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Trump's talk big, act small White House

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Visitors to Steve Bannon's West Wing office are often taken by his whiteboard, covered with promises from the campaign trail. Trump's chief strategist checks off tasks when they're accomplished, but there are some pledges on Bannon's whiteboard that nobody believes will be met — not in the first 100 days, and in some conspicuous cases, not ever.

Why this matters: Trump has made a career of talking big — and, in many cases, delivering. In his 1987 book "The Art of the Deal," he describes his sales technique as "truthful hyperbole." Trump's grandest campaign promises, however, are crashing into an immovable object: Washington. When Trump's first term is up, his actual accomplishments — as opposed to his rhetoric — could look more like the Republican presidencies we're used to than the one Trump promised.

In his Gettysburg address of October 22 Trump made a grand "contract" for his first 100 days that, if executed, would fundamentally reshape Congress, America's global relationships and the international economy. The reality looks much smaller, and, as much as Trump would hate to admit it — conventional.

Trump's rhetoric vs reality:

  • Lighting up China: Trump promised to direct his Treasury Secretary to label China a currency manipulator. He also said he didn't see why the US should have to abide by the "one China" policy with respect to Taiwan unless China made concessions on trade. Trump has retreated from both positions and had a friendly meeting at Mar-a-Lago last week with President Xi.
  • Tariffs: Trump promised to work with Congress to introduce the "End the Offshoring Act" during his first 100 days to keep companies from moving jobs overseas and ship products back to the U.S. tax-free. That hasn't happened, and while we expect Trump to impose tariffs at some point, we've already seen at least one early White House draft of a trade executive order being substantially softened by the Commerce Department. Instead of declaring a "national emergency" due to the trade-in-goods deficit — and initiating 25 percent supplemental tariffs against targeted countries and industries — it's likely the White House will initiate investigations with no pre-conceived outcomes.
  • Huge tax cuts: Trump promised to introduce a major tax reform bill during his first 100 days. He said a middle-class family with 2 children will get a 35% tax cut and the business rate will be lowered from 35 percent to 15 percent. Nobody we've spoken to who's engaged in tax reform thinks that timeline is realistic or cuts of that size will happen.
  • Kill or renegotiate NAFTA: Trump promised that in his first 100 days he'd announce his intention to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement "or withdraw from the deal under Article 2205." Instead we're expecting tweaks to the treaty.
  • Staying the hell out of Syria: Trump spent 18 months promising to be a different kind of Republican president. He'd be "America First" and ridiculed interventionists like Marco Rubio and John McCain who argued for a more aggressive American role overseas, including to confront the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. But last week, Trump took a conventional, hawkish-Republican approach and fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian base that launched a chemical weapons attack.
  • The wall: In his address to Congress on Feb. 28, Trump said he'd "soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border." The reality could be less dramatic. Trump's team is making border security funding a non-negotiable component of the bill to keep the government funded at the end of April. But the Democrats are blocking it and House and Senate leaders and appropriators are already searching for compromises that the left can live with.
  • ISIS: In his inaugural address Trump vowed to "eradicate" radical Islamic terrorism — "completely from the face of the Earth." It's no clearer now than when he said this how he'd accomplish that.
  • Transforming Congress: Trump proposed a Constitutional Amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress. Nobody I've spoken to thinks that's happening and Trump hasn't even mentioned it.

On the other side of the ledger: The administration has taken big steps in cutting environmental regulations, and withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Plus insiders say to look for some significant bilateral trade wins with China and Mexico. In response to questions about Trump following up on his campaign promises, the White House said work on NAFTA and tax reform continues and that a friendly first meeting with China doesn't mean the administration won't take a tougher stance in the future.