Reflections of an Early Trump Fan
Edwin J. Feulner
Edwin John Feulner Jr. founded the conservative powerhouse think tank, The Heritage Foundation, and served as its president from 1977 to 2013, and again from 2017 to 2018. This is a speech he delivered to thought leaders in New York City, on September 10, 2019.
Introduction: Americans accept the fact that complex issues, which no other person in the world can resolve, are routine fare for our President. After more than fifty years of observing this phenomenon, I believe that our current President’s plate has been filled with more such challenges than most of his 44 predecessors as President of the United States. And this phenomenon has grown steadily in complexity, magnitude, and urgency. Last month I was privileged to speak to a group of New York leaders about my own perception of the challenges we currently face as a Nation. The text of that lecture follows. —Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
. . . Yes, I was an early supporter of Donald Trump.
Candidate Trump called me in July 2016 and asked me to head up his domestic policy transition team. I accepted his invitation and assembled a team to outline a positive policy agenda on subjects ranging from rolling back the Obama-era regulations on the economy, designing a tax cut program, developing new welfare reform policies, answering immigration questions, changing Obama’s energy policy, dealing with agriculture issues, and a host of other policy challenges. Our policy team of several hundred volunteers worked side-by-side with our colleagues dealing with foreign policy issues. Even today, some of our proposals are just seeing the light of day, two and a half years after we closed up the transition shop.
Some of my friends asked why I volunteered — did I really think Trump was a true conservative? “No! I’ve been around Washington long enough to know a politician who has really internalized our conservative, limited government principles.” But candidate Trump was saying good things about policy questions.
A second reason I could relate to Trump was a personal one: my father had been a real estate developer/entrepreneur in Chicago. I had grown up hearing about how properties were bought and sold, and how the process worked. I could relate to an outsider who came from that real estate background and who wanted to come into Washington and make a real difference for our Nation.
Thirdly, Trump and I were both Whartonians, and proud of it.
And, finally: November 2016 would be a binary choice. Would I support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? I made the obvious decision, and have not regretted it.
What’s it like to work from the outside with him?
Let me share a couple anecdotes:
Early 2016, my successor as President at Heritage, former Senator Jim DeMint, was invited to a small meeting with eight others and candidate Trump to discuss policy issues. Jim suggested that candidate Trump should make an announcement about whom he would propose for the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Scalia’s death. Trump asked how would he know whom to choose, and Jim volunteered to produce a list of names.
Consequently, Heritage staffers, working with our good friends at the Federalist Society, did produce such a list for the Supreme Court and for all of the federal court vacancies. One of the most lasting legacies of the Trump administration will be his reshaping of the federal judiciary. And yes, both Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh were on that early list.
Here’s another example:
September 27, 2017, 12 conservative leaders were invited to a private dinner with the President in the Blue Room of the White House. I was among them, because I was back as President at Heritage. And since I had more gray hair than anyone else, I was seated next to the President at a long table, with Kelly Ann Conway on my immediate left.
The President began his remarks by asking all of us to energize our grassroots members to support his pending tax cut bill, as it was only Mike Pence and he who were advocating for it.
After a couple minutes the dialogue went like this:
Ed Feulner: “Excuse me Mr. President . . .”
Donald Trump: (annoyed tone) “Yes Ed?”
E. F.: “Mr. President, several months ago you said something I strongly disagreed with.”
D. T.: “Oh? What’s that?”
E. F.: “You said you didn’t want to waste your time with cabinet meetings. Mr. President, that’s not good. When Reagan was President, He had monthly cabinet meetings and at the start of every meeting he gave every member a one-pager on the strategic issue of the month so that if Betsy DeVos were going to Harvard to talk about education reform, she’d spend the first five minutes talking about the pending tax reform bill and why it would be great for the economy. Etc.”
D. T.: “Did Reagan really do that?”
E. F.: “Yes Sir. The biographies all mention it . . . PAUSE”
D. T.: “Kelly Ann: Call a Cabinet meeting!”
I recount this incident, because Donald Trump, the “swamp drainer,” came to Washington with a non-political background, and with an unrealistic viewpoint about how the government works and how public policy is actually made.
He had to learn how to make the system work for him and for his policy objectives.
As a consequence of his being the first person elected President who had neither a governmental nor a military background, he has had to learn a lot of practical lessons and he is doing so on a day-to-day basis.
Note that the stock market (notwithstanding its recent volatility) is at historic highs (with the Dow hovering around 27,000), even though Paul Krugman of The New York Times forecast on November 9, 2016, the day after election day, that Trump’s election would cause a depression from which the United States possibly would never recover, and that the stock market would fall dramatically from its then level of 18,000.
And, today, our economy has created more than six million net new jobs; unemployment is at historic lows for women, for African Americans, and for Asians; America is the largest energy producer in the world, it is energy self-sufficient, and it is a net energy exporter for the first time in 50 years; inflation is low and stable; and the economy continues to grow at a rate twice that of our G7 colleagues.
In my opinion, none of this happened by accident.
A President can’t do everything, but, as we’ve seen, he can do a lot particularly by tax policy, by deregulation, and by enabling people to be “free to choose” as Milton Friedman so wisely stated it.
No, Donald Trump is not like other politicians. He goes around the established media. He tweets and, yes, sometimes those tweets bother me. But that’s who he is.
