Are Americans safer than they were 100 days ago?
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's signature campaign promise was simple: Make America safe again. From day one he would rebuild a depleted U.S. military while taking measures to protect Americans from immigrant criminals in the U.S. illegally roaming the streets, from terrorist plots and from drugs pouring over the border.
"This American carnage stops right here and stops right now," he vowed in his inauguration speech.
In his first 100 days, the president's vision has come up against reality. Some of his key promises, like a border wall and a Muslim travel ban, quickly ran aground. Others, like cracking down on illegal immigration and boosting military spending, seem on track, though defense and security analysts agree that the lack of a coherent national security strategy and still-empty key posts have hampered the administration's efforts.
Even so, many voters seem to think that Trump has followed through on making them safer. In polling on his first three months in office, Americans said the president had done best when it came to national security and terrorism. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll released last week, nearly half of voters gave the president an A or B on fighting terrorism in his first three months.
100 days in, travel ban still in limbo
In his campaign speeches, Trump said his plan to protect Americans would focus on keeping "bad guys" and terrorists from coming into the country.
A week into his presidency, he made the first forceful move. He signed an executive order temporarily barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S., and halted refugees from Syria indefinitely. Critics quickly pointed out that foreign nationals from those countries had killed zero Americans on U.S. soil between 1974 and 2015.
The order led to nationwide protests and chaos at airports before it was blocked by a federal court. More than 100 national security leaders from both parties signed a letter urging Trump to rescind the order, arguing that far from making Americans safer it would actually do the opposite.
Six weeks later, the White House unveiled an updated version of the travel ban, excluding Iraq and exempting green card holders. It was promptly blocked again. Trump has vowed to continue fighting for the ban in court.
"I actually can't believe that we're having to fight, in a court system, to protect the security of our nation," he said at a meeting with sheriffs in February. "I can't even believe it."
Still no wall, but a spike in immigration arrests
The president has run into similar obstacles with his long-promised wall on the southern border, his most famous national security promise. Mexico has made clear it will not pay for the wall despite Trump's insistence, and although the White House included $1.4 billion for the wall in the upcoming spending bill, it did not say whether the president would veto the bill if the measure were taken out. While experts and many lawmakers, including Republicans, agree that a wall would be costly and ineffective, there has been a spike in immigration arrests and a drop in border crossings.
"The wall was mainly symbolic of Trump's 'get tough' attitude on immigration, which is having an impact in other ways," said Theresa Brown, director of immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested 21,362 immigrants from January to mid-March, up 32.6 percent from the same time last year, partly driven by an increase in the apprehensions of people without criminal records.
The lack of consistent metrics makes it difficult to determine the impact of Trump's immigration policies, Brown said.
"Apprehensions are this weird sort of metric: No matter which way it moves, the government claims victory," she said. "If they are down, the administration says we are deterring them from coming in. If they are going up, they say we are catching more people."
At the same time, there has been a drop in illegal border crossings. In February, roughly 840 people a day were caught or stopped from entering the U.S. from Mexico, a drop of about 36 percent from a year ago.
It is too soon to determine whether there will be a marked difference in outcome compared with Obama's administration, which also deported thousands of immigrants who did not have criminal records, and had higher numbers of arrests in early 2014 than Trump's first three months.
'Historic' spending boost for the Pentagon
After years of defense cuts, military leaders have been clear about what they see as the main obstacle to protecting Americans: money.
The president has asked Congress to raise the defense spending cap for the 2017 fiscal year by $25 billion, to $576 billion. Trump's proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year boosts military spending by $54 billion, a nearly 10 percent increase over Obama's 2017 budget _ a figure that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and defense hawks in Congress have repeatedly insisted is still not enough to restore the military's capabilities.
"We're asking the military to do more than we thought," said Mark Cancian, a defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who's a former senior official at the White House Office of Management and Budget. "Obama had said we're getting out but guess what, we're back in Iraq and we're still in Afghanistan, and you've got to add (the fight against) ISIS to the budget. ... There is a strong consensus, even with the Democrats, that you need more money for defense."
Trump's strikes on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, a seeming contradiction to his "America first" approach to national security, took it out only for a short period. The use of the "Mother of All Bombs" in Afghanistan was a choice to use the best munitions to take out Islamic State tunnels, but it's unlikely to have a lasting impact on the fight against the group.
"In terms of military, strategic impact, (these moves) have been pretty modest," said Christine Wormouth, the undersecretary of defense for policy from 2014 to 2016. Even so, allies and foes have taken note that all of those actions in the span of a few weeks "signal that this is an administration that will use the military and make decisions quickly," she said.
However, high-profile communications and messaging mishaps between the White House and the Pentagon have undercut some of those actions in potentially dangerous situations. Most notable was Trump's assurance that the U.S. was sending a naval "armada" as a powerful deterrent to North Korea, while the USS Carl Vinson was actually on its way to participate in military exercises 3,500 miles in the opposite direction.
"The message got lost in the murk, and became that the U.S. is confused and doesn't seem to know where its assets are," Wormouth said. "It did potentially more damage to us. ... When our allies are confused, this is not a good thing."