30 Things Donald Trump Did as President You Might Have Missed

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POLITICO Staff
·40 min read
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Many Americans will remember President Donald Trump’s presidency as a four-yearlong storm of tweets, rallies and on-air rants that ended in a mob riot and historic second impeachment. But there was more to the Trump presidency than attention-hogging political drama and conflict; often unnoticed, Trump and his administration actually did succeed in changing some of the ways Washington works.

From imposing a ban on Chinese-made drones to rolling back rules on sexual harassment, from cracking down on robocalls to letting states legalize marijuana, Trump changed some key areas of federal policy in ways that may have lasting impact well after he’s gone.

But here’s the thing — between all the news coverage of the president himself, a global pandemic and various other upheavals, there’s a good chance you missed a lot of them. So here is POLITICO’s list of 30 important policy changes Trump made as president, how they’ve affected our lives, families and businesses, and the prospects they will survive the incoming Biden administration.

Obamacare

Trump didn't repeal Obamacare — he accidentally bolstered it

Trump came into office vowing to repeal Obamacare — and even took the law to court when that failed in Congress. But his most significant imprint on the Affordable Care Act was an accidental boost that happened when he stumbled into pouring billions of extra federal dollars into subsidizing Americans’ coverage.

The move: House Republicans had tried for years to cut off subsidies that helped low-income Obamacare enrollees with the co-pays, co-insurance and deductibles that come with their health plans. In 2017, Trump finally did it through administrative means after the GOP effort to replace the law fell apart — and he immediately drew intense outcry from Democrats and policy experts who called the move “sabotage.”

The impact: The health exchanges didn’t collapse, as Trump had hoped. Instead, health plans and states quickly figured out a way to claw back the federal dollars they lost: They built the costs of the subsidies into premiums for Obamacare’s benchmark “silver” policies. This meant that premiums for these “silver” plans spiked and as a result, the premium subsidies the government had to pay for low-income enrollees vastly increased. The concept, known as “silver-loading,” grew government subsidizing of the exchanges by upwards of $20 billion per year.

The upshot: While Trump’s moves made Obamacare plans increasingly unaffordable for the unsubsidized, Democrats quickly tamped down their criticisms since it accomplished their goal of significantly boosting funding for Obamacare. The incoming Biden administration isn’t likely to reverse course. — Susannah Luthi

Strategy

Trump refocused national security on great power competition

American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan.
American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan.

Defense policy documents are so abundant they could wallpaper the Pentagon. But the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy stands out as one of the most important defense policy shifts of the last generation, reorienting the American military to confront rising and increasingly aggressive powers Russia and China.

The move: The 2018 strategy rewired the Defense Department’s vast bureaucracy away from a focus on fighting insurgents and terrorists in the Middle East toward a long-term strategic competition with China and Russia. As a result, the military is changing how it trains personnel, which technologies it buys, and the geographic areas of the world where it prioritizes its forces.

The impact: Already it has led to a reordering of the Pentagon budget and new investments supported by a bipartisan majority in Congress, including billions of dollars to beef up the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific.

The upshot: Despite differences in tone and rhetoric, this is a refocusing of the United States’ military posture that is expected to continue in the Biden administration. — Bryan Bender

Coronavirus

Trump failed to provide workplace guidance, making safety harder for workers

Arguably the most consequential decision Trump made involving American workers was something it chose not to do: It declined to implement a so-called “emergency temporary standard” when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Such a standard, issued when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration determines workers are in “grave danger,” would have established immediate and mandatory workplace safety rules employers must follow to protect employees from exposure.

The move: Despite pressure from Democrats, unions and worker advocates, OSHA refused to set rules for worker safety during the pandemic. Republicans defended the decision by saying the burden on companies struggling to stay afloat amid the recession would be too great. In the absence of a standard, employers have only had to comply with a mix of optional guidelines, able to pick and choose what precautions they take.

The impact: The agency’s backseat approach to workplace safety means Americans still face a dangerously unpredictable range of safety conditions when they show up to work. Though OSHA has cited some companies for coronavirus-related transgressions, many large corporations received meager fines even in cases where workers died from Covid-19. Democrats have attempted to include language mandating an emergency temporary standard in future rounds of pandemic aid — but their efforts have been unsuccessful.

The upshot: One of the first things a Biden administration will likely move to do is instruct OSHA to step up worker safety enforcement — including by enacting an emergency standard and ramping up penalties on violators. Biden’s campaign also pledged to double the number of OSHA investigators to enforce the law and existing standards. — Eleanor Mueller

Religion in schools

Trump boosted religious organizations in education

Trump failed to enact any sweeping school choice policy that sends money to parents to help them pay for private and religious schools. But his administration, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a devout Christian, found ways to expand federal support for religious schools and organizations at the Education Department.

