5 things Trump did this week while you weren't looking
President Donald Trump made some real policy news this week, taking aim at President Barack Obama’s biggest legacies. First, the EPA announced it would repeal the Clean Power Plan; then Trump took two shots at Obamacare, signing an executive order to promote cheaper, less comprehensive insurance plans and scrapping critical Obamacare subsidies to insurers. Then, on Friday, he said he is decertifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal.
With the exception of scrapping the Obamacare subsidies, however, these moves don’t immediately change anything: if he repeals the Clean Power Plan or implements the policies within the executive order, it will only be after a full regulatory process. And the fate of the Iran deal really lies with Congress. But elsewhere in his administration, his political appointees made substantive changes, issuing new rules and continuing to roll back other elements of Obama’s legacy. Here is how he change policy this week:
1. U.S. to withdraw from UNESCO
During his presidential campaign, Trump railed against international institutions, like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, raising fears that, as president, he would attempt to withdraw the U.S. from those organizations, dealing a decisive blow to the post-World War II international order. Despite continued threats and harsh rhetoric, he hasn’t done so—yet.
But this week, the State Department did announce that the U.S. will withdraw from the U.N. agency charged with promoting educational, scientific and cultural collaboration, known as UNESCO, citing what it calls an anti-Israel bias. In 2011, UNESCO admitted Palestine as a member, forcing the Obama administration to cut all money for the agency under a little-known law prohibiting U.S. funding for any U.N. agency that accepts Palestine as a full member. (U.S. funds made up 22 percent of UNESCO’s budget.) The U.S. is now behind on about $550 million in payments, which the State Department said the Trump administration is unwilling to pay. The withdrawal won’t happen until the end of 2018, at which point the U.S. would become a nonmember observer state.
The move isn’t exactly unprecedented—Ronald Reagan pulled the U.S. out of UNESCO in 1984 before the George W. Bush administration rejoined the agency in 2002—but it is still represents a shot across the U.N.’s bow as Trump pressures the organization on other reforms.
2. Education Department issues new priorities for federal grants
Political leaders within federal agencies have a lot of levers to change policy, from issuing new regulations to changing enforcement priorities. But one underappreciated power is federal grant-making, funneling money to organizations that favor a certain policy agenda.
On Thursday, the Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began to use this power when the Department of Education proposed new rules around federal grant programs, including a focus on the expansion of school choice—a top priority of DeVos. Organizations that favor school choice, along with other Trump administration priorities like the promotion of STEM and computer science, would receive extra points in the application process for competitive grants, replacing priorities under DeVos’s predecessor, John King, that focused on socioeconomic diversity in schools.
The new priorities aren’t final; the agency is accepting comments on them for 30 days. But they show how DeVos intends to use all her authority to push forward her policy agenda.
3. Trump withdraws sanctions on Sudan
During the Obama administration, the White House agreed to major foreign policy deals with two of the U.S.’s top adversaries, completing a nuclear deal with Iran and renewing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Trump has adamantly—and vocally—rejected that approach, rolling back pieces of Obama’s Cuba policy and, just today, decertifying the Iran nuclear agreement.
Yet, for all his rhetoric about Obama’s “bad deals” and foolish foreign policy, Trump also made a move this week that looks very Obama-esque: lifting decades-old sanctions on Sudan that were imposed over Khartoum’s support of terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda. The State Department had announced a new strategy towards Sudan in the final days of the Obama administration, concluding that Sudan had made progress on counterterrorism efforts and on human rights issues. In something of a surprise, Trump has not reversed the policy, drawing praise from across the foreign policy establishment.
The deal still drew criticism from some quarters, including from the families of terrorist victims who are owed compensation from attacks that courts have found were enabled by the Sudanese government. But the Trump administration may have had another reason to make the deal: Sudan said it would comply with U.N. sanctions on North Korea and not pursue arms deals with Pyongyang.
4. Energy Department releases rule to promote coal power plants
In Trump’s continued campaign to undo Obama’s environmental legacy and revive the struggling coal industry, the headlines this week focused on the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which imposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Less-noticed but nearly as important was a rule proposed by the Energy Department intended to improve the resiliency of the electricity grid by paying power plants that keep 90 days’ worth of fuel on site—a threshold only met by coal and nuclear plants. The move could significantly reform America’s energy markets but at 19-pages, the rule itself is sparse on details. Nevertheless, environmentalists slammed the move as a backdoor way for the department to subsidize coal and nuclear; even some free-market conservatives have criticized the changes, saying they would distort energy markets.
But Energy Secretary Rick Perry isn’t backing down. The power to issue the rule actually falls to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, an independent agency that regulates America’s electricity markets. But Perry is using a provision in a law that hasn’t been used in 30 years to force FERC to take up the proposal and issue some type of decision on it within 60 days. In other words, big changes could be coming to America’s electricity market in just a few months. Stay tuned.
5. DOJ gives “last chance” to sanctuary cities
In a week dominated by rolling back Obama’s top legacies and fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises, there was little news about the president’s immigration agenda. But at the Department of Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues to implement that agenda, despite continuing to find himself out of favor with Trump.
This week, the DOJ sent notices to five so-called sanctuary jurisdictions—Cook County, Ill., Chicago, New York City, New Orleans and Philadelphia—that it said were required to comply with certain immigration rules as consequence of receiving a “Byrne JAG” grant, a DOJ grant program which provides money for state and local law enforcement. The DOJ didn't say that it would withhold grant money for the five jurisdictions if they don’t comply with the law. But the department has previously threatened to withhold “Byrne JAG” grants to cities that don’t meet certain conditions around immigration enforcement, although that policy is currently tied up in the courts. Given the sanctuary jurisdictions's past refusal to change their policies in response to such DOJ threats, it’s likely that another court battle is coming soon.