mounk added, “It’s essentially, ‘Well, he didn’t really bring back manufacturing jobs, but he tried.’”