Episode 735: President Trump : Planet Money Candidates promise all kinds of things. But once they get into office, it's not always possible to carry through on them. We ask, can Trump do the things he's pledged to do?

Episode 735: President Trump

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Scott Horsley, you are NPR's Senior White House correspondent.


(Laughter) Not that senior, but yes, I've spent the last eight years covering the Obama administration, and I've also been following the campaign in which Donald Trump promised to undo a great deal of what Barack Obama did over the last eight years. He wants to roll back Obamacare. He wants to build a new wall along the U.S. southern border with Mexico. He wants to deport criminal immigrants, drain the swamp of corruption in Washington and undo what Trump calls stupid trade deals.

KING: And that's just the first 100 days.


HORSLEY: You know, I've covered a lot of campaigns. Candidates say a lot of stuff on the campaign trail. A lot of it does get done, some of it doesn't, but certainly Trump has spelled out a bold agenda.

KING: He spelled it out in an address in Gettysburg, right? He sort of set forth a plan for his first three or so months in office, and as far as we know, he's sticking to that plan.

HORSLEY: That's right. There's some stuff he can do in just the very first few days in office with the stroke of a presidential pen. Other things he's going to need help from Congress, and that could take a little bit longer.


KING: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Noel King.

HORSLEY: I'm Scott Horsley.

KING: Today on the show - President Trump. We take a look at some of the things Donald Trump has said he wants to do in his first 100 days in office. And we ask can he and will he really do them?


KING: One of the biggest questions people have been asking about Trump's first 100 days in office has to do with the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

HORSLEY: Donald Trump talked a lot about wanting to repeal Obamacare on the campaign trail. It was one of his biggest campaign issues.


DONALD TRUMP: We have a disaster called the big lie - Obamacare.

HORSLEY: We asked Stacey Vanek Smith to look into this to see if Trump actually can dismantle Obamacare within his first hundred days, and if so, how he'd go about it. Hey, Stacey.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Hi, Scott. So for this question, I called up Len Nichols. He's a health economist at George Mason University. And he's spent most of his career researching health care reform and advocating for universal coverage. So he was a big supporter of the Affordable Care Act. In fact, when he was watching the election results come in at home with his wife and daughter - they were sitting around eating pizza - he said this one thought kept going through his head over and over.

LEN NICHOLS: As the night wore on, what I saw, Stacey, was basically roughly 25 years of my life being repudiated by half our nation. They seem to want to repeal it.

VANEK SMITH: So I asked Len if Trump could undo Obamacare in his first 100 days, and he told me it wouldn't take anything near that long. In fact, all Trump would really have to do would be to drop the White House's appeal of a lawsuit filed by House Republicans a couple of years ago.

HORSLEY: In that lawsuit, the House Republicans were saying the Obama administration was spending tens of billions of dollars unconstitutionally because Congress had not appropriated the money. That money is going to insurance companies. And if you took it away, those insurance companies, some of whom are already wary of the Obamacare program, might bolt for good.

VANEK SMITH: Right. And this year, a federal district court ruled in favor of the House, and the Obama administration appealed and that appeal is still in process.

HORSLEY: I mean, Obamacare has been subject to multiple legal challenges over the last six years. And for the most part, once they've reached the higher courts, it has survived, but that's because it's had an aggressive champion defending the program. Take away that aggressive champion and replace it with Donald Trump, who is eager to see the law unraveled, it'd be a very different story.

VANEK SMITH: And Len said if Trump wanted to, he could simply drop the White House's appeal of that case, the case the House won in federal district court. And then federal money would stop going to insurance companies.

So that means, like, he could basically shut off federal payments to insurance companies.

NICHOLS: Yes, he could. And...

VANEK SMITH: How soon - like, how soon could he do that?

NICHOLS: As long as it would take to file a brief in court saying they were ending the appeal.

VANEK SMITH: Like a week, a month?

NICHOLS: Certainly within - it certainly could be done within a week, yes.

VANEK SMITH: So to be clear, Len does not think that will happen. In fact, Trump himself has said several times on the campaign trail that he is not just going to leave millions of Americans suddenly without health care coverage. What he does think will happen is that the Affordable Care Act will be kind of slowly dismantled and replaced with some of the plans Republicans have supported, things like relaxing insurance company regulations when they're dealing across state lines and also offering tax credits for people for their health care plans.

