CBS correspondent joins political panel
Veteran journalist Major Garrett joined former Democratic candidate for president Howard Dean and longtime Republican strategist Edward Rollins on a panel held at Hofstra on Thursday, Feb. 14, that evaluated President Donald Trump’s time in office as he reached the halfway point.
The main topics of discussion were the Trump administration’s policy achievements, as well as the president’s shattering of political norms and hostility toward democratic institutions
Garrett, Dean and Rollins spoke before an audience of both students and adults inside the Student Center Theater at the Sondra and David S. Mack Student Center. The Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency sponsored the discussion, which was moderated by the center’s director, Meena Bose. The Hofstra Votes campaign co-sponsored the event.
Garrett opened the event with a joke about how he recently fell asleep during a dental cleaning. One consequence of covering “the daily cyclonic spasms of the Trump White House,” he said, is “I’ve found the scraping of my teeth sufficiently relaxing that I can go to sleep.”
Garrett’s recently released book, titled “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams, and Occasional Blackouts of an Extraordinary Presidency,” is mostly about the chaotic nature of the Trump presidency, which he said is characterized by the “general approach the president [takes] to the presidency itself and all the pushing against our institutional sense of norms.”
Garrett stressed, however, that while the Trump White House has undeniably been unique, that does not mean the president’s policy agenda should not be given a fair assessment. Garrett – in agreement with the rest of the panel – then highlighted the administration’s major domestic policy wins since 2016.
He listed the GOP tax bill of December 2017, the changes in both policy and rhetoric regarding immigration and the conservative revamp of the federal judiciary.
Rollins cited Trump’s “rebuilding” of the American military as the third policy of the “three legacies” left by his administration so far.
“Trump’s rebuilding of the defense department has been very, very substantial,” he said. Rollins, who served as an advisor to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign and worked for the Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, is in favor of some of Trump’s agenda.
“I actually think that Trump’s legacy is energizing a generation of people – young kids,” said Dean, the former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair, redirecting the focus of the panel discussion. Dean has been a vocal critic of Trump.
Dean emphasized the galvanizing effect this White House has had on young voters. He said that the DNC – which he once led – played a minor role compared to the energy and massive turnout of young people that drove Democratic gains in last November’s midterm elections.
“That would never have happened without Donald Trump,” he said.
“Trump’s agenda was a part of the reason for huge young voter turnout in November 2018,” said Jacqueline Blain, a freshman at Hofstra. “I think the key thing young voters didn’t agree with is the immigration policy of the Trump administration, or the idea of the wall across the southern border,” she said.
The foreign policy of the Trump administration, particularly as a byproduct of the president’s unconventional approach to governing overall, was assessed by the panel.
The president’s strategy for diplomacy with North Korea in particular “encapsulates the Trump approach to presidential powers and operating on the world stage,” Garrett said, adding that Trump’s strategy violated long-held norms on how to negotiate with “an adversary.”
The first phase of the U.S.-North Korea relationship under Trump – characterized by the president’s now-famous “fire and fury” threat – “created a sense of anxiety, panic and unease about what the president intended to do,” Garrett said, adding that when the president met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in June of 2018, his mindset “was completely outside everything that existed before the Trump presidency” in terms of U.S. foreign policy.
According to Garrett, Henry Kissinger – secretary of state under Nixon – has advised Trump to use his unpredictability as a tool. Subsequently, “the president has taken that to higher levels ... of flexibility and improvisation that even Henry Kissinger could not have imagined,” Garrett said.
“What do I expect in Vietnam?” Garrett rhetorically asked, referring to the location of the president’s planned second summit with the North Korean leader. He answered, “What I always expect with the Trump presidency: the unexpected.”
Unexpectedness, Dean said, is not necessarily a bad tactic in every case, pointing to Nixon’s famous nuclear “madman theory.” Trump’s unexpectedness with North Korea is different in that “diplomacy is different than foreign policy,” Dean said, adding that he does not think the president is “rational” enough to employ this tactic properly and safely.
The panel broached the related topic of Trump’s struggle to cooperate with co-equal branches of government.
They each agreed that the recent government shutdown – the longest in U.S. history and caused by the president’s inability to secure congressional funding for his border wall – best portrayed the president’s inability to work with this Congress.
According to Garrett, the showdown between Trump and recently empowered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over whether or not she would invite the president to deliver the State of the Union address in her chamber amid the shutdown taught the country a lesson about the relationship between the legislative and executive branches.
“Institutional powers mattered: they ran up against the presidency, and the presidency had to acknowledge them,” Garrett said.
Although Dean believed the State of the Union spat between the president and Pelosi was a “small matter,” he said, “part of Trump’s legacy ... is we tested our checks and balances system and [the] institutional design of our Constitution.”
Generally, Garrett said, because of the animus Trump has expressed for traditional, democratic U.S. institutions, “We now have a much more lively conversation about our institutions; how are they populated, what are their powers, how are they structurally aligned with one another, what is their underlying purpose and how valid and vital are they to our overall political experience?”