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The Working White House

Donald Trump’s distractions give cover to an administration that is quietly enacting its policy goals.

President Donald Trump attends a Hanukkah Reception in the East Room of the White House, Dec. 7, 2017, in Washington.
President Donald Trump attends a Hanukkah Reception in the East Room of the White House, Dec. 7, 2017, in Washington. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Donald Trump is surrounded by a reality distortion field. It takes the form of spectacle—an unending series of antics that emanate from the president’s rhetoric and his disruptive, dysfunctional behavior. It’s what controversial journalist Michael Wolff describes in his new book Fire and Fury—what we see whenever the president transgresses the norms and standards that once bound his office. It’s what David Brooks recently dubbed “the Potemkin White House.”

It’s a distortion field because it obscures a key truth of the political moment: that the White House is working steadily and efficiently to turn the president’s rhetoric into policy and to advance the goals of the conservative ideological and business interests that backed his candidacy. And it has been effective in dismantling the regulatory state, rolling back Obama-era reforms in the criminal justice system and advancing its vision for immigration policy.

The two White Houses often work in tandem. While President Trump was threatening North Korea with this country’s nuclear arsenal, the Department of the Interior was taking steps to lift prohibitions on offshore drilling. The proposal, unveiled by Secretary Ryan Zinke, would open thousands of miles of coastline to resource extraction, in addition to reauthorizing leases for drilling in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Critics, including Republicans from coastal states, blasted Zinke for the decision. “The Trump Administration’s plan to unleash the dangers of drilling offshore is a major, unacceptable risk to hundreds of local communities, their coastal economies and marine life,” read a joint statement from dozens of environmental groups. Likewise, said the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Opening our fragile shores to dirty oil and gas development is a dangerous idea that puts marine life and coastal communities at risk and contributes to the present and ever-growing impacts of climate change.”

Zinke defended the decision as a necessary part of achieving energy independence. “It’s better to produce energy here and never be held hostage by foreign enemy needs,” he said. It’s a Trump-style nationalist sheen on a move that ultimately puts the federal government firmly on the side of fossil-fuel interests.

This competent wing of the Trump administration also made gains reversing reforms in the Department of Justice. While much of the media focused on revelations from Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new war on marijuana, rescinding an Obama-era policy that discouraged federal prosecutors from pursuing growers and sellers in states that had legalized the drug.

“It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law,” said Sessions in a statement, also adding in a memo that his decision reflects “Congress’s determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.” Sessions’ move fits firmly in his larger effort to relitigate the war on drugs and bring the federal government to bear on drug use through draconian use of the law. Quietly, the attorney general is making progress.

The most dramatic advances from the no-drama wing of the White House have come on immigration—a new policy announced this week will alter the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees admitted under temporary protected status, a program that allows eligible immigrants to live and work legally in the United States if their home countries have been struck by war or natural disaster. The administration had already ended protections from deportation for Haitian immigrants admitted under TPS, arguing that the temporary nature of the program meant it had to end regardless of broader impact, and it deployed that logic again in its decision to revoke that status from Salvadoran immigrants granted entry nearly 20 years ago following deadly earthquakes in El Salvador.

These immigrants, about 200,000 people, have spent decades integrating into American society, with homes, jobs, businesses, and—most critically—native-born children, who are American citizens. But the administration wants the program to end and the immigrants to return, regardless of the dangerous conditions in El Salvador, remaining indifferent to the stress and harm its decision places on families.

Because of the constant focus on his offensive outbursts and ugly transgressions, it’s tempting to think that the worst of Donald Trump is what we see in public. And there’s no doubt that these things are bad, even dangerous, just as there’s no doubt that these antics are worth our attention. At the same time, the Trump administration isn’t crippled.
For all the spectacle, we shouldn’t forget that there is a functional administration, and it is working steadily to advance an unapologetically reactionary agenda.

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