President Donald Trump has had a rough Year Two, starting and ending with a government shutdown. Here’s how USA TODAY opinion writers graded his work:
Troika of Toughness: There’s a lot to love about President Donald Trump’s second year in office: smashed ISIS, embassy in Jerusalem, a booming economy with historically low unemployment. But I’m going to focus on his top three achievements: Trump’s Troika of Toughness, as I call them. No. 1: Brett Kavanaugh. Trump didn’t blink, much less do an establishment-GOP dance of panic when his Supreme Court nominee, a man of towering achievement and blameless reputation, had to endure a Democratic-orchestrated month of outlandish and uncorroborated allegations about his supposed sexual misconduct as a teenager. No. 2: The Wall. Trump is holding fast on that one, too — and a Politico/Morning Consult poll finds that 42 percent of Americans think the border situation is “a crisis” while 37 percent see it as a problem. And don’t forget he stopped that “caravan” of would-be invaders on the other side of the U.S. border where it belongs. Meanwhile, po-faced Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi looked like Uncle Fester and Morticia as they rattled on about poor furloughed federal employees — whom most Americans don’t even notice missing. No. 3: China. Trump slapped tariffs on Beijing that “free-traders” said would cripple the U.S. economy. In fact, China, hitherto Ground Zero for its own abusive trade practices and industrial piracy, is crawling to the negotiating table — since its own economy is not doing so well. Stick it out, Trump.
— Charlotte Allen, columnist for “First Things,” @MeanCharlotte
Fear for worse: We began the year with a historically long shutdown of the government for no reason other than presidential pique. Why was the president angry? Because that part of Congress newly controlled by Democrats refused to “bend the knee” and surrender its independence. For the first time in history, a U.S. president has brought gangsterism into the Oval Office, denouncing as rats and weaklings those who’d expose illegal acts. Not coincidentally, and also for the first time in history, we have a sitting president cited in court papers for illegal payments to women with whom he was personally entangled. And, again, for the first time in history, we have a president at war with the very institutions — the FBI and the Department of Justice — charged with keeping us safe at home, even as he attacks NATO, the United Nations and other organizations charged with keeping the world secure. And did I mention that — also for the first time in history — we have a president whose behavior was so suspicious that he effectively forced the FBI to open an inquiry into whether he was a covert operative of a hostile foreign power. And did I mention that he intentionally aggravated a crisis at the southern border that, in his mind, justified ripping children from the arms of their parents with no plan to reunite them. Never in history has a U.S. president been so reckless, so heartless and so clueless. Unfortunately, he has given us every reason to believe that things could get even worse.
— Ellis Cose, fellow, University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, @EllisCose
Not doing the work: From a conservative perspective, the president had fewer wins in his sophomore years. But there were certainly some. Presidents often get credit for things they have only passing responsibility for. And if it was acceptable practice for past presidents, there’s no reason to expect differently from this White House. So they have every right to crow about great employment numbers and the like. They have a better case to boast about the continuing line of conservative judges and justices he has appointed to the bench, most significantly Kavanaugh. His foreign policy accomplishments in Year Two tend not to improve with scrutiny. The overtures to North Korea looks more like a hollow PR stunt every day, and his decision to pull out of Syria with no real plan in place could be disastrous. This points to the real reason I am giving him an incomplete. He’s not really doing the work. He’s not governing like the president of the whole country, or even making the effort to appear that way. And he faces every test like a student who prides himself on his refusal to study. Sometimes it works out for him. Sometimes it doesn’t. But for a guy called a “chessmaster” by his fans, he seems incapable of planning more than one move ahead. Which is why he stumbled into the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
— Jonah Goldberg, National Review contributing editor, @JonahNRO
For furlough: Trump, who turned 72 in June, has not changed or shown us anything new in the past 12 months. Though his political affiliation has shifted back and forth at least five times over the years, his character, behavior and outlook have never really varied, because they were always completely transactional. In 2018, allies were still affronted, along with our own military veterans, and murderers were still defended. In a year that began and ended with government shutdowns, the U.S. showed “zero tolerance” for those fleeing persecution but nearly limitless tolerance for self-enriching Cabinet secretaries. And from disdain for “s—hole countries” to blaming California even as it burned, compassion remained on holiday. Trump’s Year Two was only different from his first year in office in that we, the American public, had been worn down by scrambling every day to either rationalize or fend off so many new not-normals. In the phrase of the president’s fellow New Yorker, the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, we were all either fighting for or against “defining deviancy down.” At first, even those of us who saw Trump’s open envy of dictators and hostility to democratic norms and institutions and alliances hoped that constitutional and human guardrails would hold our Russiaphile POTUS in check. Now, though, “He can’t do that,” has given way to “Yes, he can.” His few Republican critics have retired, and his minders have been fired. The adults have left the building — well, except for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — and as long as Trump stays in office, we know now that they aren’t coming back.
