There are six 8.5 by 11 pieces of paper lined up and adhered to the wall of White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s West Wing office. Each, sorted by category, contains a list of the various promises that then-candidate Donald Trump made on the campaign trail.
It serves as both visual reminder and actual checklist for the president’s agenda.
“One by one, we’re checking off the promises we made to the people of the United States,” Trump said Friday in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “One by one. A lot of promises. And we will not stop until the job is done.”
After months of pundit hand-wringing about whether to take Trump at his often outrageous and outspoken word — whether to take him “literally” or “seriously” — the White House is coming down firmly on the side of both. And with Trump’s first prime-time address Tuesday to the nation and Congress, they hope to reframe Trump’s turbulent first 40 days neatly into the context of promises made, promises kept.
“The era of empty talk is over. It’s over,” Trump said at CPAC, testing out some potential themes of the congressional speech. “Now is the time for action.”
But Trump will step onto the dais Tuesday night with historically weak approval ratings for a new president, battling leaks both from within and about the White House and a heavy chip on his shoulder about media coverage of his early presidency that he has decried repeatedly as “fake news.”
Trump’s team is keenly aware that the president was lifted into office by a wave of voters disillusioned by a political system that they believe had failed them. They want to be seen as delivering for those voters — and fast.
“How unacceptably jaded have we become by our politicians that people are shocked when one of them actually does what he said he would do?” Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted last week.
At CPAC, Trump ticked through his early accomplishments from deporting “bad dudes” to withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to moving forward on the Keystone pipeline. But for all the White House’s boasting of a frenzied first month, Trump has signed few sweeping new laws, relying instead of unilateral executive actions.
The risks of that strategy were clear as federal courts blocked his signature executive order to halt immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations, despite Trump’s promise on Friday that, “We are going to keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country.”
Democrats say the early Trump push has done little to improve the nation.
“He’s done a lot,” said Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who was in Washington over the weekend for the National Governors Association meeting. “But he’s done a lot to hurt us.”
McAuliffe said Trump has been focused on the wrong pieces of his agenda. “Give me an infrastructure bill, do some tax reform, do something that helps me stimulate and create jobs that’s what I want out of the White House. Help me create jobs,” McAuliffe said.
An infrastructure package and tax reform require congressional action, and are expected to be part of his speech Tuesday.
So far, Trump has signed only five bills in law, and the most notable ones unwound two President Obama-era regulations, nothing compared to the sweeping $800 billion stimulus package Obama signed in his first month eight years ago.
In some ways, Trump’s early blitz has been the reverse of Obama’s tenure, which began with a heavy push on Capitol Hill and ended after Democrats lost congressional majorities with his pledge to govern almost unilaterally with a “pen and a phone.”
Trump, despite Republican control of the House and Senate, has begun with his pen and phone, signing executive actions and calling up world leaders in a dramatic reset of American foreign policy from Asia to the Middle East to North America.
“He has shaken up the world of international diplomacy,” said former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, who has been considered, though not appointed to, multiple Trump administration posts, “and I think it needs to be shaken up.”
Now comes the harder part: pushing the rest of his agenda through Capitol Hill. In addition to repealing Obamacare, pushing an infrastructure package and tax reform, Trump is expected to talk about a reinvestment in the armed forces that he said at CPAC would amount to “one of the greatest military buildups in American history.” He’s also expected to talk more about the border and immigration, his signature issue on the campaign.
Trump being Trump, his staff is inevitably preparing for the unexpected. “It could be ad-libs,” one senior White House adviser said, “Welcome to my world.”
As Trump’s approval ratings have plumbed new lows for a new president, he has lashed out at the media for its coverage. “They are the enemy of the people,” Trump said Friday. “Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none.”
Over the weekend, Trump announced he would not attend the White House Correspondents Association dinner and on Friday White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer barred some outlets, including POLITICO, the New York Times and CNN, from attending an off-camera briefing in a break with tradition that spurred protests.
But Trump, a ravenous consumer of the daily clips printed out for him and cable news, is also seeking to repair some relationships. On Tuesday, the day of his speech, Trump will lunch with network television anchors, a White House tradition, while expanding the invitation list to include new channels. And on Monday, the president will meet in the evening with representatives of regional television stations, in an effort to better penetrate local broadcasts.
Count Bannon among the pessimists on that outreach making any difference. “It’s not only not going to get better. It’s going to get worse every day,” he said at CPAC, his first public appearance since entering the White House.
“We have a team that’s just grinding it through on what President Trump promised the American people,” Bannon said. “And the mainstream media better understand something: All of those promises are going to be implemented.”