• Tue. Mar 2nd, 2021

Did President Trump Keep His First-Term Promises? Let’s Look at 5 of Them


Oct 31, 2020

Four years ago, Donald J. Trump won the presidency after making a series of concrete promises to his supporters.

“I would repeal and replace the big lie, Obamacare,” he said during his kickoff speech. “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me.” Unlike his 2020 campaign, which is based on vague promises of more “winning, winning, winning,” Mr. Trump’s campaign four years ago was rooted in promises of tax cuts and the appointment of judges with conservative credentials.

Has he kept the promises that helped get him here? And do his supporters care? A recent survey from New York University found that those who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 thought he had broken fewer than one promise out of five. Those who voted for Hillary Clinton said he broke more than four out of five.

In reality, Mr. Trump has broken about half of 100 campaign promises, according to a tracker by PolitiFact. The fact-checking website does not measure intention, only verifiable outcomes. (On average, presidents break about a third of their promises.)

Supporters of Mr. Trump who spoke to The New York Times said overwhelmingly that they were pleased with how he had lived up to his pledges. Here’s a look at how he fared on some of his signature promises.

ImageThe Trump administration has secured about $15 billion to continue to build the wall on the southwestern border.
Credit…Sergio Flores for The New York Times

Erecting a barrier along the southwestern border was the defining rallying cry of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. “Build the Wall” became a chant — he promised to build 1,000 miles of border wall — and passing on the cost to Mexico was the delicious kicker.

Over the past four years, the Trump administration had constructed 371 miles of border barriers, as of Oct 16. And it is on pace to reach 400 miles next week. However, all but 16 miles of the new barriers replace or reinforce existing structures.

That has not stopped Mr. Trump from touting the wall as a mission accomplished at his campaign allies. “And by the way, Mexico is paying,” Mr. Trump said at a rally in Sanford, Fla., this month. “They hate to say it: Mexico is paying for it.”

In fact, Mexico is not paying for it.

The barriers that have been constructed along the border so far have been paid for by American taxpayers.

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The fact that Mr. Trump brings up the wall as part of his “Promises Made, Promises Kept” campaign spiel does not seem to bother his most loyal supporters, who view it as something more like the motto of a sports team they love. “I see the ‘building the wall’ as symbolic,” said Amad Zarak, 20, a student in Gainesville, Fla. “It’s a physical manifestation of the policy of restricting immigration.” Over all, “he’s trying to keep his promises.”

Alan Sanchez, 57, a defense contractor from Maricopa, Ariz., conceded that the president did not get it done. But he said he did what he could.

“He could have done better,” Mr. Sanchez said. “It would have taken congressional support. He did what he could. I’m happy with what he did only because he had to fight tooth and nail and go to the Supreme Court to get a couple miles built.”

The Department of Homeland Security has argued that the new barriers have reduced the personnel needed to staff certain sectors, and reduced unauthorized immigration. In Mr. Trump’s first year in office, illegal border crossings did decline to the lowest point since the 1970s, but then increased to the highest point in a decade in the 2019 fiscal year before decreasing again this year during the pandemic.

With three Supreme Court Justices and 25 percent of the federal judiciary now made up of Trump appointees, according to data from Russell Wheeler, a judiciary expert at the Brookings Institution, the president has been more successful on this campaign promise than perhaps any other.

His campaign boasts that he has flipped the balance of three federal appeals courts and shifted nine appeals courts to the right. His nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the weeks before the election could reshape abortion rights, immigration law and the government’s regulatory power. Confirming a Supreme Court justice so close to an election was unprecedented, and Democrats framed it as an illegitimate power grab by Republicans.

Mr. Trump has defended his right to do so, arguing that elections have consequences.

“I do agree with the Scotus picks,” Cynthia Deal, 63, a teacher from Bloomington, Minn., said, referring to the Supreme Court. Ms. Deal, a Catholic who said her pastor influenced her vote, said she found the rushed confirmation process of Justice Barrett to be “totally hypocritical.” That wasn’t enough to turn her off supporting the president. “President Trump is not necessarily a great role model, he has flaws, but he has supported our pro-life values,” she said.

The yearslong Republican campaign to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act came to a head unsuccessfully and dramatically in the first year of Mr. Trump’s presidency, when Senator John McCain of Arizona cast the decisive vote against the effort. The Democrats’ regaining a majority in the House of Representatives after the 2018 midterm elections all but doomed any subsequent legislative attempts to strike down the whole law.

Mr. Trump has not forgotten Mr. McCain’s role, and sometimes re-enacts the 2008 Republican nominee’s thumbs down vote before rally crowds.