HORSLEY: But let's be clear. The Republicans have always been a lot more specific in talking about their plans to repeal Obamacare than about their plans to replace it with a plan of their own. If you take away Obamacare, which has provided insurance coverage to something like 20 million Americans, and replace it with something that offers coverage to a much smaller fraction, you're talking about still leaving millions of people who have coverage now without it.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, exactly. And in fact, to cover all the people who would lose insurance under the Affordable Care Act would cost a lot of money. And Len did not think Republicans would want to spend that kind of money after all. Expense was one of the main problems that Republican lawmakers have had with Obamacare.

KING: Stacey Vanek Smith, thank you so much.

VANEK SMITH: Thanks guys.


KING: OK, Scott. Another big part of President Trump's plans for his first 100 days includes something that he's calling the end illegal immigration act.


TRUMP: End illegal immigration act.


HORSLEY: Yeah, this was sort of one of the greatest hits at Donald Trump rallies around the country where he'd talk about building that great big beautiful wall along the U.S. southern border with Mexico. And who's going to pay for it?


TRUMP: Don't worry about it. Remember, I said Mexico's paying for the wall.


KING: Mexico, of course, has said it is not paying for the wall, but, you know, what I thought, Scott?

HORSLEY: What's that?

KING: I thought let's stop arguing. Let's come together and just imagine that the money is there because this would be a massive logistical undertaking. And I really wanted to know if that was actually possible. So I met this guy Todd Sternfeld who thinks this is possible.

TODD STERNFELD: I am the owner and CEO of Superior Concrete Products.

KING: Todd makes concrete and Todd builds walls, and Todd has built walls all over the country, but he's in Texas. So when candidate Trump first said he wanted to build a wall, Todd sat down and he wrote Trump a letter.

STERNFELD: And I sent it to Eric, Don and Ivanka, all three of them. Dear Mr. Trump, I have stayed at the Trump Hotel for the last several years while exhibiting my products and services at the World of Concrete Show in Las Vegas. Your staff and the accommodation have always been superb.

KING: He told Trump what he could do wall-wise. Trump didn't write back. Todd sent a second letter. He hasn't gotten a response yet.

HORSLEY: But here's the thing. Todd, who knows a thing or two about concrete and walls, has actually done some arithmetic about what it would take to wall off the U.S. southern border.

KING: OK, now, the first big hurdle would be there are people along the border who own some of this land who might not want a big wall going up on their property. For that, Todd has a solution.

STERNFELD: That's an eminent domain situation. The federal government or the state government has eminent domain over properties.

KING: Eminent domain, of course, means seizing people's land. And this is not a popular option.

HORSLEY: Republicans in particular are usually opposed to the idea of the government taking over private property for some ostensible public purpose.

KING: There you go.

HORSLEY: But let's say you could get around that. The next challenge - a massive surveying operation. You got to know what you're building on. Todd says that would take a few months, but he thinks it's doable.

KING: A few months, a lot of people. Once this surveying is all set, now comes the building, the concrete, and this is the part that Todd loves and the part that Todd does best.

A thousand-mile long 40 to 50-foot high wall - how much concrete are we talking about?

STERNFELD: OK - times a thousand...

KING: Todd got out a calculator.

STERNFELD: About five million lineal feet.

KING: This part took him a couple of minutes. There was lots of typing. He was muttering numbers.

STERNFELD: It would be about 250,000 truckloads of - you know, the concrete trucks. It would be about 250,000 of those trucks just to make the product.

KING: Just to make the wall.


HORSLEY: And if you're going to build a wall out of concrete, you need to reinforce it, so there's some steel rebar you'd need as well.

KING: Yeah, there's a lot of materials, and the challenge here obviously is the scale of this thing - 1,000 miles. When we first started talking, Todd sounded like he had it entirely under control. But the longer we kept talking...

What's the longest wall you've ever built?

STERNFELD: The longest wall that I've ever built was about four miles.

KING: Four miles - but the border wall is a thousand miles.

STERNFELD: That's - I understand.

KING: But you think you could do it.

STERNFELD: Yeah, I think I can do it.

KING: How much would it cost?

STERNFELD: I mean, I - you know, if it - put it this way - if it's done, the amount of money that it would cost would just be astronomical.

