When things aren’t going smoothly for President Trump, his go-to move is to change the subject to topics that cheer his supporters and drive his critics into paroxysms of outrage. Mr. Trump’s decision on Wednesday to, as he proclaimed on Twitter, sign an “Executive Order prohibiting immigration into our Country today” seems designed as just such a distraction.
The president first announced his intention in a late-night tweet on Monday, claiming it was a necessary response to “the attack from the Invisible Enemy” — his latest nickname for the coronavirus — and “to protect the jobs of our GREAT American citizens.” Like clockwork, Democrats denounced his “xenophobia” and accused him of trying to shift the nation’s focus away from his handling of the pandemic.
But the outcry is also behind the curve. In the name of protecting the nation, the Trump administration has already shut down most legal immigration through more piecemeal moves. In recent weeks, it has imposed tougher travel restrictions and has stopped processing most visas. Visa interviews are not taking place, nor are citizenship ceremonies. Migrants crossing the border are now turned back without the usual protections for minors and asylum seekers.
As Mr. Trump elaborated at his Tuesday news briefing, there will be a 60-day “pause” in issuing new green cards — though he said that could be extended “based on economic conditions.” Responding in part to a backlash from business, the ban, for now at least, will not affect guest worker programs, including seasonal farm workers and individuals with H-1B visas.
To recap: The president is trumpeting a temporary ban on immigration to protect American jobs that exempts many employment-based programs.
While Mr. Trump’s executive order is flashy, in policy terms, it is less an announcement of what he is going to do than what he has already done in realizing an anti-immigration vision formed long before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19.
As for immigrants already here, on Tuesday, the Department of Education issued guidelines that will bar undocumented college students, including Dreamers, from receiving federal emergency aid for expenses, including food, housing and child care.
Choking off legal immigration is just one aspect of the administration’s longstanding agenda that’s being cast as a pandemic response. In the midst of the crisis, the administration has plowed ahead with non-Covid priorities that, in more normal times, most likely would have been met with fierce pushback.
Environmental regulations have been a top target. In late March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that, during this national emergency, power plants and factories would be allowed to self-monitor their pollution and would not be fined for violating certain reporting requirements. The administration also issued its new rule gutting vehicle fuel efficiency standards. In mid-April, the agency changed the way it calculates the benefits of regulating mercury, effectively weakening regulation of it and other toxic metals released by power plants. Most if not all of these moves are likely to be ensnarled in lengthy, costly legal challenges.
Going forward, the administration is poised to use executive actions to roll back regulations on business, according to The Washington Post. Measures said to be under consideration include directing federal agencies not to enforce regulations on small businesses, as well as making permanent many of the regulatory waivers temporarily granted in response to the pandemic by agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the E.P.A.
Those who have stood in the way of Mr. Trump’s preferred prescriptions for the pandemic have not fared well. This week, Dr. Rick Bright was bumped from his post atop the agency charged with developing a coronavirus vaccine. Dr. Bright told The Times that he was dismissed for demanding that the emergency funding be invested in “safe and scientifically vetted solutions” rather than remedies “that lack scientific merit.” He specifically cited his resistance to the “broad use” of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which Mr. Trump was hawking as wonder drugs until the past few days, when additional research emerged spotlighting the medicines’ lack of proven efficacy and potentially lethal risks in treating Covid-19 patients.
Mr. Trump is also eager to restore and expand tax cuts, always a popular move with his party. He has been pushing Congress to bring back the corporate meal and entertainment deduction. “It’ll keep our restaurants going,” he insisted at a briefing earlier this month. “In fact, I think the restaurant business will be actually bigger and better than it is right now.”
Beyond policy, Mr. Trump is working to dismantle oversight of his administration. Immediately after signing the $2 trillion relief bill, he issued a signing statement saying that he would be ignoring some of the oversight measures written into the bill. “These provisions are impermissible forms of congressional aggrandizement with respect to the execution of the laws,” the statement said.
Less than two weeks later, the president ousted Glenn Fine, the acting inspector general for the Pentagon, who had been tasked with overseeing the administration’s handling of the relief funding.
Mr. Fine is not the only administration watchdog Mr. Trump has put down. On April 3, he fired Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, who alerted Congress to the existence of the whistle-blower complaint that ultimately led to Mr. Trump’s impeachment.
The White House has also taken advantage of a preoccupied nation to further its project of packing the judiciary with conservatives. On April 3, Mr. Trump tapped Judge Justin Walker for a seat on the influential United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Mr. Walker is a 37-year-old protégé of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and has been serving as a Federal District Court judge in Kentucky for around six months. The American Bar Association rated him “unqualified” for that post because of his inexperience. Mr. McConnell reiterated on Tuesday that the Senate will continue to confirm judicial nominees during the crisis.
There is nothing inherently wrong about Mr. Trump pursuing his agenda during this pandemic, or even using it to help make his case for action. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are putting a coronavirus-spin on their priorities, from health care reform to paid family leave to an expansion of mail-in voting. As Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, memorably opined during the 2008 financial meltdown, “Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible.”
But this president has repeatedly demonstrated his eagerness to exploit any available opening, or to invent new ones when necessary, to expand his authority and advance his own interests. Recall his reallocating billions of dollars from the Pentagon’s budget to build a wall across a tiny portion of the Southern border, for instance, under the guise of a national emergency last year. While presidential tweets and briefings are shiny objects to distract the news media and public, the Trump administration’s lower-profile activity begs for even stricter scrutiny — especially in the midst a global crisis.
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