The move: DeVos tweaked a wide range of federal education policies, large and small, to bolster faith-based organizations. She changed regulations, for example, to make it easier for members of religious orders to access federal financial aid and expanded federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness to cover clergy members. And she created new protections for faith-based campus organizations at public universities.

At the K-12 education level, DeVos stopped enforcing a policy that had prohibited religious organizations from providing publicly funded services—such as tutoring, technology and counseling—in private schools. And she opened up federal grants for charter schools to religiously affiliated organizations.

The move: Many religious education groups praised DeVos’ changes, which she often described as effort to expand religious liberty. “Too many misinterpret the ‘separation of church and state’ as an invitation for government to separate people from their faith,” she said.

The move: The Biden administration is expected to move quickly to roll back many of DeVos’ education policies, but it’s not yet clear how the incoming administration will approach her various policy tweaks to promote religious organizations. — Michael Stratford

Oversight

Trump's Interior Department set a new standard for ignoring Congress

Trump’s Interior Department set a precedent that, while it may have escaped notice outside Washington, D.C., is almost certain to be influential going forward: It stonewalled Congressional oversight and got away with it.

The move: Interior Secretary David Bernhardt showed up for Congressional hearings that decided the fate of the department’s budget, but otherwise refused invitations from the House Natural Resources Committee to defend its policy actions under Trump. The attitude flowed down to sub-agency heads as well. Scott Angelle, the administration’s head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the office in charge of setting offshore drilling safety standards, told the committee he was “too busy” to answer the committee’s request that he explain its practice of handing out waivers on regulation put in place in response to the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster.

The impact: The foot-dragging in providing even basic information stretched to written requests from Congress and the public. House Democrats complained that Interior, in responding to written questions, would flood the zone with thousands of documents that had little relation to the topic at hand and even include pages containing nothing but Wingdings font. Interior was also sued by outside groups and subject to an internal watchdog audit over complaints it was slow walking public information requests.

The upshot: All in all, the agency got away with it: Democrats complained but never followed through on a subpoena threat. By the final six months of the Trump administration, Interior officials completely stopped attending House hearings meant to flag issues with the department. The behavior all but guarantees that future administrations will follow suit. — Ben Lefebvre

Cannabis

Legal marijuana spreads across most of the country

Allison Johnson, an employee of Buckeye Relief LLC, works on topping a marijuana plant, in Eastlake, Ohio.
Allison Johnson, an employee of Buckeye Relief LLC, works on topping a marijuana plant, in Eastlake, Ohio.

Cannabis legalization advocates were alarmed when Trump picked Jeff Sessions as his first attorney general. For marijuana supporters, Sessions’ anti-cannabis rhetoric harkened back to “reefer madness“ days, and they feared he would crack down on the burgeoning state-regulated marijuana industry. Their fears were founded: In January 2018, Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, an Obama-era Justice Department guidance that called for deprioritizing marijuana enforcement. The memo had provided some protection for state-legal marijuana markets and informed how state governments set up their own cannabis laws. But a Sessions-led crackdown never materialized.

The move: Despite its anti-weed rhetoric, the Trump administration stood to the side as 18 states liberalized their marijuana laws from 2016 to 2020, including staunchly conservative states like Mississippi and South Dakota. Despite former Attorney General William Barr’s anti-trust scrutiny of cannabis deals, the federal government remained relatively hands-off on marijuana policy.

The impact: Cannabis is now legal in some form in 36 states, meaning that a majority of Americans have some form of legal access even though the drug remains officially illegal at the federal level. In fact, more than one-third of Americans now live in states with full legalization.

The upshot: Cannabis has become a massive business, generating billions in state revenues. The move toward legalization is likely to accelerate under a Biden administration, which is expected to pressure Congress to pass legislation fixing some legal problems for cannabis companies, such as access to banking, and might even move to change its illegal status under the federal Controlled Substances Act. — Mona Zhang

Loan forgiveness

Trump curbed relief for defrauded students

Trump dismantled Obama-era policies that were designed to curb abuses by for-profit colleges, including rules designed to make it easier for borrowers to obtain loan forgiveness if they were cheated or duped by their college. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the Obama administration’s approach was too lenient, akin to allowing borrowers to access “free money” at taxpayer expense.

The move: DeVos rewrote the Obama administration’s rules that govern when federal student loan borrowers can have their debt wiped out as a result of their college’s misconduct, imposing stricter standards of proof. She also required the Education Department to provide only partial loan relief in many cases, a departure from the Obama administration’s policy of providing full loan forgiveness. Congress moved to block the rules, with 10 GOP senators joining Democrats, but Trump vetoed the legislation and the new rules took effect.

