It is a challenge to succinctly summarize the 2017 news year. Each day brought fresh headlines to consume yesterday’s blockbuster news and breaking stories. Our hyper-accelerated news cycle ran through devastating weather, mass shootings and celebrity deaths.
We witnessed massive rallies from every end of the ideological and political spectrum. We watched the ignominious collapse of ISIS and the repeated testing of North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles. We pored through presidential tweets, kept track of special elections and remained glued to the unending political brinksmanship in Washington.
It certainly wasn’t a boring year.
Here are three of the biggest stories from 2017 that are primed to continue making headlines in this new year.
The Fallout from the Paris Climate Accord
For Donald Trump, the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement was meant to be a major victory for his nationally focused “America First” platform. He repeatedly made the promise on the campaign trail, often while touting the return of America’s moribund coal industry. He criticized the agreement as another example of systemic poor negotiating in Washington — a raw deal that hurt decent and hardworking American citizens, while enriching polluters like China and India.
In a televised announcement from the Rose Garden in June, President Trump decried the Paris Accord as undermining the United States economy — a global agreement that put “the workers … and people of this country at a debilitating and tremendous disadvantage.” In his hour-long speech, he criticized the Green Climate Fund, questioned the science surrounding anthropogenic climate change and ended the carbon reduction targets set by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The announcement was expected to cause immediate international instability, which the White House hoped to capitalize on by renegotiating a new international deal with “fairer” terms for American interests.
However, a strange thing happened instead.
The European Union and the Chinese governments both reaffirmed their absolute commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, despite America’s withdrawal. India followed suit, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating that not combating climate change would be “a morally criminal act.” Then in November, Syria and Nicaragua — the only two non-signatories — joined the Accord.
Trump’s request to renegotiate the deal was rebuffed.
Entering 2018, the announcement has now been framed by many as a tipping point in the fight against climate change. Local governments have filled the void, with 380 mayors representing over 68 million Americans pledging to achieve emissions reductions and move forward with climate action. Salt Lake City and Washington D.C. have dedicated themselves to lofty renewable energy goals by 2030.
In December, at the North American Climate Summit, more than 50 international mayors signed the Chicago Climate Charter, which aims to emulate the Paris Accord “on a city, rather than nation-state level.”
“The fact that President Trump has a different view has been a rallying cry for the pro-environmentalist groups. And that has been very helpful,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently said. “So, I just want to thank him for all of his assistance. There is not a thing that Washington can do to stop it.”
Many companies have also rejected the White House’s isolationism on the issue. Tech giants including Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook have remained critical of America’s withdrawal from the Accord. In December, 225 leading investors, controlling more than $26 trillion in assets, launched an initiative to engage with companies to align their business plans with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
AXA, the world’s third-largest insurance company, announced plans to quadruple its investments in environmentally-friendly projects. Similarly, the World Bank Group announced that it would no longer finance the exploration and production of oil and gas after 2019.
It would take four years for America to fully withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and as the new year breaks, the White House has yet to trigger any formal proceedings. In 2018, the United States may pull out of the United Nations’ climate body — the UNFCCC — though recent reports have stated that the President may soon backtrack on his pledge altogether.
Trillion-Dollar Tax Ramifications and Paul Ryan’s Victory
It took nearly all of 2017, but the Republican-controlled Congress gifted President Trump his first major legislative victory in December with the most comprehensive overhaul of the American tax code in 30 years.
However, in a party-line vote, The Tax Cuts & Job Act (TCJA), a sweeping $1.5 trillion tax bill, was drafted and passed with near-unprecedented speed. Democrats, who received a final version containing crossed-out pages and scribbled marginalia, criticized the cloak-and-dagger negotiations. Core components of the legislation were still being honed hours before the bill’s passage, as Republicans scrambled to secure votes right up to the last minute.
When the dust settled, it was Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI), who stood front and center, widely smiling, gavel in hand. It was an incredible personal victory for the Wisconsin senator who had long been the public face and driving force of this legislation.
“This is one of the most important pieces of legislation that Congress has passed in decades to help the American worker and to help grow the American economy,” Ryan said after the vote. “This is profound change, and this is change that is going to put our country on the right path.”
As the political lovefest moved outside to the White House Rose Garden and praise was heaped upon President Trump, it was still Paul Ryan who remained the most triumphant.
“Something this big, something this generational, something this profound, could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership,” Ryan fawned, still brimming with jubilant excitement, soaking up a moment that had defined his political aspirations since the moment he ran for the House in 1998.
For President Trump, the tax legislation provides much-needed political capital. It’s a rare and sizeable victory for a sputtering administration that promised “so much winning,” that the American populace would tire of the concept of success. The legislation also provides major relief in several areas near and dear to conservative hearts.
Corporate taxes received a deep and permanent slash, down to 21 percent from 35 percent. The alternative income tax was eliminated. The estate tax was reformed. A one-time repatriation tax will bring back trillions of off-shore dollars to American soil. Private individuals will also see takes breaks, though these will fade over time until expiring completely in 2027.
For Ryan, however, tax reform isn’t simply a political victory. As an ideologue of the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, this legislation is the culmination of a personal crusade. In the vein of Randian tenets, Ryan believes that the way you empower an individual and build a healthy society is by shrinking the government as much as possible.
The montage of Ryan discussing tax reform over his 20-year political career, posted on his Twitter the morning of the vote, proves as much. From the beginning of his political career, Ryan talked like a man seeking much more than political clout. Instead, he is aiming for the complete and total overhaul of the federal government.
