Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Donald Trump’s State of the Union: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

, director of strategy & policy | January 31, 2018, 1:10 pm EDT
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In his State of the Union address to Congress, President Trump exaggerated the benefits of the Republican tax cut bill to average Americans, overlooked the harm that will result from his push to weaken public health and worker safety protections, and disregarded the serious concerns expressed about key elements of his forthcoming infrastructure proposal.

Meanwhile, he failed to even mention a host of other issues where actions being taken by his administration are threatening the health and well-being of all Americans, including the assault on science-based policymaking at federal agencies, the dismantling of strategies to limit and respond to the mounting impacts of climate change, and the dangerous changes being considered to US nuclear weapons policy that would make nuclear war more likely.

Of course, President Trump’s words and actions have contributed to a number of other disturbing trends, including increased expressions of bigotry and racism, a lack of kindness and common decency, growing disrespect for facts and expertise, and a focus on short-term gain for the powerful and wealthy at the expense of longer-term investments for the public benefit. UCS president Ken Kimmell has more to say about that.

Trump’s tax cuts: largesse for the most fortunate endangers benefits for the rest of us

President Trump waxed eloquent last night about the tax cuts he signed into law in December, whose benefits go overwhelmingly to corporations and the wealthiest Americans. While the jury is out on how much of this windfall may eventually trickle down to middle- and working-class Americans, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the tax cuts will increase the federal deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next decade. This will increase pressure for cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, food assistance, and other programs that benefit low- and middle-income families, along with reduced investments in scientific and medical research, education and job training, infrastructure, and other public goods.

Federal government investments in science research and innovation have led to discoveries that have produced major benefits for our health, safety, economic competitiveness, and quality of life.  This includes MRI technology, vaccines and new medical treatments, the internet and GPS, earth-monitoring satellites that allow us to predict the path of major hurricanes, clean energy technologies such as LED lighting, advanced wind turbines and photovoltaic cells, and so much more. The work of numerous federal agencies to develop/implement public health and safety protections against exposure to toxic chemicals, air and water pollution, and workplace injuries has also produced real benefits to the American people.

The threats to these federal programs aren’t hypothetical; they were spelled out clearly in President Trump’s FY18 budget proposals last spring, which UCS president Ken Kimmell aptly called “a wrecking ball to science.” Other UCS colleagues detailed the devastating impacts of these proposed budget cuts on the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrationworker health and safety, the Forest Service, and early career scientists.

While these cuts have yet to come to fruition (in large part because Congress has been unable to agree on anything other than very short-term spending bills), indications are that President Trump intends to put many of them forward again when he unveils his FY19 budget as early as February 12. The higher deficits resulting from the tax bill will almost certainly be cited by some in Congress as a reason to make these cuts.

“Regulatory rollbacks” = less protection for all Americans

Last night, President Trump touted his success in rolling back a number of science-based safeguards, claiming that “we have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in history.”  While there’s no doubt his administration has been hyperactive on this front, there’s also no doubt who benefits from slashing protections for workers and average Americans: the banks, chemical companies, coal and oil producers, and other corporations whose harmful behaviors led to the regulations in the first place.

At a White House photo op event last month heralding his push for deregulation, President Trump announced that he has canceled or delayed more than 1,500 planned regulatory actions, “more than any previous president, by far,” and said “we’re going to cut a ribbon because we’re getting back below the 1960 level and we’ll be there fairly quickly.”  Of course, not everything was hunky-dory back then, as UCS senior writer Elliott Negin reminds us: “smog in major US cities was so thick it blocked the sun. Rivers ran brown with raw sewage and toxic chemicals. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River and at least two other urban waterways were so polluted they caught on fire. Lead-laced paint and gasoline poisoned children, damaging their brains and nervous systems. Cars without seatbelts, air bags, or safety glass were unsafe at any speed. And hazardous working conditions killed an average of 14,000 workers annually, nearly three times the number today.”

At the White House event last month, President Trump assured us that “We want to protect our workers, our safety, our health, and we want to protect our water, we want to protect our air, and our country’s natural beauty.” But as my colleague Yogin Kothari points out, it is the very regulations that President Trump and his appointees are assailing “that keep our air and water clean, our food safer to eat, our household products and our kids’ toys safer to play with, and our workers safer at work. And it is these regulations that can and should have the greatest positive impact on low-income communities and communities of color, who are often disadvantaged and facing some of the worst public health and environmental threats.”

Infrastructure: the devil is in the details

Last night, President Trump said “I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need,” and White House officials have signaled that he will be putting forward a detailed infrastructure proposal to Congress within the next few weeks. The need for a robust and equitable infrastructure package has never been greater; in its latest comprehensive assessment of the nation’s infrastructure conditions and needs, the American Society of Civil Engineers says that to bring our infrastructure up to a B grade from its current D grade, we need to invest $4.6 trillion by 2025 – some $2 trillion more than the estimated funding now in place.

At first blush, President Trump’s promised infrastructure plan may sound like it’s responsive to that need; but a closer look reveals serious concerns. A White House memo leaked last week indicates that only about 20 percent of these funds would be direct federal investment, with the rest needing to come from state and local governments and private sector investment. Even worse, a White House adviser told the US Conference of Mayors last week that the federal share of the funds would be offset by cuts to existing programs such as Amtrak and mass transit (talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul!).

