After basking in the adulation of his supporters in the Republican heartland on Wednesday night, Donald Trump returned to Washington to face the cold reality of setbacks to his travel ban and healthcare reforms as he unveiled a $1.15tn budget true to his hardline nationalist agenda.
The US president’s budget would boost military spending and assign billions to building a wall on the Mexican border while drastically slashing funds for foreign aid, poverty relief and the environment.
Entitled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” (which borrows from a phrase denounced by the Anti-Defamation League for its links to 1940s Nazi sympathisers), the plan signalled a change of direction likely to satisfy Trump’s populist base while dismaying many in the Washington establishment. The disjuncture between the two was evident on Wednesday as the president addressed supporters in Detroit and Nashville, where thousands of people cheered and chanted “Build that wall!” and, in reference to Trump’s defeated rival Hillary Clinton, “Lock her up!”
Trump is in his element at such campaign-style rallies, where he paints in primary colours and his raucous support appears undiminished, but he is less sure-footed in dealing with nuances of the political arena, where he is fighting for credibility on three fronts.
In a ruling that mirrored the restraining order issued by a Washington state judge just a month ago, Judge Derrick Watson of Hawaii imposed a nationwide temporary stay on his revised travel ban on visitors from six majority-Muslim countries just hours before it was due to come into effect, finding grounds for a violation of the establishment clause of the US constitution that prohibits discrimination against any religion.
Watson leaned heavily on the subject of intent in issuing his ruling, quoting inflammatory statements made by Trump and his allies throughout the presidential race that singled out Muslims and the Islamic faith as a broad national security threat.
In Nashville, Trump bitterly lashed out at the decision, branding it “an unprecedented judicial overreach”. As the crowd booed, he said: “This ruling makes us look weak, which, by the way, we no longer are, believe me.” He vowed to fight all the way to the highest court in the US, the supreme court.
In his speech it took Trump more than 25 minutes to raise the thorny issue of healthcare. In Washington, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, had just admitted that he and other Republican leaders would make changes to the legislation, intended to replace Barack Obama’s signature reforms, in hopes of getting it passed. A non-partisan congressional report concluded this week that the measure would strip 24 million people of coverage in a decade.
Trump’s supporters are likely to be among those hardest hit, but he offered little detail by way of reassurance. “Let me tell you, we’re going to arbitrate, we’re going to get together, we’re going to get something done,” he said. “The end result is when you have phase one, phase two, phase three, it’s going to be great.”
The president was assailed again when the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate intelligence committee rubbished his extraordinary claim that Obama tapped his phones before last year’s presidential election.
“Based on the information available to us, we see no indications that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance by any element of the United States government either before or after election day 2016,” Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia said in a joint statement on Thursday.
On Wednesday their counterparts on the House intelligence committee said the same thing.
Devin Nunes, a Republican and the committee chairman, told a joint press conference: “We don’t have any evidence that that took place. And in fact I don’t believe – just in the last week of time, the people we’ve talked to – I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower.”
While those fires continued to rage, Trump put forward a budget that he promised would serve his nationalist agenda, including a $54bn reduction to non-defence programmes. “We are going to do more with less, and make the government lean and accountable to the people,” he wrote in the preface.
“This includes deep cuts to foreign aid. It is time to prioritize the security and wellbeing of Americans, and to ask the rest of the world to step up and pay its fair share.”
The border wall would receive an immediate $1.4bn infusion in the ongoing fiscal year, with another $2.6bn planned for the 2018 budget year starting 1 October. Trump has previously claimed that Mexico will pay for the wall. He made no reference to this at his rally in Nashville but insisted “the wall is way ahead of schedule” and mocked those who doubted his plans to build it as “fake news”, eliciting boisterous cheers.
The $54bn boost for the military is the biggest since Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, promising immediate money for troop readiness, the battle against Islamic State militants and procurement of new ships, fighter jets and other weapons.
But it would be financed by cutting the Environmental Protection Agency by 31% (with the loss of more than 3,000 jobs), the state department by 28% and health and human services by 17.9%. The budget would eliminate completely the National Endowment for the Arts, legal services for the poor, low-income heating assistance and the AmeriCorps national service program established by Bill Clinton.
Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, told MSNBC: “This is a hard power budget, not a soft power budget. That’s what the president wants and that’s what we gave him.”
But it has little prospect of being passed by Congress in its present form. Many of the cuts would be opposed by all Democrats and potentially some Republicans. Marco Rubio, a Republican senator for Florida, said: “The administration’s budget isn’t going to be the budget. We do the budget here. The administration makes recommendations, but Congress does budgets.”
Speaker Ryan said he welcomed the Trump administration’s blueprint but otherwise declined to weigh in on its contents. “It’s a long ongoing process,” Ryan told reporters. “This is the very beginning.”
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in Senate, said: “The president’s proposed budget cuts are devastating to the middle class. Once again the Trump administration is showing its true colours: talk like a populist but govern like a special interests zealot … The very programmes that most help the middle class are those that get clobbered the hardest: investments in infrastructure, education, scientific research that leads to cures for diseases all take big hits.”
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a former labour secretary, added: “Donald Trump’s budget blueprint has one goal: to devastate hard-working American families. Trump built his campaign on a mountain of populist promises, then he brought a swamp to Washington with an administration full of Goldman Sachs bankers. Now he’s cutting after-school programs and college financial aid, gutting help for American manufacturing and slashing infrastructure investments that could create jobs in rural communities.”
As critics warned that the state department cuts would hurt American diplomacy, Trump was rounding off the week by hosting foreign leaders. Ahead of St Patrick’s Day he met Ireland’s taoiseach, Enda Kenny, in the Oval Office, declaring “I love Ireland” and saying he planned to visit the country as president. On Friday he is due to hold talks with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, widely seen as a bulwark of postwar liberal values.
Additional reporting by Sabrina Siddiqui and Spencer Ackerman