— Melinda Henneberger, editorial writer at The Kansas City Star, @MelindaKCMO
Not being indicted: I’m grading on a curve mostly based on attendance. Not that Trump has shown up to negotiate with Democrats or even his own party, not that he has shown up for international diplomacy except with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and certainly not that his being around has accomplished much anything other than unmitigated philosophical and political disasters. I mean, it’s amazing he hasn’t been indicted or impeached, — which, considering the mounting evidence, is really something.
— Sally Kohn, author of “The Opposite Of Hate: A Field Guide To Repairing Our Humanity,” @sallykohn
Deepening the carnage: America sank into a Trump-shaped pit of disruption, damage and pain during the president’s first year. At the end of Year Two, the pit is twice as deep and now feels like it’s filled with quicksand. No one can figure out how to pull us up and onto solid ground. The escalating daily chaos is what’s most visible, along with the ever-growing void where integrity, civility, patriotism, compassion, discipline, generosity and simply obeying the law should be. There’s also a conspicuously empty space on the world stage, larger and larger as Trump contemplates moves such as leaving NATO, where America used to stand as a reliable embodiment of freedom, tolerance and human rights, and as an ally of like-minded nations. Less obvious, but equally profound, is Trump’s impact on individual lives — people’s jobs, ambitions, health, finances and hopes wrecked by trade wars, harsh immigration policies, a record shutdown and utter disregard, even contempt, for competence in government or any other sphere. The post-Trump years are almost unbearable to contemplate. After this president is done wreaking his trademark American carnage, there’ll be a stiff test of U.S. resilience and of any new president tasked with leading the country out of the ditch and back to the light. To its roots.
— Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY commentary editor, author of “The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock,” @JillDLawrence
Ship of state still floats: My expectations for Trump were never very high. Two years in, I remain pleasantly surprised that he hasn’t embroiled the United States in a pointless war in a fit of pique. His trade battles have been less destructive than I expected and he has managed to back away from some, as in renegotiating NAFTA. Even his government shutdown is only a partial shutdown, though it has set a record for length. His decision to fire the attorney general didn’t turn into a constitutional crisis as the president somehow decided to appoint William Barr, a normal Republican passably familiar with the outlines of reality. And now the automatic stabilizers of the Constitution have started to kick in with the election of a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. Times remain so good that people have the energy to get angry at Trump for serving fast-food burgers to football players. We may yet get out of this presidency in one piece.
— David Mastio, USA TODAY deputy editorial page editor, @DavidMastio
Undermining himself: In his second year in office, Trump learned how to use the presidency — to do some things and avoid doing others. The toughest challenges included two government shutdowns — one at the start of the year, one at the end — school shootings like the one at Parkland High School in Florida, and the immigration impasse. On the latter, the president promised to legalize “Dreamers” who were brought here illegally as children, stop “chain migration,” create a merit point system, end sanctuary cities, and build a “big beautiful” wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump broke all those promises, and instead shamefully separated families from crime-ridden Central America that were seeking asylum. He scored a win by putting Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, and the messy way that Senate Democrats overreached with the nominee’s #MeToo moment cost them their shot at taking control of the upper chamber in the midterms. Their consolation prize was a slew of victories in House races and winning back the speaker’s gavel. Trump had a lot to do with that outcome, too. All in all, not a good year for the president. Despite dozens of accomplishments, the tweeter in chief lost focus and proved once again to be his own worst adversary.
— Ruben Navarrette Jr., syndicated columnist, @RubenNavarrette
Day One dropout: We must assign two grades: one to President Trump, and one to the people actually conducting the business of the U.S. government. Trump, in every area, gets an F. Everyone else gets a passing grade, from the people trying determinedly to keep our armed forces ready, to the bureaucrats and administrators who execute a daily mosaic of actions that assist Americans in keeping their economy afloat despite Trump’s tariff wars and wealth-annihilating tweets. At this point, almost everything Trump does is organized around his own safety, and the rest of the government is left trying to manage itself, especially those agencies and departments now run by Trump appointees who have no idea what they’re doing. In a way, Trump’s grade is below F: If the presidency were a course, he dropped out and stopped showing up after the first day. Almost everyone else, however, is giving it their best effort.