The impact: Borrowers seeking to have their loans wiped out because of the misconduct of their college such as misleading or deceiving students about their job prospects will have a tougher time proving their claims. The Education Department estimates that the Trump policy will reduce federal loan forgiveness by hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The upshot: Biden has already committed to swiftly reversing Trump’s changes to the rules, which are known as “borrower defense to repayment.” But he’s facing pressure from progressives to go further and provide sweeping debt cancellations to all borrowers, regardless of whether they were defrauded. — Michael Stratford

Shell companies

Trump made it easier to prosecute financial crimes like money laundering

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The Trump administration played a major but little-noticed role in pushing Congress to enact the most sweeping overhaul of financial crimes safeguards in decades, measures intended to stop money flowing to terrorists, drug traffickers and other wrongdoers. The legislation made its way into the National Defense Authorization Act, historically a must-pass bill each year. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin personally negotiated the anti-money laundering safeguards with Republicans and Democrats who crafted the deal.

The move: The new law would require millions of business entities to report their true owners, puncturing the veil of anonymity that shell companies give to money launderers and tax evaders and making it easier for prosecutors to literally follow the money.

The impact: The information businesses report to the Treasury Department would be accessible to law enforcement agencies that would have an unprecedented tool to investigate shell companies. Banks, which are responsible for policing criminal activity by their customers, would also be able to tap into the database.

The upshot: Criminals will keep finding ways to operate in the shadows. But the new disclosure rules could give law enforcement leverage over their frontmen and may make it harder for bad guys to find lawyers willing to help hide their money because of the new paper trail. — Zachary Warmbrodt

Poverty

Trump shrank the food safety net — a lot

A Transportation Security Administration employee stands at a booth to learn about a food stamp program.
A Transportation Security Administration employee stands at a booth to learn about a food stamp program.

Under Trump, the Agriculture Department scaled back the $60 billion Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food support program for low-income Americans formerly known as food stamps. The administration said it wanted to cut back on waste and save money within the program.

The move: In 2018, the Agriculture Department introduced a new rule that aimed to more strictly enforce certain work mandates under the program, making it more difficult for states to seek waivers from SNAP work requirements for able-bodied adults who aren’t caring for children or other dependents.

The impact: 755,000 Americans have lost their access to food aid under SNAP, according to the USDA’s own estimates.

The upshot: The courts could reverse the change. In October, a judge halted the rule and said that it “radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice, leaving states scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans.” But the Trump administration appealed that decision in December, prolonging the legal battle. — Liz Crampton

Overtime pay

Millions of workers lost access to extra pay for long hours

Under Trump, the federal government rolled out a series of employer-friendly rules and decisions, many of which slid under the national radar. One of the most significant: His Labor Department finalized an overtime rule notably weaker than that issued under Obama, leaving millions of workers ineligible.

The move: In 2016, Obama’s Labor Department finalized a rule that would raise the salary threshold for overtime eligibility from around $24,000 to some $47,000 a year, with triennial increases. At the time, only about 6 percent of workers were eligible. But Trump’s White House declined to defend the rule in court, and in 2019, proposed its own, much more lax rule, which would raise the threshold to about $35,000 with no scheduled raises.

The impact: The Trump rule applies to just 15 percent of full-time, salaried workers, whereas the Obama rule would have applied to twice as many. That’s at least 8 million workers who would have been eligible for overtime pay under the 2016 version and now are ineligible; some estimates place the amount of wages lost at around $1 billion annually.

The upshot: Biden’s role in the Obama administration, which proposed the original rule, and his sweeping pro-worker agenda indicate that he will likely overturn the Trump rule and issue his own overtime rule — though when, exactly, that will happen remains unclear. — Eleanor Mueller

Greenhouse gases

On gas emissions, Trump went the opposite direction from the rest of the world

Trump’s attempts to roll back Obama-era rules aimed at cracking down on methane emissions had major implications for not only the near-term warming caused by this potent greenhouse gas, but also shrunk the United States’ stature on the global stage.

The move: The Trump administration loosened the standards oil and gas companies had to meet for how much methane — the largest chemical component of natural gas and a major heat-trapping substance — they could allow to leak out of pipelines, storage tanks and other oil field infrastructure. Senate Republicans had failed to kill the Obama rule at the beginning of the Trump administration, leaving the White House to roll back an environmental regulation even some oil and gas companies supported as a way to keep an increasingly green-minded public on their side.

The impact: Trump’s stance was the polar opposite of what China and European countries pledged to do to rein in emissions of a gas considered one of the leading causes of climate change. The Trump rollbacks, finalized in August, were considered so out of the norm that even oil companies such as BP and Shell publicly spoke out against them. The French government stepped in to force trading firm Engie, in which it owns a stake, to reject a proposed contract to import U.S. gas, citing reputational risk. Trump’s rejection of strict methane standards has also allowed Europe to claim the global mantle for fighting climate change.

The upshot: Trump’s rule changes are still being litigated in court and will be immediately in Biden’s sights for reversal when he officially takes office. But reputational damage has already been done. — Ben Lefebvre

Drones

Trump imposed a near-ban on government use of Chinese drones

Like many Chinese products and services, Chinese-made drones became a focal point for the Trump administration. Federal agencies seeking to end China’s dominance of the drone market, amid concerns that equipment could be used to spy, have looked for ways to bolster domestic production.

