Donald Trump’s signature campaign promise was simple: Make America safe again. From day one he would rebuild a depleted U.S. military while taking measures to protect Americans from immigrant criminals in the U.S. illegally roaming the streets, from terrorist plots and from drugs pouring over the border.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he vowed in his inauguration speech.
In his first 100 days, the president’s vision has come up against reality. Some of his key promises, like a border wall and a Muslim travel ban, quickly ran aground. Others, like cracking down on illegal immigration and boosting military spending, seem on track, though defense and security analysts agree that the lack of a coherent national-security strategy and still-empty key posts have hampered the administration’s efforts.
Even so, many voters seem to think that Trump has followed through on making them safer. In polling on his first three months in office, Americans said the president had done best when it came to national security and terrorism. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll released last week, nearly half of voters gave the president an A or B on fighting terrorism in his first three months.
100 days in, travel ban still in limbo
In his campaign speeches, Trump said his plan to protect Americans would focus on keeping “bad guys” and terrorists from coming into the country.
A week into his presidency, he made the first forceful move. He signed an executive order temporarily barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., and halted refugees from Syria indefinitely. Critics quickly pointed out that foreign nationals from those countries had killed zero Americans on U.S. soil between 1974 and 2015.
The order led to nationwide protests and chaos at airports before it was blocked by a federal court. Over 100 national security leaders from both parties signed a letter urging Trump to rescind the order, arguing that far from making Americans safer it would actually do the opposite.
“Many of us have worked for years to keep America safe from terrorists,” they wrote. “Simply put, this order will harm our national security.”
The ban also drew heavy criticism from military veterans, who argued that blocking interpreters from those countries would lead to less cooperation on the ground and make U.S. troops less safe.
Six weeks later, the White House unveiled an updated version of the travel ban, excluding Iraq and exempting green card holders. It was promptly blocked again. Trump has vowed to continue fighting for the ban in court.
“I actually can’t believe that we’re having to fight, in a court system, to protect the security of our nation,” he said at a meeting with sheriffs in February. “I can’t even believe it.”
Still no wall, but a spike in immigration arrests
The president has run into similar obstacles with his long-promised wall on the southern border, his most famous national-security promise. Mexico has made it clear it will not pay for the wall despite Trump’s insistence, and although the White House insisted on including $1.4 billion for the wall in the upcoming spending bill, it did not say whether the president would veto the bill if the measure were taken out. While experts and many lawmakers, including Republicans, agree that a wall would be costly and ineffective, there has been a spike in immigration arrests and a drop in border crossings.
“The wall was mainly symbolic of Trump’s ‘get tough’ attitude on immigration, which is having an impact in other ways,” said Theresa Brown, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested 21,362 immigrants from January to mid-March, up 32.6 percent from the same time last year, partly driven by an increase in the apprehensions of people without criminal records.
The lack of consistent metrics makes it difficult to determine the impact of Trump’s immigration policies, Brown said.
“Apprehensions are this weird sort of metric: No matter which way it moves, the government claims victory,” she said. “If they are down, the administration says we are deterring them from coming in. If they are going up, they say we are catching more people.”
At the same time, there has been a drop in illegal border crossings. In February, roughly 840 people a day were caught or stopped from entering the U.S. from Mexico, a drop of about 36 percent from a year ago.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly credited Trump’s tough rhetoric for the decrease in border crossings.
“The attention being paid to the border has injected enough confusion . . . that I think they (immigrants) are waiting to see what happens,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Like Trump, Kelly and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have tied crime, the drug epidemic and Americans’ safety to illegal immigration, which has been their highest-profile focus for the first three months.
Trump’s immigration crackdown has gone beyond focusing on gangs or the convicted criminals harming innocent Americans that he often spoke about during the campaign. In February, Trump signed an executive order that adopted a far broader priority system for deporting people who were in the U.S. illegally than then-President Barack Obama’s 2014 program, which prioritized serious criminals. The number of immigrants with no criminal records who have been arrested has doubled in the last three months.
ICE officers have been given more freedom to go beyond arresting and deporting people who have been convicted. This has worried advocacy groups, who say it may make communities less safe when immigrants are less likely to report crimes like sexual assault, making it harder for law enforcement to prosecute criminals.
“This fear that any encounter with police may result in being picked up by ICE for removal, even at something like a drunk driving stop, can be problematic,” Brown said.
It is too soon to determine whether there will be a marked difference in outcome compared with Obama’s administration, which also deported thousands of immigrants who did not have criminal records, and had higher numbers of arrests in early 2014 than Trump’s first three months.