KING: How much is astronomical?

STERNFELD: Now, he's talking about having Mexico pay for it. So if he's having Mexico pay for it, he might have Mexico build it.

KING: But that wouldn't help you, would it?

STERNFELD: No. Look, I have my business. I mean, I'm not going to - you know, I have a business I'm very successful at, so...

KING: You have other walls to build.

STERNFELD: You bet (laughter).

KING: Scott, he has other walls to build.

HORSLEY: Noel, one thing we might point out is that there is already fencing or walls along more populated sections of the U.S.-Mexico border. I used to live in San Diego where we had a pretty impressive triple fence between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. In fact, I remember covering a legal case of one of the companies that helped build that fence. They were being prosecuted for using illegal immigrant labor to do some of the construction.

KING: And, Scott, would Donald Trump be OK with just a fence or does he want a wall?

HORSLEY: He talks about it as being a wall, although one of his advisers, Newt Gingrich, said this week that he's going to focus a lot of time on securing the border. Just what shape that takes is like everything - subject to negotiation.


KING: Another thing that is still to be determined and is probably going to be the biggest negotiation is Donald Trump's threat to pull out of NAFTA.

HORSLEY: NAFTA, of course, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is a 20-plus-year-old trade deal between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Trump says it's a terrible deal, and he wants to renegotiate with Mexico and Canada to get a better one or else he says he's going to pull out. So we asked Jess Jiang to go on a quest this week to figure out, can Donald Trump do that?

JESS JIANG, BYLINE: OK. So I started with Chris Wilson. He's from the Wilson Center. And he's devoted his career to studying the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

CHRIS WILSON: On the surface, it's not very complicated. The NAFTA agreement - and I actually have it right here in front of me - is about 1,000 pages long. Article 2205 is the section on withdrawal, and it's only three lines long. So I can just read it for you.

JIANG: Yeah, yeah.

WILSON: (Reading) A party may withdraw from this agreement six months after it provides written notice of withdrawal to the other parties. If a party withdraws, the agreement shall remain in force for the remaining parties.

That's all that NAFTA itself says.

KING: A thousand pages and that's it. Send us a note and you're out.

JIANG: Yeah. Peace out. We're gone.

KING: It seems easy. Does this happen all the time?

JIANG: When's the last time the U.S. has done something like this, has left a free trade agreement?

WILSON: The last time is never (laughter). The United States has never done anything like this.

HORSLEY: OK. So maybe we've never left a free trade agreement before, but what about other kinds of agreements?

JIANG: For that question, I went to Curtis Bradley. He's a professor of international law at Duke. He says the U.S. has left treaties before, like defense treaties. But this was not without controversy. And for the president, it got kind of personal.

CURTIS BRADLEY: The most famous one is when President Jimmy Carter withdrew the United States from a defense treaty with Taiwan. And it was highly controversial in Congress, and there was a challenge to Carter's actions brought by members of Congress.

JIANG: So members of Congress sued. They sued the president.

BRADLEY: They did. Members of Congress, I think both in the House and the Senate, sued Carter, and that case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

JIANG: Politicians were suing each other over who has the power to cancel a treaty, if it's constitutional for the president to just do this alone without Congress. And the question went to the Supreme Court. They basically said, this is too political. No one was harmed. We won't answer this question.

KING: I didn't even know the Supreme Court could do that, just take a pass.

JIANG: Yeah. They were like, we don't want to get in the middle of this. So the Supreme Court has never decided whether it's constitutional for the president to leave a treaty without Congress. And if Trump leaves NAFTA, there could easily be another lawsuit.

BRADLEY: What's interesting about NAFTA is it's pretty easy to imagine private parties, importers for example, companies, bringing a lawsuit against Trump.

JIANG: So I'm imagining, like, a car factory in the U.S. that buys parts from Mexico.

BRADLEY: Exactly, and now they will have to pay more or their business will suffer in some other way.

JIANG: There could be lawsuits galore. Every manufacturer in the U.S. that might have to pay a little bit more because they can no longer get cheap parts from Mexico, they could sue, or even a person could sue, like me or you, Scott.

HORSLEY: So even if I'm a consumer and my - I don't know - imported tequila costs more because it's no longer coming in free of tariffs, I could bring a complaint.