The move: In late 2019, the Interior Department temporarily stopped all non-emergency use of its mostly Chinese-made drones after officials from several agencies — including the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice — warned that drones and drone equipment made in China might be used for espionage. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt further escalated efforts in October when he told department leadership that all future drone purchases should be vetted against a list of DoD-approved, U.S.-made drones. More recently the Commerce Department added China-based manufacturer DJI, which is the largest civilian drone manufacturer in the world, to a trade blacklist, citing concerns about the company’s possible involvement in human rights abuses by the Chinese government.

The impact: DJI’s placement on the trade blacklist doesn’t affect ordinary consumers or businesses, but it’s a significant blow to U.S. companies, such as Microsoft and PrecisionHawk, who do business with DJI including provide components for their drones. This is bad timing for those companies, since the FAA is getting ready to greenlight new commercial uses, such as drone-based delivery services, which will increase sales. What’s more, Congress may soon put even more restrictions on use of Chinese-made technology because of security concerns.

The upshot: While a Biden administration might be less prone to take actions to disrupt the global supply chain, it also might try to avoid perceptions of being soft on China. A Biden administration might use the Commerce Department’s blacklist as a “bargaining chip” with the Chinese government, meaning DJI might stay on the list for some time. Biden also has expressed support for bolstering U.S. drone manufacturing, which could translate to further actions that would reduce U.S. reliance on Chinese technology. — Stephanie Beasley

Defense spending

Trump made it possible to follow the Pentagon's money

The Pentagon makes up the largest slice of discretionary spending in the federal budget, so it might surprise you that until Trump, no one had conducted an audit of where America’s defense dollars go, and its financial accounting systems were notoriously messy and complicated.

The move: In 2018, the Trump administration for the first time attempted a Defense Department-wide audit. An army of 1,000 outside accountants and 150 personnel from the Defense Department inspector general's office fanned out to some 600 locations and collected 40,000 pages of financial documents.

The impact: In the end, as widely expected, the Pentagon failed the audit overall; too much paperwork was missing or incomplete. Officials now predict the Defense Department won’t be able to pass a full audit until 2027 at the earliest. But there are bright spots: for example, the first time around the military pay system, an enormous stream of dollars, came back clean. In follow-up audits conducted in 2019 and 2020, meanwhile, a few more defense agencies and military components were added to the clean column.

The upshot: The overall exercise is seen as a milestone in the odyssey to someday verify where all our defense tax dollars are going. What’s more, the audit effort is helping Pentagon managers make their programs more efficient and minimize waste. Efforts to inject more accountability into Pentagon spending are likely to get even more intense during the Biden administration. — Bryan Bender

Taxes

Trump goosed the economy with tax cuts that didn't pay political dividends

Trump’s biggest legislative achievement was arguably the $1.5 trillion tax cut package Republicans pushed through Congress, which he said would super-charge the economy.

The move: The 2017 tax bill slashed individual and corporate tax rates and made dozens of other major changes to the tax code that affected virtually every facet of the economy, from small businesses to university endowments.

The impact: The tax cuts helped goose the economy before the coronavirus struck, as unemployment fell steeply and the economy expanded, though many economists argued it was a sugar high or questioned whether a direct line could be drawn between the cuts and the good times. Also, the economic impact wasn’t all good — the tax cuts also fueled record deficits. Supporters inside and outside the Trump administration still insist the cuts will pay for themselves in the long run through economic growth — though many economists are skeptical, or outright dismissive, of that prediction.

The upshot: While the tax cuts benefited the economy in the short turn, they failed to pay political dividends for Trump. Polls showed the tax bill was never very popular, with the Democrats doing a good job of convincing voters it mainly benefited the wealthy. Biden has vowed to roll back much of the tax cut, particularly for high earners, by boosting the corporate tax rate to 28 percent from 21 percent and raising the top individual income tax rate to 39.6 percent from 37 percent for those earning more than $400,000 annually. However, he could have a hard time getting that through Congress, with Democrats holding a one-vote majority in the Senate and a diminished number of House seats. — Toby Eckert

Robocalls

Trump cracked down — mostly successfully — on unwanted calls and texts

For years the federal government made little headway against the plague of unwanted automated phone calls that have annoyed Americans — 19 billion such calls last year alone. Despite plenty of rancor, Trump and his agency heads succeeded in working with Congress to make significant headway in curbing — but not yet eliminating — the annoyance.

The move: At the end of 2019, Trump signed into law carefully crafted bipartisan legislation designed to ensure phone companies would install technology to verify that calls were authentic and bolster federal enforcement powers. These efforts built on work already underway at the FCC and among state attorneys general to ward off the unwanted calls and crack down on the perpetrators, many of whom were slapped with record-setting fines in recent years under FCC Chair Ajit Pai.

