Trump-Watching From City Hall

His policy choices will challenge places from Manhattan to Mobile, Ala.
May 2017
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

It was a somewhat surprising and mysterious meeting. Out of the blue, after serving in office less than seven weeks, President Trump summoned Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser to tell him about the city’s preparation for an oncoming snowstorm. On short notice, she walked the two blocks from city hall to the White House with Paul J. Wiedefeld, the general manager of the area’s Metro transit system.

No one could recall a president requesting such a meeting even for far more significant threats, such as massive blizzards, earthquakes or terrorist attacks. This time around, the storm being predicted was an insignificant snowfall that ended up spreading only 2.5 inches over the city.

So why did this meeting take place? One theory held that it was a strategic move on Trump’s part to establish that he is in charge of the nation’s capital -- not just the federal establishment, but the host city as well. The mayor, so this theory goes, was smart to have Wiedefeld tag along because the Metro system, the nation’s second largest, is in serious trouble and will need federal resources and a cooperative bureaucracy to stabilize it.

But my guess is that the president didn’t have a clue as to whether the meeting was normal or appropriate, a matter of protocol or a friendly gesture. Soon after, he tweeted that the briefing was “about incoming winter storm preparations here in D.C. Everyone be safe!”

Bowser may have been among the very first, but she is far from the only local public official who will have to navigate Trumpland in the coming months and years. Much of the Trump agenda will affect states and localities, either directly or through the federal agencies and programs they work with.

What lies ahead is an incredibly complex landscape, with various pathways toward salvaging a sensible national health-care program, devising a new initiative to make desperately needed improvements to our infrastructure and figuring out how best to deal with our beleaguered immigration system. State and local officials are about to enter that landscape, right behind their colleagues in the U.S. Congress, who have just begun to navigate the administration’s first budget. It clearly will be challenging.

Some of the president’s proposed budget cuts could hardly have been better selected to evoke swift opposition. All three of the major associations representing local governments -- the National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors and National Association of Counties -- have forcefully denounced the White House plan to defund the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which was created 43 years ago under President Gerald Ford with bipartisan support. It’s still one of the most popular federal programs among local leaders of both parties. Nevertheless, I would be willing to bet that the new secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, had never heard of CDBG until he approved its demise.

The budget is equally punishing to the rural areas where Trump ran particularly well in the 2016 election. It would completely defund all the major rural development agencies, which serve some 37 million people in almost 700 counties in Appalachia, the Deep South and rural Northern New England.

It would be easy to go on with a long list of programs, now targeted for severe cutbacks, that benefit what we think of as the Trump constituency -- “the forgotten men and women of our country,” as he once put it, who “will be forgotten no longer.” Instead, let’s talk about Obamacare and the other programs under scruntiny.

“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” Trump told a group of 46 governors visiting the White House shortly before the attempt to repeal and replace the law imploded. The GOP clearly is running a considerable risk that they’ll suffer serious consequences if they can’t unite -- both in Washington and the states -- around a new plan. The dilemma in Congress is mirrored in states like Kansas, where the GOP legislature passed a bill to expand Medicaid, only to have it vetoed by Gov. Sam Brownback.

Finally, there is the 180-degree turn from the previous administration’s approach on the environment, and climate protection in particular. In the president’s first budget proposal, the Environmental Protection Agency took the largest hit of any federal department; Trump called for slashing its budget by a third. He had said all along that he was a skeptic on climate change, but the eviscerating cuts and repeal of several of Obama’s executive orders could define the Republican image on the environment for some time.

It is hard to predict how much this administration and its first budget will affect states and localities over the next few years. But the initial signs look ominous. Days after briefing the president on snow removal, Bowser received the bad news: Proposed federal funding cuts to D.C. amounted to more than $100 million, or close to 10 percent of the non-Medicaid funds the city expected. That’s a whole lot of snowplows.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus |