Reshuffling the House of Cards: An Early look at a Trump Presidency

McHenry Lee, Johns Hopkins University

During 18 months of a tumultuous and controversial election season, President-elect Trump shattered almost every preconceived notion about politics. The New York billionaire infamously insulted war heroes, gold star families, disabled Americans, Latinos, and was even caught on video bragging about sexual assault, any of which would’ve doomed a normal candidate. Financially, Trump was consistently outspent by both his Republican primary opponents and the Clinton campaign in a cycle that was supposed to be dominated by unlimited Super Pac spending. Trump also took down the fearsome Bush and Clinton political dynasties, with just a barebones campaign staff and an almost non-existent get out the vote operation. Finally and perhaps most impressively, Trump beat the overwhelming demographic trends that were supposed to doom a candidate who appealed only to a shrinking white population. Say what you will about Trump, but his campaign has truly accomplished something historic and has seemingly re-written the rules of electoral politics.

Despite the unprecedented nature of this election season, some things in Washington never change. President Trump will still have to govern once he takes the oath of office. In the immediate aftermath of their surprising victory, the Trump team wasted no time in releasing a plan for the first 100 days. With Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House, it may seem as if Trump has free reign to push through any number of these proposals. But reality isn’t so simple. Despite victories at almost every level on election night, the GOP remains starkly divided between the establishment wing of the party and the new Trump coalition. These two groups fundamentally disagree on several of Trump’s key campaign promises. Let us take a look at what we can expect a Trump administration to reasonably accomplish.


Republican leadership has consistently remained pro free trade against blistering attacks from the protectionist wings of the party, setting up a potential flashpoint between a Trump White House and congressional Republicans. One thing is for sure though; the Trans Pacific Partnership is likely done for good. President Obama had hoped to pass it through the lame duck session by offering concessions to free trade Republicans, but Trump’s election will likely force these congressmen to tow the party line or risk alienating themselves from the new administration. As head of the executive branch, Trump has broad authority to unilaterally act on trade and tariff issues. This gives him the ability to immediately end negotiations on TPP and even undermine parts of the already existing NAFTA, but he can still go further.

According to Gary Hugbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, “trade-related acts passed in 1917, 1962, 1974 and 1977 give the president the ability to impose import restrictions, tariffs or other retaliatory measures without the approval of Congress.

This gives President Trump the ability to follow through on his campaign promise of imposing a 45% tariff on Chinese imports. However, there would be some pretty clear consequences to such an action. Instituting a tariff on Chinese imports would likely result in a responding Chinese tariff on American goods, potentially beginning a destructive trade war. Given the intra-party ideological divide over the issue and the disastrous history of tariffs, Trump’s latter promise isn’t likely to materialize anytime soon.

Congressional Term Limits

In the waning months of the campaign, Trump attempted to a last ditch appeal to voters disaffected with Washington by calling for congressional term limits and promising to “drain the swamp.” He still seems committed to the idea after winning the election, even proposing a constitutional amendment on the issue. However, Mitch McConnell was quick to emphasize that the Senate was unlikely to go along with this, saying that “it will not be on the agenda in the Senate… I would say that we have term limits now-they’re called elections.” President Trump also does not have the authority to propose a constitutional amendment. That process must originate from either congress or a constitutional convention, neither of which is likely.


Perhaps no recent issue in American politics has been as volatile as immigration. Back in 2013, several leading Republican and Democratic senators tried to cross the aisle in an effort to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Although the “gang of 8 bill” eventually failed, Democrats and moderate Republican still held out hope heading into 2016. But then candidate Trump crashed into the process, making combating illegal immigration the signature issue of his campaign. Now that he has improbably won the White House, Trump seems to be in a position to fulfill his promises. However, his famous border wall proposal still remains bereft of details. Trump has said little about how he intends to build it or get Mexico to fund the project.

On a more realistic note, Trump does have the tools to enact several immediate changes, thanks in large part to a precedent set by President Obama. By issuing executive orders, Trump has the ability to sidestep Capitol Hill and increase deportations and border security measures beginning from day one. Although Trump has spent significant time on the campaign trail criticizing the current president for “executive overreach,” he has promised to use this power to undo much of the previous administration’s policies. For President Obama, executive authority could become a double-edged sword when it comes to immigration.


The most likely area of compromise between the Trump coalition and the Republican establishment is repealing and replacing Obamacare. Just an hour after Secretary Clinton gave her concession speech on Wednesday morning, Mitch McConnell announced that the new Republican Senate would make scrapping the health care law its first first priority. In its stead, Republicans will likely try and pass some version Paul Ryan’s alternative plan, which proposes offering tax credits to individuals who don’t get insurance through their employers as well as devolving Medicaid to the states through an increase in federal block grants. However, after meeting with President Obama on Thursday, the president-elect seemed to soften his hardline stance. Trump specifically praised select aspects of the law, including the provisions that forbid companies from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions and that allow young Americans to remain on their parents plan.

However, Trump is still critical of the individual mandate. This potentially places Trump and McConnell at an impasse, given that most health economists assert that the mandate is a necessary provision that helps insurance companies acquire healthier patients to offset the costs of those with pre-existing conditions. Although Trump, Ryan, and McConnell have criticized the law in the past, reshaping the health care markets will be a much more complicated than simple campaign trail promises.

Supreme Court

Perhaps the most convincing argument that the Trump campaign used to rally disenchanted Republicans to the ballot boxes centered on the Supreme Court. Trump and his surrogates deftly argued that a vote for the real estate mogul would prevent Secretary Clinton from packing the court for a generation, and it worked. After the inauguration, Trump and congressional Republicans will have the chance to replace Antonin Scalia with another conservative justice. During the campaign, the Trump team released a list of 21 potential candidates that they would nominate if they won the presidency. There seems to be no reason for Trump to go back on that promise. It will be interesting to see though if Democrats attempt to filibuster any future nominee, given that Republicans spent the last nine months blocking President Obama’s pick for the court.

Infrastructure Spending

In a bright spot for Democrats, one of Trump’s few concrete policy proposals during the campaign was a promise to increase infrastructure spending on roads, airport, pipelines, rail, and the electrical grid by $1 trillion. This represents a huge divergence from GOP proposals in the last few Congressional budgets, and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi has emphasized this as an area where Democrats are more than willing to work with the President-elect.


When it comes to foreign policy, Republicans and Democrats were quick to criticize Trump for insinuating that America would not come to the defense of her NATO allies unless they paid their fair share for mutual defense. Now that he is commander in chief, some nations are increasingly more wary of Trump following through on this promise. This could embolden an aggressive Russia to attempt to exert even more influence in Eastern Europe or the Baltic states.

Entitlement Reform

Establishment Republicans and Trump have found little common ground on entitlement reforms, particularly cutting social security benefits. As former chairman of the House Budget Committee, Speaker Ryan became famous for his efforts to make social security solvent through cuts and raising the retirement age. On the other hand, Trump has promised voters that he is opposed to any cuts and would be even be open to increases in benefits.

Although the election may seem like an unprecedented political event, once he is inaugurated, Trump will have to govern and will be limited by Constitutional and political constraints just like any other commander in chief. Although he has broad executive authority in some areas, he will have to compromise and find common ground with dissenting Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill if he wants to institute the sweeping change that he spent a year and half promising his voters.


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