JIANG: You could. I would want to ask you how much tequila are you drinking...


JIANG: ...That you would actually want to sue the president. But yes, if you can prove you've been legitimately harmed, then yes, yes, you could. And so we might finally get a definitive answer to the question of whether the president has the power to cancel NAFTA all on his own.

HORSLEY: Wouldn't there be a chance, though, that the Supreme Court would just again steer clear of this and say, it's not up to us whether the president or Congress unravels a treaty?

JIANG: Yes, they could always punt it back to Congress and the president to work out themselves.

HORSLEY: And that could be interesting because there are a lot of Republican leaders in Congress who are much more supportive of free trade agreements than Donald Trump and his populous supporters.

JIANG: Yes, but also with this new wave of populism, Congress could decide we want to be against free trade. And if Congress and the president agree, NAFTA will be history.

KING: Wow.

HORSLEY: Thanks, Jess.

JIANG: You're welcome.


KING: Trump has also talked about what he calls draining the swamp.


TRUMP: We will drain the swamp in Washington, D.C....


TRUMP: ...And replace it with a new government of, by and for the people, believe me.


KING: And, Scott, the swamp is shorthand for this idea that there is a corrupt group that's doing favors for each other in Washington. The swamp monsters, in this case, they are lobbyists. On the topic of lobbyists, Trump has also said he supports this.


TRUMP: A five-year ban on White House and congressional officials becoming lobbyists after they leave government service.


TRUMP: Making a fortune.

KING: Alex Goldmark has been looking into this. Hey, Alex.

ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: Hi. Yes, so this all seems logical enough, right? Like, who wants big money to hire their friends to whisper into the ears of powerful people?

KING: Yeah, it make sense.

GOLDMARK: And it's so much sense that it's one of those things that the good government reform types in Washington are always asking for and they just never seem to get. So I called one of them up.

LARRY NOBLE: Yeah, I would - yes. I would say we - we run in good government circles or reform circles, yes.

GOLDMARK: That's who you hang out with in Washington.

NOBLE: Professionally (laughter). Now, my - I - you know, I have a lot of different friends from different areas, but yes.

GOLDMARK: Larry Noble is general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, and before that, the Federal Election Committee. And for a short little bit he was a lobbyist.

KING: So he knows this stuff. What does he say?

GOLDMARK: He says Trump can put some restrictions on lobbying pretty easily. All he has to do is make his staff sign a pledge not to lobby for five years after they leave government. And he can make it legally binding. He can just back it up with an executive order.

KING: Which, if you're the president, it's pretty easy to do.

GOLDMARK: Just write it up and sign it. But, of course, there is a catch. Trump is not the first person to try this. President Obama also signed an executive order that was limiting lobbyists in his administration. And he put restrictions on hiring lobbyists into his administration and on who could lobby after they left.

NOBLE: Yeah. I mean, Obama tried to do something like this. He came into office - we're talking about broad bans and keeping lobbyists out. And they started immediately giving out exemptions, or pretty quickly giving out exemptions, to be able to get people to work for the government.

GOLDMARK: The best people Obama wanted were lobbyists. There weren't enough people willing to take the jobs once he ruled out lobbyists.

KING: OK, so this is the swamp that Trump is talking about.

GOLDMARK: Government jobs - they don't pay all that much. Lobbying - it pays a lot. The best people, they tend to like getting paid a lot.

KING: Meanwhile, the White House has - what? - hundreds of jobs to fill.

GOLDMARK: And thousands in the wider government. So you kind of limit the candidate pool when you say you can't cash in after you leave.

KING: OK. But what about the second part? Could Trump really stop a Congress person from leaving government and then just becoming a lobbyist a year later?

GOLDMARK: Another one of those sensible-sounding ideas, but it is even harder to pull off, Larry Noble says, because he can't use the pledge solution in this one. He doesn't control Congress. He'd have to have a law, which Larry Noble says is not likely to happen.

NOBLE: And, you know, Congress has been historically reluctant to limit what its members can do once they leave office.

GOLDMARK: In short, Trump is going to have a hard time stopping people from getting rich on their connections to the White House and Congress.

KING: As a matter of fact, yesterday a document started circulating around Washington, D.C. It had the names of people who are going to be on Donald Trump's transition team. And it was filled with lobbyists. Alex Goldmark, thank you so much.