— Tom Nichols, national security professor at the Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School, @RadioFreeTom
Bad dystopian novel: In a year that felt more like 20, Trump’s highlight reel is like a tumultuous backstory to some poorly written dystopian novel, featuring a president who spent his days either golfing at his own hotels or live-tweeting as he watched cable news. And the results have been as one would expect from such a character. Amid mounting evidence that he and his campaign directly coordinated with the Russian government during the presidential election, Trump’s former national security adviser, personal lawyer and campaign manager — among others connected to the president — all faced federal charges for criminal behavior. On foreign policy, Trump continued to cast aside our traditional allies (and a coordinated policy process to make actual policy) in favor of siding with authoritarian leaders and going with his own uneducated and tempestuous whims. He sold out and alienated his own voting base by engaging in costly and pointless trade wars, the mechanics of which he clearly did not understand and which have devastated our agricultural industry. Trump also continued to attack our democratic institutions, including our independent federal agencies and our news media meant to keep public figures like him in check. His White House remained a revolving door for personnel, and he kicked out the few remaining “adults in the room,” among them Jim Mattis. Demonstrating his complete unsuitability for politics or leadership, Trump presided over not just one but three government shutdowns even as his party controlled both chambers of Congress. Successes he claimed last year were all predominantly based on lies and false statistics, save one: He has yet to do anything to trigger actual oversight or censure from his party. But that is as much his success as the GOP’s monumental failure. But it is also the reason he is likely to survive another year in office. Anytime the Russians are happy with what they perceive as chaos in the USA, and they are, it’s an automatic F from me.
— Cindy L. Otis, writer and former CIA officer, @CindyOtis_
Room for improvement: To get there, he’ll have to help Republicans recapture the House and hold the Senate in 2020 — and get re-elected himself. We’re at or above full employment overall, and black and Hispanic unemployment numbers are especially good. Jobs for blue-collar workers are also expanding. He has achieved a de-escalation that could lead to peace in Korea and a realignment of Middle East affairs that is in the U.S. interest, particularly with Iran being brought under pressure from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab allies. He has renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement that is much more favorable to the United States than the agreement it replaced. Trump stuck it out with Kavanaugh when other GOP presidents would probably have folded, and he has confirmed a lot of other judges. The tax cuts he passed have helped to fuel economic growth. Beyond that, not much. The do-nothing GOP House lost the voters’ confidence, and now Trump has to deal with an obstructionist Democratic House. The worst commentary on Paul Ryan’s Republicans is that Trump might not see much difference, except for the blizzard of subpoenas. As I commented in the early days of his administration, Trump and the congressional GOP should have had bills lined up like airplanes on a runway. Instead, they squandered a rare opportunity. You can blame Ryan if you want, but Trump was the head of the party.
— Glenn Reynolds, University of Tennessee law professor
Delivering on his promises: Clear away the knee-jerk negativity, cut through the crackpot conspiracy theories, and we are left with a very successful Year Two for President Trump. Domestically, the economy is projected to have grown at post-recession high of 3.1 percent in 2018, generating high marks for economic optimism. Last year also saw historically high employment rates and rising wages, with jobless claims reaching a half-century low. The administration has continued to slash federal regulations at a record rate, foretelling future economic expansion. President Trump delivered the promised U.S.-Mexico-Canada-Agreement, replacing the outdated and counterproductive NAFTA deal. In the energy sector, pro-growth policies helped the United States become the world’s dominant crude oil producer for the first time since 1973, and 2018 saw a 25 percent decline in crude oil prices. In the courts, President Trump secured originalist jurist Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court and continued to nominate federal judges at a brisk pace. In foreign policy, the president pulled out of the fatally flawed Iran nuclear agreement, held the historic Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, decimated the Islamic State in Syria, and made good on the decades-old promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The president unfortunately backtracked on his order to declassify more information regarding the Russian collusion witch hunt, but presumably he is saving that chess move for a rainy day. Naturally, those who disagree with President Trump’s policy priorities will give him low marks for doing exactly what he promised, but what else would you expect? From a conservative point of view, the only downside is that he isn’t doing more, faster.
