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Trump submits 'America first' budget amid executive branch disarray

Witcover: Trump's budget is a formula for diminishing the U.S. quest for a more equitable domestic society.

The wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency's first budget is an unvarnished assault on the general concept of a federal safety net for the nation's disadvantaged and on its responsibilities to maintain peace abroad.

Labeled "America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again" by the Trump propaganda gang, it is a thinly veiled formula for rejecting or at least diminishing the nation's quest for a more equitable domestic society and its role as leader of the Western world.

It calls for a $54 billion increase in defense spending, to be paid for by sharply cutting a host of social welfare agencies and foreign policy and assistance functions. With the bark off, it would put sharp teeth into Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon's goal of "the deconstruction of the administrative state."

It comes as no surprise that the biggest cuts will come against the Environmental Protection Agency (31 percent) and the State Department (29 percent), considering Mr. Trump's coolness to man-made climate change and to foreign aid and our NATO partners.

The emphasis on boosting military spending (up 9 percent), homeland security (up 7 percent) and veterans affairs (up 6 percent) all play to the Trump political constituency, which shares the new president's obvious contempt for the Washington bureaucracy and his determination to "drain the swamp."

Mr. Trump himself takes pride in his ability as a deal maker, which he has put to good use in amassing a huge real-estate empire. But one must wonder how much experience he has had with the meat-ax approach that reduces the budgets for more than 18 federal departments or agencies.

Considering the president's fascination with cable television news, his constant presence on Twitter, and his frequent travel to Trump Tower in New York and his Florida resort getaway, he would seem to have insufficient time to delve into the minutiae of budgetary complications.

Equally disturbing is the fact that he has lagged far behind previous presidents in staffing the White House bureaucracy and filling key second-tier positions such as department assistants and deputy secretaries. Questions of who's in charge and who's giving key information input are heard endlessly around Washington.

After nearly two months in office, the new administration remains a muddle. Heavy clouds continue to hang over it: the question of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and of suspected conflicts of interest involving Mr. Trump, his family members and some cabinet officials.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is Mr. Trump's totally unsubstantiated allegation that former President Barack Obama had Trump phones or other devices "wire-tapped" during the election campaign.

He has compounded the circus atmosphere by calling on the congressional intelligence committees to investigate his charges while refusing to offer any evidence, and saying some new unspecified developments may be coming. How far can this man go with this ugly and irresponsible charade?

Meanwhile, his slashing of discretionary budgetary spending has federal workers in near-panic over their personal futures, as well as that of the government they serve, not to mention the 435 House members and 100 senators who must accept or fight all the budget cuts.

At the same time, the immediate front-burner issue remains the repeal and replacement of Obamacare, on which the president and House Speaker Paul Ryan appear to be in uneasy collaboration, while many members of Congress are confused or resistant.

Finally, a federal judge in Hawaii, followed by one in Maryland, has put a hold on Mr. Trump's latest rewrite of his immigration executive order, on the grounds that it still amounts to a Muslim ban in violation of the Constitution's prohibition of religious discrimination. And the examples of executive branch dysfunction mount as President Trump and his merry band of "deconstructionists" under the Bannon banner continue on their way, taking apart "the administrative state."

As baseball's legendary manager Casey Stengel memorably asked of the hapless 1962 New York Mets: "Can't anybody here play this game?"

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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