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First immigration, then guns, now tariffs: Policy chaos defines Trump's White House

Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's daily public schedule had been emailed later than usual the evening before, near 11 p.m., yet by Thursday morning it had already been upended. The update arrived before breakfast, straight from the president's Twitter account to his millions of followers.

"Looking forward to 3:30 P.M. meeting today at the White House," Trump wrote -- to impose the tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that most Republicans, his top advisers, many foreign allies and numerous American companies had implored him to reconsider. Aides scrambled to add the event -- forced not for the first time, or even the first time this month, to react to the policy chaos the president increasingly seems to revel in.

Later, in rambling remarks to reporters before a morning Cabinet meeting, the president touched on no less than 15 different issues that he said he is working on. "A lot of great things are being done," Trump said. "A lot of things are happening right now, as we speak."

Many things are not getting done, however, and largely because of the president's penchant for changing his mind, thinking aloud and then moving on to something else. Every White House juggles a multitude of issues and problems. What sets Trump's White House apart is how much seems to happen on the fly, driven by a president who calls the shots with proud disregard for policy ramifications and process.

The result is confusion. "Each day is a new episode in the reality TV show," said historian Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University. "It's frightening how quickly he turns to the next thing."

Trump's tumultuous first year as president was salvaged when the Republican-controlled Congress sent him a massive tax cuts bill to sign in December. That had Republican allies hoping for a more disciplined, productive alliance for the year ahead.

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The tariffs debate of March began with the president's unexpected announcement last week of imminent levies on steel and aluminum -- a statement that took even most advisers by surprise, and provoked Trump's chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to announce his resignation this week.

Set aside was the previous debate over the president's vacillations on policies addressing gun violence and school safety, the topic that consumed much of February after the massacre of 14 students and three educators at a Parkland, Fla., high school. And that debate followed the still-unresolved fight that began the year -- over Trump's push to replace the Obama-era program protecting from deportation hundreds of thousands of young immigrants, the so-called "Dreamers," who were brought to the country illegally as children.

All but forgotten has been a fourth issue that Trump had called a top priority for 2018: an infrastructure plan to spur the economy by fixing the nation's crumbling roads, bridges, waterways, airports, sewers, levees and more. He has said little about it, and unenthusiastic Republican leaders in Congress suggest they will not act on the matter this year.

Aside from the tariffs, which Trump had authority to impose without Congress, each of those issues he has called priorities now languishes. Lawmakers express confusion over just what he wants to do, and he turns his attention elsewhere. Although the president said at the Cabinet meeting that bills to strengthen background checks for some gun purchasers "are moving along in Congress," in fact the House and Senate have made little progress.


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