President Trump leaves office reluctantly Wednesday after compiling one of the most consequential and turbulent records of any one-term leader.
Mr. Trump forged peace deals in the Middle East for the first time in generations, spurred an economic revival by slashing regulations and taxes, overhauled the immigration system, ripped up and renegotiated trade deals, enacted elusive criminal justice reform and stocked the federal judiciary with conservatives at a record pace.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the economy and contributed heavily to his failed reelection bid, Mr. Trump marshaled an unprecedented effort to produce vaccines in less than a year.
“Breaking through in Middle East peace, creating a conservative Court, and then enormous economic gains through February ,” said former House Speaker and Trump ally Newt Gingrich. “Those are the three achievements I would list.”
Some of Mr. Trump’s strongest supporters and former aides were frustrated that Mr. Trump’s campaign to fight the results after the Electoral College certified Mr. Biden’s win on Dec. 14 squandered an opportunity to focus on the achievements of his four years. They now worry that the president’s connection with the deadly storming of the Capitol by some of his followers on Jan. 6 will forever overshadow his accomplishments.
But the president’s policy achievements, much like Mr. Trump himself, cannot be ignored. Many observers believe that reshaping the courts is likely to be his longest-lasting legacy.
With help from now-estranged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, Mr. Trump appointed 226 federal judges in just four years, including three Supreme Court justices. Presidents Obama and Clinton appointed 320 and 367 judges, respectively, in eight years.
While Mr. Trump’s impact on the Supreme Court gets most of the attention, his influence on the 13 federal appeals courts is even more important. The president appointed 54 appeals court judges, one fewer than Mr. Obama’s total in two terms, and “flipped” the majority ideology on three of the courts from Democratic to Republican.
One step below the Supreme Court, the federal circuit courts more often play decisive roles across a broad range of policies, including employment law, environmental policy and limiting the authority of the bureaucratic state.
“The appeals courts are where 99-plus percent of cases end,” said Carrie Severino, president of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network. “The Supreme Court rightfully gets a lot of the spotlight because they are the final word on things, but it’s easy to overlook in how many cases the appellate courts are the last word.”
All judicial seats are lifetime appointments.
“What I think is going to be a hallmark of these judges is the commitment to the rule of law, which really means that you’re applying the same law across the board,” Ms. Severino said.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said abortion rights and the Second Amendment are most often the hot-button issues for federal courts, but Mr. Trump’s conservative appointments will have an even bigger impact on businesses.
“Increasingly, the Supreme Court has been used as the ultimate economic regulator, and picking constitutionalist judges really chilled that activity, which is one of the greatest impacts on the economy,” Mr. Schlapp said. “Entrepreneurs want to make investments. They can’t make investments very well if judges in a mercurial fashion are the regulators.”
His wife, Mercedes Schlapp, has worked in the Trump White House and on the Trump campaign.
By cutting taxes and reducing the regulatory burden on small businesses, Mr. Trump’s policies helped reduce the unemployment rate to a historic low of 3.5% in February, before the pandemic hit. Trump allies are concerned that President-elect Joseph R. Biden, working with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, will move quickly to raise taxes and impose more red tape.
“Unfortunately, some of the greatest changes that President Trump put in place — lowering regulations and tax decreases — I think the Biden administration is going to quickly try to reverse all that,” said Alfredo Ortiz, president of the Job Creators Network. “I think that literally led to some of the greatest economic boom times that we’ve seen, at least in our lifetime. We had a president that really, truly understood what it took to grow an economy.”
Mr. Trump also embraced the pro-life cause completely, in words and actions, by issuing numerous rules and regulations through agencies such as the Health and Human Services Department aimed at protecting life and redirecting funding away from abortion providers.
Tommy Binion, vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Trump’s support for life “is more than symbolic.”
“The life cause is an effort to win hearts and minds and change the attitude about abortion for everybody in this country,” he said. “And things like the president of the United States showing up at the March for Life — those are important inflection points in that journey.”
When it came to working with Democrats in Congress, Mr. Trump mostly failed, with notable exceptions such as the First Step Act on criminal justice reform and the revised U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. He gave in to huge spending increases pushed by Democrats, including trillions of dollars in coronavirus relief in the past year.
“One thing that’s clear to conservatives now is that the process is broken and must be scrapped and rebuilt,” Mr. Binion said. “Even a fiscally conservative president, who starts with the budgets he started with, can’t arrive at a fiscally restrained end product. And that tells me you need to revamp the system.”
The president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, haven’t spoken since a hostile meeting at the White House in October 2019, as the House was preparing to impeach Mr. Trump for the first time.
“I would put President Trump very low in the overview of bipartisanship,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “He did not aspire to represent all Americans, which at a very fundamental level is a discrepancy with other administrations. The kind of directness with which President Trump argued that parts of the country were ‘good’ and parts of the country were ‘bad’ was a kind of the base of the polarization.
Mr. Grumet said Mr. Trump’s party leadership and intellectual styles prevented the parties from working together.
“Secondly, bipartisanship is a fact-based exercise,” he said. “It requires deliberation and negotiation, which has to be based on some shared sense of evidence, and he did not encourage that process. And finally, there’s not one Republican Party. The president has made bipartisanship more difficult because there is … tremendous cleavage between what people think of as ‘Trump Republicans’ and Republicans. Republicans had to work very hard to establish a ‘Republican’ position before they could bring that to a bipartisan conversation.”
The split among Republicans was never more evident than in the Jan. 6 vote in Congress on certifying the Electoral College win for Mr. Biden. More than 100 of the 211 House Republicans sided with Mr. Trump in voting against Mr. Biden’s electors from some swing states, and a total of seven Republican senators did the same.
Mr. Schlapp acknowledged that the Republican Party still faces a reckoning, with most of its base supporting Mr. Trump but Mr. McConnell and many other Republican senators wishing him gone and forgotten.
“I have never, ever gotten so many messages from family, friends, supporters, donors saying they’re leaving the Republican Party as [last] week,” Mr. Schlapp said. “And the Republican Party, while the president’s being [impeached], has been mostly silent. I don’t think this is the time to be silent. I think this is a time to step up, be rational, explain what’s going on and explain what the vision is. And anybody who wants to be a Republican leader needs to do that.”
He said establishment Republicans will be making a mistake if they use Mr. Trump’s election loss, and the party’s perennial problems attracting female and urban voters, as an excuse to separate from Mr. Trump’s loyal base.
“This idea that some Republicans have that now it’s time to excise out the ‘MAGA’ movement is very typical of stupid Republican establishment thinking, which is, ‘They’re not really our kind. We don’t really know them. They make us nervous,’” he said, adding that the party shouldn’t “go back to the Mitt Romney era where we lose, but we lose with some style and grace.”
“The conservative movement actually doesn’t want to lose,” Mr. Schlapp said. “They want to fight, even when it’s a tough fight. And that was the virtue Trump had that they admired the most: He was willing to fight.”
“One of the reasons why Donald Trump was so loved throughout his four years by his own party is that he was willing to talk about the things they wanted to get for a generation,” Mr. Schlapp said. “Then when he had the power, he just started doing them. He’s a man of action. He wants to work and push every day. As an ex-president, that will be really interesting, because we’ve really never had an ex-president in modern times who stayed active and kept communicating.”
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