Today has been a moment decades in the making. Let's get it done. pic.twitter.com/abuqrCEMPb
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) December 19, 2017
“Some are drawn to politics because they like the games and mechanics, and their first priority is the party,” said Peter Wehner, a former aide to George W. Bush, back in May of 2016. “Mitch McConnell is … that party guy. [Paul] Ryan is just more in the camp of ideas, and he thinks about the party mostly as a vehicle to advance conservatism.”
It is this strict adherence to ideology that is preventing Ryan from seeing the growing specter imperiling not simply his tax reform success, but his next objectives — ending entitlements — and the immediate future of the Republican Party.
First, the impact of the tax bill is becoming more apparent, and many critics are concerned that the realities of the legislation won’t align with the promises made by Speaker Ryan and President Trump. The bill was pitched to the American public, nearly exclusively, as a vehicle that would lighten the load of the average American family.
“The deal is so bad for rich people, I had to throw in the estate tax just to give them something,” President Trump famously said in November.
However, The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that almost a third of the plan’s benefits would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans in 2018. It also adds an estimated $1.455 trillion to the national debt over 10 years, an unwieldy position for a party that stumps on principles of financial prudence.
The official tune in the White House concerning the real-life impact of the tax legislation changed, as well. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had to walk-back claims that the bill wouldn’t personally benefit the president or his business enterprise. Senator Bob Corker (R–TN) was publicly pilloried over allegations that he switched his vote after a provision was added that would financially benefit him. In the hours after signing the tax legislation into law, President Trump apparently told affluent Mar-a-Lago guests, “You all just got a lot richer.”
The legislation also extended well beyond taxes. It scrapped the individual mandate — a major component of the Affordable Care Act that required most American citizens to possess health insurance or be financially penalized. It also opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas drilling, ending an environmental controversy dating back to the Reagan years. The provision was added to secure the vote of Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski.
In the days following the bill’s passage, and as the specifics of the bill became clearer for the American public, an odiousness began to taint the Republican celebration. Public support regarding the bill plummeted. Several corporations publicly stated they would pocket their financial windfall, instead of investing in job growth.
Senate Majority Leader McConnell began to privately worry about losing the House and Senate in the 2018 midterm elections. Ryan went on another PR tour, promising that the tax bill would win over public approval “only after its results become apparent.” Republican lawmakers began readying a multimillion-dollar marketing push for the deeply unpopular tax legislation to win over voters.
Democratic politicos, however, are viewing the tax bill as a major boon for their chances of winning back both the House and Senate. “Now that this tax plan is becoming law, Republicans are going to wear this around their necks,” said Jon Vogel, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The growing concerns from the Republican establishment have done little to affect Ryan’s zeal for reform. The passage of the tax bill, and the revenue shortfalls it will create, has also given him ammunition for his next battle: reshaping the social safety net. It will be a war waged wholly within the Republican Party.
Ryan wants to cut programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Society Security to reduce the deficit. He’s also aiming at significant welfare overhaul. It is a lofty goal waged, once again, on ideological grounds, despite minimal public support for such reform.
“We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said last week, during an appearance on Ross Kaminsky’s talk radio show. “Frankly, it’s the healthcare entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on the healthcare entitlements — because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”
The truth is that these measures would both be staggeringly unpopular and run directly contrary to President Trump’s campaign pledge to “not touch” Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It would also pit Ryan against McConnell and a significant number of rank-and-file Republicans. McConnell, attempting to preserve a razor-thin margin in the Senate, has all but ruled out the idea.
“The sensitivity of entitlements is such that you almost have to have a bipartisan agreement in order to achieve a result,” McConnell said last week.
Still, Ryan may forge ahead — securing House votes on several entitlement programs to pressure the Senate into ultimately addressing these issues. Considering that he is mulling retirement after the 2018 elections, it may be now or never for the Wisconsin senator to achieve the ideological ambitions he brought to Congress over two decades ago.
The Mueller Probe
Led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, the investigation of potential Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election has been a persistent dark cloud over Trump’s presidency.
Despite earlier contradictory reports, it is now believed that the probe will continue well into 2018. Since Mueller’s appointment by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May, the investigation has been steadily progressing — a grand jury impaneling in August, October indictments against former advisors George Papadopoulos and Paul Manafort and a November guilty plea from former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
With Mueller penetrating deeper into Trump’s inner circle with no end in sight, the White House and members of the Republican Party have become aggressive in their attempts to discredit, and ultimately end, the investigation. Their grievances have unfolded in the mainstream media with ceaseless regularity — conflict of interest accusations, attacks regarding the scope and length of the probe, allegations of improperly obtained documents, and complaints of political bias after the emergence of anti-Trump text messages shared between two FBI agents formerly on Mueller’s team.
Despite the intensifying criticism and partisan squabbling, experts expect this investigation to continue throughout the upcoming year. Typical special counsel investigations take several years on average, and we simply do not know all the facets of the probe. While Flynn’s guilty plea and subsequent cooperation was initially viewed by many in Washington as a sign that the investigation was winding down, Mueller then quickly moved to subpoena Deutsche Bank for Trump Organization financials.
He is still investigating whether several firms, including the Podesta Group, violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Legal experts believe additional charges — a superseding indictment — will be levied against Paul Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates in the new year. Recent reports have even indicated that Mueller may be further expanding the scope of his investigation to include the Trump campaign’s data operation.