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The Executive Branch’s Sharp Turn to the Right

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 A new lawsuit captures the trench warfare unfolding as opposition groups protest the administration’s rollback of regulations government-wide.


In the few hours on Monday between the installation of John Kelly as President Trump’s new chief of staff and the dismissal of Anthony Scaramucci as his communications director, the Natural Resources Defense Council and two other environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration.

As my colleague David Graham has noted, these advances have been overshadowed so far by Trump’s legislative failures. As a legislator, Trump has already demonstrated he’s no Lyndon Johnson. In the health-care fight, he lacked the understanding of policy to shape the internal congressional debate. For all his fulminating on Twitter, he showed almost no capacity to move public opinion. And his historically low approval ratings left him unable to effectively pressure Democrats in either chamber to support the GOP repeal effort—even those from constituencies that voted for him in 2016.

Those deficiencies suggest that even with unified Republican control of Congress, Trump will struggle to post many, and perhaps any, landmark legislative victories. But far from the headlines, in decisions usually announced in the small print of the Federal Register, his administration is making a sharp turn to the right in virtually every federal department and agency. Cumulatively, these executive actions amount to an organized assault on Democratic priorities and a hard tilt toward corporate and conservative preferences.

“If there is something [already] on the books, the administration has enormous ability to establish its enforcement priorities,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the president of the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank. “They can switch an awful lot very quickly, and they have.”

The lawsuit filed Monday captures the trench warfare that is now unfolding far from the daily dumpster fire of White House controversies. The suit is rooted in legislation Congress approved in 2012 that, for the first time, required states to establish quantitative benchmarks to measure whether federal transportation dollars were helping them achieve seven specific goals. Those include promoting safety, reducing congestion, and encouraging environmental sustainability. Toward that last objective, the Obama administration issued regulations just before it left office requiring states to track and report greenhouse-gas emissions on their highways, and to set goals for reducing them.

Deron Lovaas, an urban-issue specialist at the NRDC, explained that those regulations were intended to complement rules the Obama administration had issued requiring automakers to improve the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks. “This addresses traffic,” he told me. “Over the long run, no matter how good and clean vehicles become … your gains [in reducing emissions] can be outstripped if traffic continues to increase unchecked.”

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