The impact: The volume of robocalls in 2020 seems to be on track to be lower than the previous two years, although the global pandemic could be affecting the numbers in ways not immediately apparent (not to mention prompting scams specific to Covid-19).

The upshot: Although these efforts will provide a strong foundation for any moves under Biden to further tamp down the number of calls, businesses say they still lack the legal clarity they need to use automated phone calls and texts for legitimate communication with their customers. Biden and Congress will now face pressure to provide such clarity. — John Hendel

Climate science

Trump exiled climate scientists from Washington—literally.

The Agriculture Department went to great lengths to quietly quash scientific research conducted by its employees or funded by government dollars, in particular research about how the agriculture industry could play a critical role in combating climate change. Secretary Sonny Perdue was aggressive in reshaping USDA, most overtly by relocating many of the department’s research scientists out of Washington to the Midwest.

The move: Officials refused to publicize dozens of studies that carry warnings about the effects of climate change on the agriculture sector. The department even stopped the release of a plan on how to respond to the climate change crisis.

The impact: Perdue’s contentious decision to relocate hundreds of scientists to Kansas City was among the reasons morale has been so low among department employees, prompting many of them to jump ship, leaving research agencies with a fraction of their former staff.

The upshot: The Biden administration is facing pressure to quickly rehire scientists to get USDA research agencies back to full capacity, and they are expected to boost spending on research studying threats facing the food system, including climate change. — Liz Crampton

Medical records

Trump took a big swing at finally fixing health-care technology

Patients who have had to tote x-ray scans around hospitals, or explain their medicine allergies for the umpteenth time, are familiar with the problem Trump tried to fix: that having spent billions of dollars digitizing the health care system’s medical records, the information in those records does not exactly zip around at the speed of the internet.

The move: Early in 2020 — just before coronavirus upended daily life — the Trump administration released a big ball of rules meant to sweep aside barriers to sharing health information. The administration’s rules have several targets but they focus on practices like “information blocking,” whereby companies or providers might not release necessary data for competitive advantage, and require companies to use standardized recipes to exchange information.

The impact: Not much, yet. Providers and other parts of the industry successfully argued that complying with the rules would be too heavy a lift amid the pandemic, so the Trump administration has delayed the effective date.

The upshot: The provisions are, broadly speaking, popular and flow from bipartisan work beginning in the Obama administration. If anything, the biggest critics of the rules want them to be tougher and go into effect faster. For that reason, it’s unlikely a Biden administration will be looking to reverse course. — Darius Tahir

Sexual harassment

Trump rescinded rules protecting workers at federal contractors

On the eve of the #MeToo era, Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress repealed transparency safeguards designed to protect hundreds of thousands of people working for companies bidding for federal contracts from sexual harassment. Business groups vehemently opposed the requirements, which they dubbed the “Blacklist Rule,” arguing that the regulation was so broadly worded that potential contractors could be barred from doing work with the government based on allegations alone.

The move: In March 2017, Trump signed a Congressional Review Act resolution to revoke a regulation enacted under Obama the previous year that required businesses to publicly disclose any sexual harassment or labor law violations over the previous three years whenever they bid on large federal contracts. The goal of the rule was to prevent federal money from flowing to firms with a history of such infractions. The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule also barred companies with federal contracts of more than $1 million from requiring that workers address claims of sexual harassment or sexual assault in private arbitration, taking away their option to sue in court.

The impact: Federal contractors with a history of sexual harassment or other labor violations can win bids without having to reveal their problematic history.

The upshot: Biden can reinstate the executive order, but it’s legally murky for the Department of Labor to reissue the rule because the Congressional Review Act bars agencies from issuing “substantially the same” regulation after it’s been overturned by Congress. — Rebecca Rainey

Auto emissions

Trump went all-in on ending curbs on auto emissions, dividing the industry

A hybrid car charges at a charging station at a parking garage in Los Angeles.
A hybrid car charges at a charging station at a parking garage in Los Angeles.

Obama used his stimulus leverage over the auto manufacturers to negotiate landmark federal rules to curb carbon dioxide pollution from new vehicles through 2025 — a central component of his work to fight climate change. Automakers took advantage of Trump’s election to ask for moderate changes to those targets, but Trump instead completely scrambled the regulatory scheme, attacked California’s special regulatory authority and created a schism among automakers.

The move: The Obama administration’s plan would have required automakers to improve fuel efficiency by 5 percent per year, but the Trump administration rolled those targets back to just 1.5 percent improvement each year.

The impact: Vehicle emissions represent the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and the rollback was likely the biggest climate-related action of Trump’s term, especially as electric utilities continue to move away from coal on their own and as electric vehicles are slow to take hold in the U.S. But some of the effect was mitigated when the state of California brokered a deal with five major auto manufacturers to meet standards similar to the Obama-era ones.