‘Historic’ spending boost for the Pentagon
After years of defense cuts, military leaders have been clear about what they see as the main obstacle to protecting Americans: money.
Lack of more funding for the Pentagon “will increase risk to the nation and ultimately result in dead Americans on a future battlefield,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month.
Trump, who has filled many top positions with military brass and often defers to them, has moved in the first 100 days to fulfill his campaign promise of submitting a new budget to build up the “depleted” military soon after taking office.
The president has asked Congress to raise the defense spending cap for the 2017 fiscal year by $25 billion, to $576 billion. Trump’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year boosts military spending by $54 billion, a nearly 10 percent increase over Obama’s 2017 budget – a figure that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and defense hawks in Congress have repeatedly insisted is still not enough to restore the military’s capabilities.
“We’re asking the military to do more than we thought,” said Mark Cancian, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who’s a former senior official at the White House Office of Management and Budget. “Obama had said we’re getting out but guess what, we’re back in Iraq and we’re still in Afghanistan, and you’ve got to add (the fight against) ISIS to the budget. . . . There is a strong consensus, even with the Democrats, that you need more money for defense.”
Since Trump’s proposal boosts defense spending by cutting nonmilitary funding, it is likely “dead on arrival,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Even if the military were to get a significant spending boost, Trump’s fixation on numbers – promising the largest naval buildup since the Cold War and an additional 60,000 soldiers for the Army – does not mean it will become more effective at making Americans safe, Harrison said.
“Just spending more on the military and making the military larger does not make us safer,” Harrison said. “What matters most is how you spend it, and not how much you spend. (Trump) seems to want to manage by the numbers and make the Army larger, and more ships for the Navy and more fighter jets – but for what?”
Trump unleashes military, but strategy still unclear
While Trump had made a point of flexing military muscle in the first 100 days, delegating broader authority to the Pentagon to take decisive action, the lack of a coherent strategy means the move has had limited impact on advancing U.S. security, according to defense experts.
Trump’s strikes on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, a seeming contradiction to his “America first” approach to national security, took it out only for a short period. The use of the “Mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan was a choice to use the best munitions to take out ISIS tunnels, but it’s unlikely to have a lasting impact on the fight against the group.
“In terms of military, strategic impact, (these moves) have been pretty modest,” said Christine Wormouth, the undersecretary of defense for policy from 2014 to 2016. Even so, allies and foes have taken note that all of those actions in the span of a few weeks “signal that this is an administration that will use the military and make decisions quickly,” she said.
However, high-profile communications and messaging mishaps between the White House and the Pentagon have undercut some of those actions in potentially dangerous situations. Most notable was Trump’s assurance that the U.S. was sending a naval “armada” as a powerful deterrent to North Korea, while the USS Carl Vinson was actually on its way to participate in military exercises 3,500 miles in the opposite direction.
“The message got lost in the murk, and became that the U.S. is confused and doesn’t seem to know where its assets are,” Wormouth said. “It did potentially more damage to us. . . . When our allies are confused, this is not a good thing.”
The Obama administration was criticized as micromanaging control of military operations day to day, while Trump has decided to defer a lot of oversight to his military commanders.
“This administration is swinging wildly back in the other direction in potentially dangerous ways,” said Melissa Dalton, a former Defense Department official who’s an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The USS Carl Vinson flub is an example of something where, had there been more at stake in the near term, there could have been a really dangerous situation,” she said. “Without a clear messaging flowing top to bottom, and bottom to top, and not having people in key political positions . . . you could imagine potentially riskier scenarios.”
Numerous still-empty offices at the Pentagon and the State Department – missing deputies and political appointees to review strategy and present options to the new administration – are also an increasing problem if Trump wants to follow through on keeping Americans safe, defense analysts say.
“I worry that it’s going to take a real crisis to illuminate these gaps,” Dalton said. “There has been an inclination of this administration to rely on the military as the tool of choice, and while these military tools are incredibly powerful, if misused there is a real risk in terms of loss of life and resources.”
On the domestic end, the Justice Department, too, is riddled with vacancies that can complicate the task of keeping the country safe.
So far, Trump has yet to nominate anyone to head the department’s national security, criminal and civil rights divisions. The Drug Enforcement Administration has no confirmed chief; neither does the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the U.S. Marshals Service.
At the Department of Homeland Security, there are still no nominees for top jobs overseeing policy, science and technology, and management, among others, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
There are still 127 federal judicial vacancies. Tardiness in filling these court vacancies can threaten public safety. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has identified 49 “judicial emergencies” nationwide, citing a combination of workload and length of the vacancy.
Michael Doyle contributed to this report.