Yet even as Trump has been consumed with his waning political fortunes in a desperate attempt to retain power, his administration has accelerated efforts to lock in last-minute policy gains and staffing assignments that it hopes will help cement the president’s legacy and live on past Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in.
Last week, for example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services adopted a longer and more difficult citizenship test that critics said could further curb legal immigration. The Pentagon named 11 new members, including a pair of prominent former Trump campaign aides, to a Defense Department business advisory board. And the president signed an executive order drafted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy aimed at protecting civil liberties in the use of artificial intelligence by the federal government.
Over the final six weeks of Trump’s presidency, the administration has no plans to wind down its efforts to remake federal policies and even the government bureaucracy itself, aides said, despite the pending handoff to the incoming Democratic administration. The whirlwind of activities has bucked tradition of past presidents who have deferred on major policy actions during the lame-duck period, and in some cases, the moves could make it procedurally or politically challenging for Biden to fulfill campaign pledges to unwind the Trump team’s actions.
Administration officials are rushing to auction off drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, slash U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, implement new rules to limit drug prices and create a new personnel category for civil servants in policymaking roles that would strip them of most job protections. The Department of Homeland Security is racing to complete an additional 50 miles of wall barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the State and Treasury departments are preparing additional economic sanctions on China and Iran.
Senate Republicans — who may lose their governing majority in January, depending on a pair of runoffs in Georgia — are moving swiftly to confirm Trump’s conservative picks to the federal courts and other nominees whose tenures will extend into the Biden presidency and beyond.
“What we have seen on immigration is that this administration has not slowed down when it comes to pushing out its agenda in the last days of Trump’s time in office,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council who noted that the administration is also pursuing rule changes to limit asylum protections for foreigners.
“You’re not seeing the rhetoric coming from the president since the end of the election,” Reichlin-Melnick added of Trump’s once frequent immigration-related missives, “but the administration itself is moving forward and accelerating its efforts to get these midnight regulations out the door.”
White House aides said the administration’s actions are consistent with Trump’s pledges to deliver on his agenda.
“President Trump has rolled back government regulations, streamlined project approvals, brought much-needed agency accountability, is bringing our troops home, and changed the way domestic and international dealmaking is done so that the results help hard-working Americans,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. He said the president “remains focused on that important work and fulfilling the promises he made to the American people.”
The rush has come despite Trump’s relative inattention to governing since his electoral defeat last month, driven in part by ideologically minded aides, including Cabinet members eager to burnish their own legacies.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who weighed a potential U.S. Senate campaign in Kansas before deciding against it early this year — has said the United States will continue to impose economic sanctions on Iran until Trump’s final week in office. That has resulted in new Treasury Department actions every week or more.
Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama administration has been a cornerstone of his foreign policy. Pompeo’s strategy is an attempt to ramp up pressure on Biden, who has promised to seek a rapprochement with Iranian leaders.
“I still have an obligation — every hour, every minute — to defend the American people and to keep them foremost in our efforts,” Pompeo told a Saudi news outlet last month. “We’ll do that to the very last minute.”
Since the election, Trump has moved to settle political scores against high-level aides he considered disloyal, including ousting Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who had angered him by resisting the use of active-duty military troops to control civilian protests last summer. That has cleared the way for Esper’s replacement, acting secretary Christopher C. Miller, to fast-track an effort to meet Trump’s desire to reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan from 5,000 to 2,500.
Administration officials also have directed the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to be cut from 3,000 to 2,500 by the end of Trump’s term. And on Friday night, the administration announced that it will remove most of the roughly 700 troops in Somalia, in favor of basing them nearby in East Africa.
Yet Trump has spent little time championing the moves. He held a White House ceremony three weeks ago to announce the Department of Health and Human Services’ efforts to secure rule changes that would lower prescription drug prices.
During the event, however, Trump appeared consumed by his grievances against “big pharma,” which he accused of running negative ads against him during the campaign. He has attacked drug companies for announcing progress on vaccines for the coronavirus after the election — rather than before it — a decision he implied was aimed at hurting his reelection prospects, although company representatives said they wanted to ensure that the vaccines were not politicized.
Trump made no fresh public mention of the new citizenship test, even though it has been in the works for two years. On Thursday, he participated in a signing ceremony for a bipartisan bill, championed by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), to ensure the responsible use of artificial intelligence, at which Trump also signed his executive order. But the event was a private affair, in contrast to the medal ceremony for Holtz earlier in the day that the president opened to reporters.
“He clearly has delegated that whole area to his tech experts,” said Darrell M. West, a Brookings Institution analyst.
While the White House supports most of this flurry of activity, it has drawn a line between rules that shrink the role of government and those that don’t.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, political appointees plan to finalize five major rules before Inauguration Day, two of which will raise the bar for enacting new public health protections.
Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and other White House officials, however, have questioned the need for one of the rules because it mandates the gradual replacement of lead and copper pipes across the country, according to two individuals briefed on the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. These people said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who has made improving the nation’s water infrastructure a hallmark of his tenure, has nonetheless pressed hard to finalize it.
The Interior Department also is pressing ahead with plans to hold a lease sale on the Arctic refuge on Jan. 6; moving to justify scaling back protections for the greater sage grouse across 51 million acres out West, which has been blocked in court; and proposing a rule to weaken safeguards for drilling in the Arctic Ocean.
Kristen Monsell, ocean legal director at the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, warned that the administration was ignoring the lessons the nation learned after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion.
“Demolishing offshore safety rules on the way out the door shows the Trump administration’s ugly contempt for workers and wildlife,” she said.
Interior spokesman Conner Swanson said in an email that the department is following through on Trump’s priorities “to create more American jobs, protect the safety of American workers, support domestic energy production and conserve our environment.”
The outgoing administration has signaled its intent to leave its biggest imprint on the federal bureaucracy in a generation by trying to reclassify civil servants in policymaking roles that would strip them of most job protections.
The effort, based on an executive order Trump issued less than two weeks before the election, is a reflection of his administration’s distrust of a workforce his aides have long derided as a “deep state” bent on resisting his policies. Under the provision, tens of thousands of mid- and senior-level employees would be newly vulnerable to firing based on perceived poor performance or disloyalty to the administration.
Federal employee unions are challenging the moves in court, but the White House budget and personnel management offices have acted quickly to reclassify hundreds of roles. Congressional Democrats hope to block the new system during negotiations for a new government spending bill this month.
The Office of Management and Budget also is speeding up work on an unusually detailed new fiscal 2022 budget with Trump’s priorities intact, particularly at the Defense Department. Career budget analysts were told to complete work on the Pentagon budget’s discretionary spending proposal last week, weeks earlier than a normal budget would be proposed, according to a person familiar with the plans.
At the Department of Veterans Affairs, Secretary Robert Wilkie is making sweeping changes to outsource to private companies the reviews that determine compensation, health care and other benefits for veterans.
And the White House, days after the election, began moving to appoint Republicans to a key commission that next year will review whether some underused VA hospitals should be closed or scaled back, a contentious issue for Democrats who fear the government-run health-care system could shrink.
The policy changes prompted a letter of condemnation last week from Democratic Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii), who chided Wilkie for initiating policy changes during the uncertainty of the pandemic and the national election cycle.
The senators asked Wilkie to cease “further efforts to rush policies or hiring decisions,” saying such matters “merit more scrutiny and should be left to the incoming Administration.”
John Hudson, Seung Min Kim, Dan Lamothe and Nick Miroff contributed to this report.