Day 39 of Trump’s Administration

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

Day 39 — President Trump took the first steps to radically shifting the allocation of the federal budget Monday, calling for a $54 billion increase in defense and security spending. Trump’s proposal will focus national security spending on boosts to the military, local law enforcement, and Border Patrol. To balance out these increases, he plans to cut spending on virtually every federal agency, as well as on foreign aid. His plan will not cut spending to Medicare or Social Security. The President announced that “this budget follows through on my promise of keeping America safe, keeping out terrorists, keeping out criminals and putting violent offenders behind bars or removing them from our country all together.” While the White House has yet to define the extent of cuts to various programs, it is expected to gut the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that currently has an $8.1 billion budget. Throughout Trump’s campaign, he promised to “get rid of it [meaning the EPA] in almost every form.” His proposed cuts to foreign spending are also justified by an Office of Budget and Management official, saying that “this budget expects the rest of the world to step up in some of the programs this country has been so generous in funding in the past.” One such program is NATO, and this sentiment follows up on Defense Secretary Mattis’ recent ultimatum to NATO. Trump has also pledged to increase infrastructure spending on roads, bridges and tunnels across the nation.

It is increasingly unlikely that Trump’s promised economic stimulus will take effect this year. The earliest that any fiscal stimulus may be felt will not take place until the federal fiscal year of 2018, beginning in October 2017. The primary reason for this delay in Trump’s tax reform and implementation of spending plans boils down to the inability of Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare), something that the President wanted to be accomplished quickly after his inauguration. Congress will be hard-pressed to juggle the logistics of Trump’s infrastructure plan while dealing with pressure to deliver on tax reform and producing an amendment or replacement to the ACA. Furthermore, infrastructure projects are notorious for taking a long time to launch. If anything, the majority of these projects will not offer any economic stimulus until 2019-2020, as very few of them will be launched prior to 2018.

Similar to an episode of the political drama The West Wing, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) floated a plan by Obama’s unconfirmed pick for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, as well as Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick for the same position. This comparison comes from Ashley Killough, Political Producer at CNN. The plan involves getting a current Justice to agree to retire from the Supreme Court, if and only if Trump agrees to hold confirmation votes for Garland and Gorsuch simultaneously. While Udall did not derive the idea from the show, the episode, “The Supremes,” touches on a relevant issue today. Both liberals and conservatives want the vacancy to be filled by Garland and Gorsuch, respectively. Udall sees this as an opportunity for Trump to mend some of the wounds within the country in the wake of the recent presidential election. The plan is probably farfetched, as it would require both Trump and a Justice to agree to the plan. It would also require Republican Senators to confirm Garland, which may be unrealistic given their refusal to hold a confirmation vote for the judge while Obama was still in office as a partisan power play.

Across the Pacific, the Kremlin seeks to exploit perceived weakness, domestic and foreign, in the White House. Vladimir Putin has long desired to weaken the liberal western order, with cyberattacks and by sponsoring Wikileaks throughout the American election, for example, and he believes he has the opportunity to do just that while Trump is in office. Russia has already tested the U.S. military, flying fighter jets near an American warship in the Black Sea earlier this month and by parking a naval vessel close to the coast of Delaware in the Atlantic. The Kremlin has adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude towards Trump, unable to predict his actions. In light of this, Putin wants to tread carefully. A leading advisor to the Kremlin, Sergei A. Markov, said that “the main hope is that the U.S. will be preoccupied with itself and will stop pressuring Russia” in relation to the eastern superpower’s moves in Syria and Ukraine. Putin had recently been cozying up to Libya to undermine the Obama administration and other western powers by proving that they were wrong to aid in the removal of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi from power in 2011. While Trump is busy dealing with domestic issues, Moscow sees an open window during which the U.S. may not interfere with Russian meddling in Ukraine and the Middle East.

My Take

I see the advantages of increasing investment in infrastructure projects. At the same time, I do not mind Congress exploring every available avenue when it comes to discussing the future of Obamacare. They need to get this one right. It would be unacceptable to strip 20M+ individuals of their coverage. If the House and Senate Republicans come up with a fitting replacement while managing to keep everyone covered, fine and so be it. Otherwise, I imagine they will try to amend the healthcare law, especially in light of recent town hall protests and the surging support for Obamacare, with a 54% approval rating in a recent Pew Research Center poll. The same Pew survey published last December had the Act’s approval rating at 48% with a 47% disapproval rating.

Meanwhile, Trump needs to constantly keep an eye on Moscow. He cannot allow Putin to act unchecked in the Middle East and Ukraine. Russia was booted from the UN Humans Rights Council in October over mounting allegations of war crimes with its actions in Syria, while expressing its support for the Assad regime. Trump has talked about limiting sanctions against Russia, which is dangerous given its occupation of the Crimea. The President must be careful when dealing with Putin and cannot limit sanctions against Russia. The ties that Rex Tillerson, current Secretary of State, has to Russia are startling. As CEO of ExxonMobil, Tillerson struck a deal with Rosneft, a leading Russian oil company, in 2014 to harvest oil from 63.6 million acres in Russia’s Arctic waters and the Black Sea. Of course, Exxon lost access to these waters once Obama placed sanctions against Russia in 2014. If Trump were to now remove those sanctions, Exxon would be free to reap the benefits of its previous deal. This is at the very least a cause for concern.

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