GOLDMARK: You got it. Thanks, Noel. Thanks, Scott.


HORSLEY: I do have to say, draining the swamp, reining in lobbyists, that was kind of a late addition to the Donald Trump repertoire of promises, not necessarily as high a priority as the things he was talking about throughout the campaign. And one thing he talked about from the very first day when he glided down the escalator at Trump Tower in New York City was to take a hard line against people living in this country illegally. He singled out those who'd come from Mexico. He said they were rapists and drug dealers. He refined his plan for deporting undocumented immigrants in October.


TRUMP: We will begin removing the more than 2 million criminal, illegal immigrants from the country. These are our drug dealers, gang heads, gang members, killers.

KING: All right, Scott, the first thing is that number - 2 million. Immigration experts don't actually know where Donald Trump got that number from. I talked to a handful of people. They said there is an agreed upon number. It's about 820,000 undocumented immigrants with criminal records. But in this case, let's give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

HORSLEY: If you wanted to deport 2 million people, what would you do on day one?

KING: To answer this, I spoke to Ben Gitis. He's with the American Action Forum, which is a center-right policy group. And I called them because they've done a bunch of reports looking into exactly - step one, step two, step three - what would need to happen and then how much it would cost. And Ben says the first big challenge is actually finding people. This is not as easy as it may sound. If you want a good illustration of that, listen to the way we are often currently finding undocumented immigrants.

BEN GITIS: The vast majority of apprehensions happen by a local law enforcement officer.

KING: Meaning somebody gets picked up in a traffic stop.

GITIS: Yeah, that's my understanding.

KING: To find people more easily, one option is to set up checkpoints, and a bunch of people brought this up. These would be checkpoints where any one of us could be questioned and asked to show identification.

HORSLEY: Trump has said he'd like to increase the number of Immigration Customs Enforcement officials from 5,000 to 15,000. You'd need to hire and train those people. Ben says it could cost anywhere from $8 billion to $43 billion.

KING: Which is a massive spread. I mean, there's a big difference between eight and 43 billion. You know, Scott, I learned that the hard part here when we ask how much this is going to cost, we can only base our numbers on the numbers we have now. So, you know, that at the height of deportations, we sent around 400,000 people out of the country. Ben is doing his math based on that number. If you have 400,000 one year, well, Trump wants 2 million in two years. He's adding.

HORSLEY: Yeah, multiply that by five.

KING: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

HORSLEY: But in between the time you catch somebody who's living in the country illegally and has a criminal record and the time you send them back to their home country, you have to detain them, house them, feed them, clothe them and guard them. Once you've apprehended the folks and you've put them in a detention center, there's still some due process to get through. But then Ben Gitis told us the last step is actually sending people back to their home countries.

KING: That's easy, right, buy everyone a bus ticket.

GITIS: (Laughter) Not that simple. While about half of undocumented immigrants are from Mexico, the other half are from all over the world. And they would require chartering flights to places like South America, to Africa, Asia, all over the place.

KING: Ben says if you do the math on those 2 million flights, that gets you up into the billions of dollars, which, Scott, actually brings us back to something I heard from everyone I talked to. Yes, this plan is legal. Yes, this plan is probably doable. It would take much more time and much more money than has been acknowledged.

HORSLEY: This is a bold and flashy agenda that Donald Trump has laid out. He's known for bold and flashy projects - many of them costly. But as you say, if you have the will, you could probably do a lot of this stuff.


KING: Hey, guys, if you've got a question on President-elect Trump's first 100 days in office and we didn't get to it today, send it over to us. We're at planetmoney@npr.org or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter.

And now that the election is over, maybe you're looking to fill the void left by all those daily Politics podcasts. How about some music? The All Songs Considered podcast from NPR Music is here to help. It's filled with discussions about music and musical discoveries as hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton share the best new music out there. That's All Songs Considered every Tuesday on the NPR One app or at npr.org/podcasts.

Today's episode was produced by Sally Helm with help from Elizabeth Kulas. Thank you, ladies. Special thanks today to Alex Weinberg (ph), Michael Dorf, Gary Hufbauer, Robert Lawrence, our intern Raina Cohen (ph) and of course NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

KING: I'm Noel King.

HORSLEY: And I'm Scott Horsley.

KING: Thanks for listening.

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