The president and his party are still trying. Republican lawmakers eliminated the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate as part of the 2017 tax cuts, and the Trump administration is arguing before the Supreme Court that the whole health care law should go down with it.

Mr. Trump’s supporters do not fault him for failing to dismantle the signature achievement of former President Barack Obama.

“I think he’s going to have issues because he’s going to have to go through Congress. I am slightly disappointed that it hasn’t happened yet, I don’t know if it’s his fault or not,” said Mike Vorwaller, a 42-year-old project manager for an engineering company in St. Johns, Fla. “I do like that he’s removed the individual mandate.”

Mr. Sanchez, the defense contractor and a veteran who lives in Arizona, said that he had spoken to Mr. McCain several times throughout the years and that he had been “so frustrated” with the senator, who died in 2018.

“I wish I had been able to talk to him one last time,” Mr. Sanchez said. “I don’t know whether he voted against the repeal bill because he hated President Trump or because he believed he was doing the right thing.”

“Obamacare is the law of the land,” Mr. Sanchez granted and said that Mr. Trump did what he could.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The 2017 tax cuts are one of the biggest legislative achievements of Mr. Trump’s first term in office, and one celebrated by his supporters.

“Business is booming. We’re coming back even stronger after Covid,” said Justin Davies, 36 and small-business owner in Rutherfordton, N.C. “The Trump tax cuts have saved us somewhere between $20,000 to $30,000 a year in taxes.”

Some critics, however, have noted that the final tax cut that Mr. Trump signed into law was far smaller than what he promised as a candidate. The Tax Policy Center, run by the Brookings Institution, estimated that it was only one-quarter the size of the plan Mr. Trump campaigned on four years ago.

Mr. Trump said he would cut the top corporate income tax rate to 15 percent from 35 percent, for example. His final bill brought it down to 21 percent.

Those nuances, however, have been left out of his rallies, where Mr. Trump has been telling his supporters (falsely) that he succeeded in passing the “biggest tax cut in history.”

While most Americans got a tax cut, high earners received 60 percent of the total tax savings. That’s somewhat at odds with the promise made in Mr. Trump’s “contract with the American voter” that the “largest tax reductions are for the middle class” — and a fact not lost to some supporters.

“I’m not happy with the fact that he cut taxes for the upper income brackets. I don’t think he wanted to do it, but the Republican Senate forced him to do it,” said Gabriel Steinberg, 25, a medical student in Manhattan. “But he signed it, it’s his bill.”

Despite this, Mr. Steinberg said the president’s efforts were what mattered. “I think over all he has remained committed toward his campaign pledges with some notable exceptions. Has he achieved everything he’s set out to? No, but his commitment is important.”

During the 2016 race, Mr. Trump broke with bipartisan orthodoxy and questioned Washington’s decades-long support for free trade deals. He vowed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement or withdraw from it entirely, pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and raise tariffs.

He has delivered on those promises. He withdrew from the T.P.P. in his first days in office. He waged a trade war with China and slapped tariffs on numerous imports, leaving American consumers to bear the financial brunt. He signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which included significant changes but also an array of simple updates of the 25-year-old Nafta.

Though some experts are skeptical that Mr. Trump’s trade policies have been economically beneficial — with the conservative Tax Foundation estimating that the tariffs have brought in revenue, but reduced wages, gross domestic product and job growth — supporters have been delighted.

Mr. Davies said he had lost his job as an engineer because of Nafta, when executives at his former company informed employees that it was moving to Mexico. In contrast, he said, Mr. Trump’s trade policies have revived the area.

“If you wanted to come to our small town, I’ll show all our hiring signs around the county. We’re rebounding so fast,” he said. “There are jobs everywhere, especially pre-Covid. In my small town of 20,000, there was, at one time, 1,500 manufacturing openings. The Chamber of Commerce told me that.”

That experience hasn’t been universal. Across the nation, manufacturing employment rose by about 500,000 through March. But, ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, there were 190,000 fewer jobs in the sector by September than when Mr. Trump took office.

Rick Roeder, 72, of Raleigh, N.C., said he had not directly benefited from Mr. Trump’s trade policies, but he was nonetheless “thrilled with the renovation with Nafta and thrilled that he’s confronted China and some of our European trading partners.”

Mr. Roeder, who is retired, stressed that he found Mr. Trump personally distasteful.

“But having said all of that, I early voted and I voted for him,” Mr. Roeder said. “He’s done the things that I wanted him to do.”


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