(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Just how weak a president has Donald Trump become? Some great reporting from the Washington Post’s Neena Satija, Wesley Lowery and Josh Dawsey demonstrates how little influence Trump has, even when it comes to one of his biggest legislative successes: Criminal justice reform.
By their account, Trump’s decision to champion the First Step Act, which shortened many prison sentences and expanded prison job-training programs and other measures intended to reduce recidivism, was mainly a response to manipulation by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. With Trump’s support, the bill passed and became law last year.
Implementation, however, has turned out to be a struggle because the Justice Department has pushed to keep people in prison whom the legislation sought to free. As the Post put it:
[F]ederal prosecutors are arguing in hundreds of cases that inmates who have applied for this type of relief are ineligible, according to a review of court records and interviews with defense attorneys. In at least half a dozen cases, prosecutors are seeking to re-incarcerate offenders who have already been released under the First Step Act.
There’s nothing unusual about bureaucratic resistance to new policies. Still, a president’s ability to push departments and agencies to implement change is strongest when policy is codified in law; not only does that limit the executive branch’s options, but it makes it clear that both the White House and Capitol Hill (and in this case, both political parties) support the policy.
And yet in this case, Trump seems to be losing the battle. Why?
For one thing, Trump doesn’t choose executive branch leadership (or White House staff) based on commitment to his policy preferences. Instead, his criteria appear to be the ability to flatter him, defend him on television and look right for the part. That this causes plenty of internal administration conflict — think of former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s difficult tenure and quick exit — is entirely predictable.
For another, Trump doesn’t do the work. Normal presidents go through the day with back-to-back meetings while also making time for extensive briefings on what’s happening in the world, in the nation, and within the administration. Trump … doesn’t.
He’s not the first president to underestimate how much of the job involves pushing the executive branch to implement change. President Lyndon Johnson was a master legislator who didn’t properly appreciate that signing a bill into law was hardly the end of his responsibilities. President Barack Obama has been faulted for failing to push hard enough for an effective rollout of the Affordable Care Act. But Trump seems to be far less hands-on than any of his modern predecessors, which makes bureaucratic resistance far easier to accomplish.
Trump also has sent mixed messages. He loves celebrating the First Step Act, and yet he was quick to attack criminal justice reform in New York. President Ronald Reagan wasn’t the most aggressively hands-on manager of the bureaucracy, but his nominees would talk about how they woke up every morning knowing exactly what the president wanted. That’s true for Trump on a few policy questions — notably immigration — but in most areas he’s been either indifferent or inconsistent. It’s a formula for even loyal executive-branch agencies to decide that whatever they think is best is what the president really wants, and for others to feel free to ignore him. It doesn’t help that he picks up his policy positions in the first place from what some celebrity tells him or what he sees on Fox News, since people correctly assume that such positions are weakly held and subject to future whims.
And each time Trump does get rolled by one agency, or a foreign government, or anyone else, it becomes that much more likely that another agency will try to do the same. Presidential reputation matters for presidential influence, and Trump has never done much to build his reputation. Weakness causes more weakness. And there’s plenty of weakness on display, most recently what appears to be Trump’s failure to move troops out of Syria after announcing the policy change, and his failure to stop a parade of current and former administration officials from testifying to the House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry.
Whether his weakness will cost him the presidency is still unknown. But that it severely limits his influence is obvious to anyone looking.
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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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