President Donald Trump’s first week of 2018 was a big policy gift to his conservative base, wrapped with a bow.
Most of Trump’s administration has been defined by the huge gulf between its political theatrics and its real-world impact—a reality-show White House that occupies the headlines without really driving policy, while a serious but less-heralded conservative agenda marches forward behind the scenes at federal agencies.
Not this week. With three huge moves—tightening up marijuana law, opening new waters for oil-and-gas drilling, suspending aid to Pakistan—Trump handed big victories to red-meat conservatives, the kind of wins that GOP voters might have expected from far more conventional candidates.
Strategically the moves were a mixed bag for the GOP: As many commentators have noted, Republicans trying to hold onto their seats in blue-ish states in 2018 are going to have to toe a narrow line, distancing themselves from an administration whose approval rating is hovering below 40 percent. But for the issue-driven right, the week was a big signal that the law-and-order, drill-baby-drill brand of politics that Trump promised has clearly planted its flag in the White House.
Policy wasn’t the only thing Washington was talking about this week, of course—in fact, as Trump returned to the White House and the Senate kicked off the second session of the 115th Congress, Washington was glued to the vicious fight between the president and Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who in a new book attacked Trump’s son for his actions during the presidential campaign. The president couldn't resist tweeting about it, then trying to block the book, guaranteeing more publicity for yet another distraction from his policy promises.
But the president really did make policy waves this week. As usual, they weren’t all the headline news—in fact, two of them were small but important changes to America’s trade and housing policy. Here’s how Trump changed policy in the first week of 2018:
1. DOJ ends Obama’s lenient policy on marijuana
The rapid expansion of legal and quasi-legal pot in American states was enabled by a Department of Justice move, back in 2013, to deprioritize the enforcement of the federal prohibition on marijuana sales. Though marijuana is still federally outlawed, the move effectively limited the risk to people and businesses who sold pot legally under their state laws. It was a victory for advocates and states that wanted to legalize commercial marijuana sales, which can bring in billions of dollars in tax revenue, but it was a huge defeat for law-and-order conservatives who have warned about the dangers of marijuana and the need for a tough enforcement policy.
One such critic was then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, a longtime pot critic who complained that cannabis was only “slightly less awful than heroin.” This week, Sessions, now the attorney general, officially withdrew the Obama-era policy on marijuana, instructing prosecutors to use their judgment in enforcing federal marijuana laws, as they do with other federal crimes.
In one sense the move was surprising: Trump himself, during the campaign, suggested he wouldn't interfere in state-level legalization efforts. But he has given his cabinet wide autonomy, and this move clearly represents the priorities of Sessions and base conservatives.
The immediate implications of the long-awaited move were unclear, since prosecution will now be at the discretion of federal prosecutors. Already the U.S. attorney for Colorado said that the new DOJ guidance will not change his office’s enforcement of marijuana laws. At the ground level, the DOJ announcement is sure to make investors skittish about putting more money into an industry that is still federally illegal; pot stocks (yes, there are now pot stocks) plunged on Thursday after the news broke. But there is also a chance that this could be, counter-intuitively, good news for pro-legalization advocates: After both Democrats and Republicans in Congress sharply criticized of the new DOJ policy, it could prompt Congress into updating the federal law on marijuana.
2. A big expansion of drilling
In 2015, the Obama administration announced that it would allow oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast, a move that immediately drew fire from environmentalists and states like North Carolina and Florida who worried about the environmental damage from such a move. Facing a backlash, in 2016, the Interior Department reversed those plans.
But this week, with the Interior Department—now led by former GOP Congressman Ryan Zinke and his resource-based conservatism—the agency announced it would open vast stretches of federal waters to oil and gas drilling, including off the coasts of Florida and California. Interior’s new five-year plan for drilling in the continental shelf represents one of the biggest expansions of drilling in years, opening up some areas that had been off-limits for decades. The proposal immediately drew criticism from environmentalists and even some Trump allies, like Florida Governor Rick Scott, who worried that new drilling could hurt tourism. It was praised by industry groups who said it would help secure America’s energy needs.
So, it’s drill time? Not so fast. The proposal is just the first step towards actual drilling in these waters. The agency will now accept public comment on the proposal and issue a final plan after that. Even after it’s finalized, it will still take time for companies to determine where to drill and get their equipment in place—and that’s if it makes economic sense. In the era of cheap oil, companies have been hesitant to commit the time and money for major offshore drilling projects.
3. Trump withholds aid to Pakistan
In August 2016, as Trump unveiled a new strategy in Afghanistan, he used his primetime speech to also rail against Pakistan, who he accused of sheltering organizations that “try every day to kill our people.” If Pakistan didn’t change its ways, he warned, the United States would review and perhaps withhold the hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance it delivers to Islamabad each year.
This week, Trump followed through on those threats when the State Department announced it was withholding nearly all security assistance to Pakistan, which could total up to $1.3 billion, and was suspending all deliveries of military equipment to the country. The news wasn’t exactly a surprise, as Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, announced earlier in the week that the U.S. would suspend $255 million in aid to Pakistan and Trump has railed against the country’s leadership on Twitter. But it still represents the biggest escalation between the two countries, whose relationship has been increasingly fraught since Trump took office.
4. HUD delays fair housing rule
In July 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban Development published a long-awaited rule that required states and localities to report to Washington how they used federal funds to reduce housing segregation and to develop new goals to further reduce such discrimination. The announcement was a victory for housing and civil rights advocates who had long pushed for tougher federal fair housing standards.
But those celebrations might have been premature. On Friday, HUD delayed the compliance date of the Obama-era rule until at least 2020 and advocates are worried that HUD Secretary Ben Carson will repeal the rule altogether in the intervening years. The move is a victory for Republicans who said the Obama-era rule was a quintessential example of federal overreach, intruding on the rights of states and localities to set their own zoning policies. HUD said the delay was necessary to give localities time to meet the requirements of the 2015 rule.
5. Trade sanctions on China ramp up
During 2017, Trump surprisingly took a tougher line on trade with Canada than China, hoping that Beijing would pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. But as China has been unable or unwilling to cajole North Korean leader Kim Jong-un into such a move, Trump has indicated that he’s ready to move forward with trade sanctions against China.
On Wednesday, the International Trade Commission voted 4-0 to approve duties as high as 96 percent on Chinese tool chests and cabinets. The Commerce Department had imposed the duties in December and the last step in finalizing them was a determination by the ITC, an independent agency, that the domestic industry was materially hurt by the subsidized imports. The move represents the first of perhaps many new trade sanctions on China as the White House considers imposing duties on everything from Chinese steel to solar panels. Stay tuned.