The upshot: The Biden administration is expected to laser in on the auto rules for reconsideration, but the multiyear lead time manufacturers need to design and test their vehicles means the gains mandated under the Obama-era rules but scaled back by Trump are all but forfeited. — Alex Guillén and Annie Snider

Antitrust

The anti-monopolists started winning — despite Trump at first, then with his help

Life-sized cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are displayed by an advocacy group on Capitol Hill on April 10, 2018.
Life-sized cutouts of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are displayed by an advocacy group on Capitol Hill on April 10, 2018.

For the past decade, politicians on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about the growing size, power and influence of tech giants including Facebook, Google and Amazon, but rarely took action against them. Progressive anti-monopoly advocates were largely overruled during the Obama years at the U.S.’ two antitrust agencies, the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department. But amid growing conservative anger at the tech giants, Trump's regulators eventually joined the fight and dusted off an antitrust legal playbook that hadn’t been used since the breakup of AT&T in the 1980s.

The move: Early on, Trump’s tenure seemed to be following recent patterns by waving through major mergers like the combination of telecom giants Sprint and T-Mobile. But two Trump picks, FTC Chair Joe Simons and DOJ's Barr, have spent the past two years more aggressively looking into antitrust concerns raised by Silicon Valley. In recent months, the DOJ filed a landmark antitrust case against Google, its biggest monopolization case since the 1990s suit against Microsoft. The FTC, meanwhile, is pursuing its own watershed suit against Facebook that could see the social network broken up.

The impact: It’s too soon to tell whether the antitrust actions will succeed in forcing changes at Google or Facebook, but they have sent a signal that there will be more scrutiny of their business practices going forward.

The upshot: Both lawsuits will continue into the Biden administration — and possibly beyond. Major antitrust cases can take 3 to 5 years, and a trial in the Google suit likely won’t even begin till the fall of 2023. — Leah Nylen

Immigration

A big crackdown on legal immigrants

Leo Wang, whose H-1B visa was denied in 2019, packs a suitcase at his home in San Jose, Calif.
Leo Wang, whose H-1B visa was denied in 2019, packs a suitcase at his home in San Jose, Calif.

While it was no surprise to anyone who followed his 2016 presidential campaign that Trump wanted to crack down on illegal immigration at the southern border, his administration also imposed tighter restrictions on legal immigration, even of the high-skilled workers he claimed to want in the country.

The move: The Department of Homeland Security has pushed through restrictions and changes to the H-1B visa program that allows U.S. businesses to hire high-skilled foreign workers for “specialty“ jobs. Businesses rely on these workers to fill jobs they say they can’t fill with U.S. citizens. The administration, however, said U.S. employers are abusing the work visa because they want to replace American workers with cheaper foreign labor. The administration’s most recent rules sought to limit the types of jobs foreign workers can apply for, while also requiring employers to pay them more.

The impact: Some changes — including those that narrow the definition of a "specialty occupation" and that require employers to pay foreign workers more — were expected to reduce the number of approved H-1B visa petitions by one-third. Those efforts have since been halted in court. Businesses seeking these non-immigrant worker visas also saw an increase in requests to provide more evidence in their applications and a higher rate of visa denials.

The upshot: Biden promised during his campaign that he would support expanding the number of high-skilled visas available, but after first reforming the temporary visa system to prevent favoring “only entry level wages and skills.” That’s likely to be a heavy lift; Congress hasn’t been able to pass comprehensive immigration reform since 1986. — Rebecca Rainey

Toxic chemicals

Trump impeded regulation — even though Republicans wanted it

Trump’s EPA essentially blew up a bipartisan deal to more strictly regulate toxic chemicals that Americans are exposed to daily and instead tapped a group of chemicals industry experts to run and advise the program. The 2016 overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, had given EPA new teeth to go after well-known dangerous chemicals, like asbestos and methylene chloride, in a bid to boost public confidence in the safety of consumer products.

The move: Trump officials muzzled scientists and civil servants at the agency and crafted narrow approaches to assessing chemicals’ dangers that have massive loopholes. Specifically, while under the new law Congress urged EPA to consider all possible exposures to a chemical, cumulatively, whether in the water, air, through consumer uses or exposure at work. But Trump’s EPA opted only to look at risks from exposures that couldn’t be regulated under other laws; for instance, they wouldn’t weigh potential exposure to a chemical in drinking water since it could be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, even if it wasn’t. Trump’s EPA also mostly whiffed statutory deadlines to finish studying risks for the first round of chemicals under the 2016 law and was slapped by a federal court for ignoring certain ways Americans are exposed to toxins.

The impact: The administration’s approach paves the way for less stringent regulation of toxic chemicals. If the Biden EPA leaves the laxer evaluations intact, its subsequent regulations will not be able to limit certain ways people are exposed — meaning Americans may not get comprehensive protection. While it is likely the Biden administration will take a more holistic look at future chemicals EPA reviews, it is unclear whether it will have time to re-analyze the chemicals the Trump administration already finished reviewing.