— James S. Robbins, author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive,” @James_Robbins
Ruining his inheritance: Now we’ve reached the part of the Trump story where he begins to destroy the things he was lucky enough to inherit. Just as he’d likely be richer today if he had just put his daddy’s money in an index fund, Trump is doing everything to degrade the strong economy and relative stability bequeathed to him. The unanticipated costs of his massive giveaways to the corporations could give all Americans free college, almost nine times. This sugar high for the rich is forcing interest rate hikes that could put us into recession, if Trump’s trade war or shutdown don’t first. Meanwhile, he hired the world’s biggest Iraq War cheerleader to try to start a war with Iran as punishment for abiding by a nuclear agreement — while rewarding North Korea for not even pretending to keep to a pretend nuclear agreement. Even when he veers toward doing the right thing, such as withdrawing troops from unwinnable wars, Trump does it a haphazard way that suggests these policies are just payoffs to the felonious president of a country who happened to help ours get elected. The good news is that the American people were able to pierce through the GOP’s carefully crafted gerrymandering and voter suppression to put an actual check on this administration with a Democratic majority in the House. The bad news is he has a slightly larger Senate Republican majority determined to let him get away with anything, including appointing an attorney general with extremely relevant job experience — such as justifying pardons to cover up impeachable offenses.
— Jason Sattler, host of “The GOTMFV Show” podcast, @LOLGOP
Defying expectations: Should Trump’s job performance be compared with the hypothetical presidency of any normal boring person and marked down accordingly? Or should he be marked up in that America still seems to be thriving despite its leader being a petulant, immature boor? In that sense, Trump has defied expectations, although “avoided impeachment and dodged nuclear annihilation” typically don’t lead the “pro” section of a presidential epitaph. This has been Trump’s greatest achievement — consistently keeping everyone’s expectations as low as possible so he may then easily hurdle them. If you took a trip to the Everglades and saw an alligator brushing his teeth, you’d think “that’s the most talented alligator I’ve ever seen.” But you wouldn’t want to give him the nuclear codes to our country. In that sense, Trump would earn a “C” grade — for exceeding his own impossibly low standards, but falling well short of the decency and propriety America should expect from its chief executive. Yet the president’s second year must be marked down one full grade for foisting on the public the two most obnoxious words in the English language: “Michael Avenatti.”
— Christian Schneider, author of “1916: The Blog,” @Schneider_CM
Demagogue fail: Trump is one of those extraordinary individuals about whom there is absolutely nothing good to say. The same goes for his presidency. It is thanks only to the innate strength of the U.S. economy that it has not fallen into a tailspin from explosive deficit spending and “easy to win” trade wars. It is thanks only to the durability of American institutions that the rule of law has not been toppled by Trump’s calls for prosecution of political enemies and the brickbats he has tossed at the Mueller investigation. It is thanks only to good fortune that bloodshed has not resulted from Trump’s evident determination to wreck a postwar order that has kept the world at relative peace. As a steward of the interests and traditions of the country, Trump handily earns an F. No doubt if one were to measure Trump on the scale he sets for himself — survival and keeping himself at the center of attention — his grade would be stellar. The fact that Trump has made it through two years in the White House is a striking achievement for someone so demonstrably incompetent at governing and deeply embroiled in criminal activity. Trump’s survival owes to his undeniable gift for stoking racial resentment and xenophobia to sustain a political base and cow Republican elected officials. But even as a demagogue, Trump is remarkably deficient. His breathtaking displays of ignorance and stupidity and his compulsive and readily exposed lying serve to limit his freedom of movement. A smarter, more adroit version of this man would be infinitely more dangerous. Even as a demagogue, Trump earns a failing grade.
— Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, @gabeschoenfeld
Unreal president: Season 2 of the “Trump Reality Show” was outstanding TV, and I think Season 3 will be even more amazing. Last year’s crossover episodes with Kanye and Kim Kardashian West were brilliant, and I look forward to further reality TV crossover projects (or maybe a spinoff reality series — seriously, George and Kellyanne Conway deserve their own show). In Season 2, the producers did a great job writing out old characters and bringing in new ones at an unprecedented rate. (Over 80 percent of the major players in the White House have been replaced — no previous president has had turnover like this!) The Russia-Mueller plot line will have lots of cliffhangers to keep us glued to the show. And let’s not forget the porn stars and their NDAs, Trump’s family, and so much more to keep us enthralled. The North Korea plot device is especially riveting — and it can be ramped up or down, as needed. The same with Iran, Syria, NATO, Israel-Palestine and the trade war with China. Remember, “Trump can launch nuclear weapons whenever he wants.” As a reality TV Show, the Trump presidency is clearly a ratings hit. But Trump as our actual president is a disaster.
— Steven Strauss, John L. Weinberg/Goldman Sachs & Co. Visiting Professor at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School @steven_strauss