Another leaked memo indicates the Trump administration will seek radical changes in environmental and other permitting procedures for new infrastructure projects, falsely claiming that these procedures—rather than the investment shortfalls noted above—are the source of the woeful state of our nation’s infrastructure. Scott Slesinger of NRDC charges that “the leaked provision would repeal critical clean air, clean water and endangered species protections and undermine basic environmental statutes. It would also set up a process guaranteed to neuter public input into federal actions and give agency heads free reign to virtually exempt any project from the National Environmental Policy Act, free from court challenge.”

While the leaked White House memos raise serious concerns, it is Congress that will determine the final shape and scale of any infrastructure bill. As my colleague Rob Cowin notes, any infrastructure bill must go beyond traditional investments in highways, bridges, and water projects, by seeking to ensure that our nation’s infrastructure is made increasingly resilient to the worsening impacts of climate change, as well as accelerating deployment of renewable energy, energy storage, and smart grid technologies that can enhance electricity system resiliency, while creating jobs and reducing environmental impacts. An infrastructure package that neglects these vital priorities, cuts other worthy programs to fund new investments, or attempts to gut important environmental review safeguards is not worth supporting.

President Trump’s assault on science and federal agency scientists

The importance of science to American prosperity, well-being, and international leadership went unmentioned in Trump State of the Union address. This is unsurprising, as President Trump’s administration and the 115th Congress have been actively dismantling science-based health and safety protections, sidelining scientific evidence, and undoing recent progress on scientific integrity. More than a year after taking office, President Trump has failed to appoint a presidential science advisor, and three-quarters of the key science and technology positions across the government also remain unfilled.

As my colleague Genna Reed put it recently in an article in Scientific American: “In its first year, the Trump administration has amassed a dismal record on science and science advice. Throughout the federal government, political appointees have misrepresented scientific information, overruled the recommendations of scientific experts, scrubbed scientific content from websites, and even reportedly forbidden some staff from describing their work as “science-based” in budget documents.”

UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy maintains a running list of Trump administration attacks on science—disappearing data, silenced scientists, and other assaults on scientific integrity and science-based policy. Among them:

  • A ban on employees at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using the words “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based” in documents being prepared for next year’s budget.
  • Attacks by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt on the independence of EPA’s scientific advisory committees, by ordering that no scientists receiving EPA grant funding could serve on EPA’s Science Advisory Board, Board of Scientific Counselors, or Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. (UCS and Protect Democracy have teamed up to challenge this directive in court).

Unfortunately, these are but a few examples of the administration’s abuses of science—and federal agency scientists—since President Trump took office, and new ones seem to come to light each month. These actions are doing long-term damage to the capability of these agencies to fulfill their mission, and causing real harm to public health and safety; it’s no wonder the president doesn’t want to talk about them.

Ignoring the climate crisis

Despite his brief shout-out to “everyone still recovering in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, California, and everywhere else” from the damages caused by last year’s extreme weather events, President Trump continued to ignore the role of human-induced climate change in worsening those impacts. A federal government report outlines how the costs of these and other natural disasters exceeded $300 billion last year, setting a new US record that blew past previous totals. President Trump’s omission of these facts is not surprising, as he and his administration have been working overtime to dismantle federal government strategies to limit and respond to the mounting impacts of climate change.

Ignoring the advice of other world leaders, the CEOs of hundreds of major corporations, Pope Francis, and many other important voices, President Trump last June announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, jeopardizing the health and prosperity of every American as well as people all over the world.  Fortunately, not one country has indicated that they will follow President Trump out the door; in fact, during last November’s climate summit in Germany, Syria announced that it intended to join all the other countries of the world in the agreement, rather than be lumped in with the United States as a climate scofflaw. And the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition of US states, cities, businesses, and other sub-national actors was at the climate summit in full force, unveiling America’s Pledge, committing to meet the US Paris Agreement emissions reduction goals despite the irresponsible and short-sighted actions of President Trump and his administration.

On the domestic front, the Trump administration has systematically moved to roll back President Obama’s climate action plan, including by repealing the Clean Power Plan, announcing a review of the highly successful clean car standards, and undercutting the agreement reached in 2016 with Canada and Mexico to sharply cut oil and gas sector methane emissions. What do these actions have in common?  They all put the short-term economic interests of favored corporate interests ahead of the health, security, and prosperity of the American people. While these and other harmful actions are being challenged in court and are being partially offset by the leadership of US states, cities, and businesses, they will make it more difficult to meet the ambitious temperature limitation goals in the Paris Agreement, and are harming America’s reputation across the world.

Increasing the threat of nuclear war

Finally, while President Trump made extensive remarks last night about the security risks posed by North Korea and Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, he failed to mention that his administration is poised to revise America’s nuclear weapons policy in ways that would intentionally lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. As my colleague Lisbeth Gronlund notes, “Every US president since the end of the Cold War has explicitly reduced the role, the types and the number of US nuclear weapons. This leaked draft lays out a policy that does exactly the opposite. It would increase the risk of nuclear use and reduce national security.”

The yawning gap between rhetoric and reality

So there you have it. While President Trump called for American pride and unity in his State of the Union address, and claimed his actions are bolstering our nation’s security and prosperity, there is a yawning gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

One year in to his administration, the damage being done is clear. But like my colleague Rachel Cleetus, I see grounds for hope as well – not only on the issues discussed above, but in the growing resistance to the threats this administration poses to our democracy, our values, and our basic human rights.

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