The upshot: Biden’s EPA is expected to take a more holistic approach to assessing and addressing chemicals’ risks, but because of strict timelines set under the 2016 law, it is unclear to what extent it will be able to redo assessments done under the Trump administration. — Alex Guillén and Annie Snider

Internet upgrade

Trump rallied the world against China's 5G dominance

A person looks at a smartphone while walking past a sign advertising 5G services.
A person looks at a smartphone while walking past a sign advertising 5G services.

The Trump administration put national security concerns around 5G in the spotlight, arguing that Chinese equipment used to build next-generation Internet networks posed a surveillance threat to Western countries. In practice, that meant the White House launched a campaign against some of China’s top communications companies, from Huawei to ZTE to China Telecom; even TikTok became swept up in the mix.

The move: Trump carried out a handful of different actions to block companies like Huawei and ZTE from getting any foothold in the U.S. telecom marketplace and limit their ability to trade with U.S. companies. These domestic actions were combined with a global full-court press in which Trump lobbied America’s allies in Europe and beyond to avoid using Chinese network equipment in any telecom infrastructure.

The impact: Trump notched victories in countries like Britain and Australia, who made decisions to reject Huawei from their domestic 5G buildouts. The administration also nailed down plans to force smaller U.S. telecom carriers to rip out and replace any scattered gear from Huawei and ZTE being used in their networks.

The upshot: Although many expect Biden to take a more multilateral approach, Trump’s concerns won bipartisan backing within the U.S. and are likely to keep dominating global and domestic talks. Many countries are still mulling whether they share the alarm coming from U.S. officials. — John Hendel

Farm aid

Trump doled out billions in aid to farmers

Workers harvest wild blueberries at the Ridgeberry Farm in Appleton, Maine.
Workers harvest wild blueberries at the Ridgeberry Farm in Appleton, Maine.

Faced with years of declining prices and shrunken foreign markets, farmers have been struggling throughout the Trump administration. Trump officials have tried to mend food producers’ finances by doling out billions in assistance in order to keep the industry afloat.

The move: Trump’s USDA steered billions in subsidies to farmers suffering from tariffs imposed by foreign countries as a consequence of the president’s trade wars, an amount that far outpaced the massive auto bailout in 2008.

The impact: The vast majority of the aid went to traditional row crop farmers, many of whom were part of Trump’s political base. Government payments are forecast to be at their highest level ever and account for nearly 40 percent net farm income this year.

The upshot: Biden faces a difficult choice in deciding whether to continue the payments: The effects of Trump’s trade war will stick around well into 2021, and producers have come to rely on the assistance to stay in business. — Liz Crampton

Banking

Trump rolled back rules on banks designed to prevent another financial crisis

Trump fulfilled a major GOP priority in 2018 by signing the first big bank deregulation bill since the landmark Dodd-Frank Act was enacted in 2010. It was a victory for the nation's lenders, which spent years fighting to roll back rules enacted in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. Republicans and moderate Democrats had been working on some of the proposals well before the 2016 election, but the Trump administration played a key role in making it possible.

The move: The smallest banks won relaxed mortgage regulations and streamlined capital requirements while escaping restrictions intended to discourage risky bets in bank trading. A number of large lenders escaped Federal Reserve rules targeted at the biggest “systemically important” banks. One of the most controversial provisions in the legislation shields small lenders from mortgage disclosure requirements intended to help fight discrimination. The bill’s opponents warned that it would hurt consumers and wasn’t necessary at a time when the industry was racking up record profits.

The impact: Since the passage of the legislation, large banks that lobbied for the looser restrictions have begun to merge. SunTrust and BB&T combined in 2019 to form Truist, the eighth-biggest U.S. bank at more than $504.3 billion in assets. PNC, the country’s 10th-largest lender, agreed to buy the U.S. operations of BBVA to form another mega-bank.

The upshot: Even with Democrats in control of Congress, it’s unlikely they will try to undo the law, which the party’s centrists helped pass. Biden’s nominees to regulatory agencies may reconsider some of the rules drafted to execute the legislation but it probably won’t be a top priority. — Zachary Warmbrodt

Social media

Trump galvanized an anti-Silicon Valley movement in the GOP

Lawmakers furious at Silicon Valley have for years taken aim at Section 230, a crucial 1996 legal provision that shields online platforms from lawsuits over the user content they host or decide to restrict. But it was a niche issue until Trump escalated the attacks over allegations that social media companies are biased against conservatives.

The move: Trump signed an executive order in May asking federal agencies to narrow Section 230’s liability protections, which Republicans say enable Silicon Valley censorship of conservatives. Trump has also taken an unusually active role in pushing his allies at federal agencies and in Congress to weaken the legal shield.

The impact: Pressure from Trump prompted the Federal Communications Commission to launch a controversial rulemaking process to “clarify” the scope of Section 230. The Justice Department unveiled its own proposal to pare it back. And congressional Republicans once wary of changing the law have rallied around Trump’s efforts by introducing bills to do just that.