Let me discuss a couple of issues that are of particular concern to me, as a traditional conservative.
International trade is in the interests of individual consumers, and citizens generally. It leads to better allocation of resources, and most importantly, to more choices for the individual.
I am a free trader. I do not like tariffs. Tariffs are taxes, and taxes distort markets, add to costs of production, and bend economic rationality.
Yet the President is using tariffs as a tool with the Chinese.
This President is correcting mistakes from the OBushInton (Obama, Bush, Clinton) administrations, in both political parties, and from policy wonks of all persuasions, including me.
China has not abided by World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations; and, in my view, and in the view of our President, China has gamed the system to its own advantage and to the disadvantage of its global trading partners.
Tariffs are up again, and the bilateral U.S.-China talks are at a standstill at the moment, and when they resume, it is my belief that there will have to be changes by China in three specific areas in our bilateral trade relationship.
The first one concerns the fundamentally different, independently shaped, opposing views, on intellectual property. In the United States the right to intellectual property — patents — is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution (Art I Section 8, Clause 8), as adopted in 1787. Obviously, this American perspective predates even those of us who have been around for a long time, as it has been our “law of the land” for 232 years.
Therefore, whatever the specific details of a case in the form of the theft of intellectual property, or forced technology transfers, or disrupted cyber security, the whole question of respect for patents and intellectual property must be resolved with more than smiles, sound-good statements, and promises for reform “soon.”
The second challenge is the opposing views on the “developing country” status of China at the WTO, and the related receipt of massive World Bank loans by China as a developing third world country. “Developing” status gives China “special and differential treatment” including subsidies, higher barriers to market entry, institutional cover for forced technology transfers, and validation for some of the theft of intellectual property.
If China is the number two economy in the world, it is not unreasonable for America to demand that it will act like it and not try to game the world’s systems. There is a real issue here.
My third major challenge is the Chinese habit of changing the ground rules of the negotiations.
Let me recount a personal conversation I had with a senior American participant in the bilateral negotiations: at first, he said, there was confusion and then frustration when the Chinese side decided to go back to square one and start the discussions all over. This person asked: why did we spend all this time and effort negotiating and making what we thought was real progress just to have it all thrown out?
So, we have a long way to go in resetting the U.S.-China relationship.
On other trade matters this administration has done a lot: the new USMCA (United States Mexico Canada Agreement), succeeding NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is a much better, and a more up-to-date agreement than its predecessor. Hopefully, the Congress will approve it soon.
The new U.S. Korea Trade Agreement has been signed and approved, and is in place, greatly improving the Bush/Obama period agreement.
Negotiations with Japan and with the European Union are progressing on a myriad of issues.
And my colleagues at Heritage and I have been actively advocating for movement on three additional international agreements:
* A U.S.-Swiss bilateral trade agreement.
* A U.S.-Taiwan bilateral trade agreement.
* A U.S.-UK post-Brexit bilateral trade agreement.
All three of these have obvious advantages to the immediate signatories. And all three have ancillary benefits for the world system: A Swiss and a UK agreement would help convince Brussels that free trade is the way forward internationally. And a U.S.-Taiwan agreement would be a signal to China that the U.S. government can make real progress, even when there are still stumbling blocks to negotiations between Washington and Beijing.
I gave the opening address to a bilateral U.S.-China conference a few weeks ago in Hong Kong. I made the point that even after the 2020 Presidential election, our Chinese friends should not assume that the Washington-Beijing relationship will return “to the good old pre-Trump normal days of Obama or Bush.” Washington’s concern with the Chinese position on trade is a bipartisan concern — Senator Schumer has indicated very clearly that his own position is even tougher than President Trump’s, and I cannot imagine any of the Democratic candidates taking a “softer” line than President Trump’s team does.
So, as I continue to caution my Chinese friends, there is no hope for them in “waiting out” the remainder of the Trump term to go back to OBushInton.
Meanwhile, China’s economy is basically in free fall. It has recorded its worst industrial growth in 17 years. It is suffering mass unrest in various parts of the mainland where unemployment is rising at record rates, and the people of Hong Kong are marching for real democracy.
Will his strategy work with President Xi of China or with North Korea? I don’t know. These developing relationships are long-time ongoing processes that are seldom solved all at once. And even then any international situation does not stay “solved” for long. They require constant attention and flexibility, what Trump himself called “principled realism.” But I do know that Trump, whatever he has said, has acted with much greater forcefulness and clarity of purpose than his predecessors in either party.
We could discuss a myriad of other foreign policy issues: NATO, the primary American alliance, other trade agreements, sanctions, or a host of domestic policy issues.
Let me leave you with my concluding “take-away”:
No matter if Donald Trump is reelected, or if someone else wins the 2020 election, U.S. politics will not go back to the status quo of the “good old days before Trump.” He and his ever-changing team of senior advisors have changed the rules and have changed America’s expectations from its elected politicians.
And to both us and to America’s friends and potential adversaries around the world, the United States is no longer going to be either the world’s policeman, or Mr. Nice Guy on the international scene.
So, my friends, as a Washington insider, I believe we must all deal with this administration, and we must learn that it will not get better after January 20, 2021.
Thank you for your kind attention today. *