The upshot: While there’s bipartisan support for revamping the law, those GOP-led efforts focused on the bias charges are likely to be blocked by Democrats in Congress. — Cristiano Lima

Environmental impacts

Trump reduced environmental approvals for infrastructure projects

For a short time during his first year in office, Trump—himself a former developer— was in the habit of whipping out a flow chart almost as long as he is tall detailing the cumbersome process infrastructure projects have to go through to get approved and completed. During his last year in office, he took his most aggressive action yet to shorten that flow chart and, potentially, shortchange the environmental and community protection benefits embedded in it.

The move: In July, the White House Council on Environmental Quality issued sweeping policy changes setting shorter deadlines for agencies to complete environmental reviews and drastically reducing the scope of environmental impacts federal agencies should consider. Under the new rule, agencies need only consider emissions caused by the building of a project but not the use of the project, such as increased vehicle emissions caused by a highway expansion.

The impact: New projects can be more polluting or damaging to the environment over the long term and still be approved – and community groups will have less leverage to challenge them.

The upshot: The Department of Transportation is moving forward with its effort to implement the new rule, despite multiple petitions to hold off. Five separate lawsuits are challenging the Trump changes to NEPA policy; however, it is unlikely the Biden Administration will continue to defend the changes in court, which makes is more likely they will be overturned. — Tanya Snyder

Artificial intelligence

Trump's White House took quiet steps to promote U.S. development of AI

Washington is consumed with beating China in the race for technological supremacy on artificial intelligence. Trump took notable steps in that direction, even if some in the industry think he didn’t go far enough.

The move: Trump in 2019 signed an executive order aimed at boosting the federal government’s role in promoting the development of AI and at providing guidance to agencies on how to regulate the technology. The White House also threw its support behind European efforts to develop global AI standards.

The impact: Even as Trump disengaged from other areas of international rulemaking, his actions helped give the U.S. a global presence in the international debate over how to regulate AI.

The upshot: Industry leaders are still looking for the federal government to seize an even more active role in championing AI development, and to provide more funding for R&D. And they’re hoping the incoming Biden administration will go much farther than Trump did. — Cristiano Lima

Housing segregation

Trump rolled back rules on racially segregated housing

The Trump administration succeeded on several fronts in rolling back Obama's efforts to combat racial segregation in housing. Arguing that the main barrier to broader homeownership is affordability rather than racial discrimination, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson was eager to pare back an Obama regulation he’d once derided as “social engineering.”

The move: Carson scrapped the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which threatened to withhold housing funds from cities that fail to take active steps to end segregation. The new version also revamped the agency's "disparate impact" rule to make it harder for plaintiffs to bring claims of unintentional discrimination. In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau gave small banks an exemption from data collection requirements that help track racial discrimination in the mortgage market. The agency also dramatically cut back on enforcing fair lending laws during the Trump administration.

The impact: The reduced focus on fair housing comes as the gap in homeownership rates between Black and white Americans yawns as widely as it ever has, including when housing discrimination was legal. About 70 percent of white households own their homes, compared with about 40 percent of Black households a disparity the ongoing and lopsided economic crisis is expected to exacerbate.

The upshot: Because the 2015 rule was already on the books, the incoming administration can simply revoke the replacement regulation and revert to the original, although it will have to update the data tools that form the backbone of the rule. Rebuilding an aggressive enforcement division at the CFPB will take longer. — Katy O’Donnell

Trade rules

Trump made trade a top priority, but had only mixed results

Trump prioritized trade concerns far more than any other president in recent history, pursuing a hyperactive agenda that flummoxed allies and adversaries alike. In particular, Trump shifted the United States toward a more nationalist trade policy characterized by an aggressive use of tariffs and sharp criticism of China, the European Union and the World Trade Organization.

The move: Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement supported by most other Republicans and ran roughshod over the rules-based trading system to pursue his political objective of boosting U.S. industry. He imposed tariffs on more than $350 billion worth of Chinese goods and on billions of dollars’ worth of steel and aluminum imports. He struck a trade deal with China that eliminates many agricultural trade barriers but left many other serious trade issues unaddressed. He also used the threat of withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement to strike a more protectionist version of the agreement with Canada and Mexico.

The impact: Trump elevated concerns about China’s trade practices and acquisition of American technology to a new level and helped usher in what many now are calling a cold war between the world’s two largest economies. He also weakened the World Trade Organization through his willingness to hamstring the group’s dispute settlement system and to unilaterally impose tariffs to punish trading partners and protect domestic industries.

The upshot: Trump leaves office with a mixed record on trade. The new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement has groundbreaking provisions on labor enforcement and costly new rules for North American automakers. Trump fell far short on his promise to negotiate bilateral trade deals to make up for his decision to pull out of the TPP, although he did negotiate a number of partial trade deals with the EU, Japan and Brazil and borrowed heavily from the TPP in his NAFTA update. — Doug Palmer