WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump took the oath of office two months ago, but is not yet running a real presidency. His administration, thus far, largely is playing like a junta that surprised the royal guards and seized the palace ― while still remaining unable to pacify the capital city, let alone inspire the countryside.
The White House is as stately as ever, but there aren’t enough friends outside the (porous) iron fence to make the inhabitants as comfortable as they should be in the first months of a new regime.
Rather, Trump is under siege from pretty much all sides.
Federal courts again are slapping down Trump’s first, signature move: a temporary travel ban on citizens from predominantly Muslim countries that he says harbor “radical Islamic terrorists.”
The joint Trump-GOP effort to “repeal and replace” Obamacare ― another key first promise and response ― is bogged down in multiple internal Republican divisions over everything from spending numbers to philosophy to legislative strategy.
With growing sharpness and specificity, GOP leaders are joining Democrats in dismissing as flat-out false the president’s repeatedly tweeted charge that former President Barack Obama “tapped” ― or surveilled in any way ― Trump Tower or its owner.
Trump’s new guns-and-no-butter first budget, which would literally take food from the poor and the elderly to give more money to Pentagon contractors, has been greeted with derision by many Republicans, who regard it as less of a blueprint than a political statement too harsh even for the tea party.
The nonpartisan polling “job approval” numbers for Trump have been in the 40s consistently in the first few months, and are the lowest launch average on record for a new president.
Trump has had his successes. They include the assembly, after some fits and starts, of a good ― or at least credible ― national security team of respected current and former members of the military or Congress. As a result, there is a solid chain of command for Trump in his role as commander-in-chief.
He nominated a man to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, to whom the American Bar Association gave a sterling rating.
Trump has issued some executive orders that make good on other campaign promises ― such as the gutting of EPA regulations on the use of coal, building pipelines, getting out of multilateral trade treaties and instituting tougher domestic rules on the apprehension and repatriation of undocumented immigrants.
His tweets and campaign-style speeches, vowing tax cuts and the twisting of corporate arms to “buy and build American,” have had an effect: The stock market has been on a wild run.
But these successful measures ― the exception to the general pattern ― were comparatively amenable to direct White House control.
Everything else is harder to control or even withstand. And the dangers of drift are real. He elicited a new sense of hope from white working-class voters; their cynicism will deepen if he doesn’t deliver the jobs ― especially since his proposed new budget cuts are aimed at programs in rural counties.
Trump could well be tempted by the slow pace of change to ignore the law, especially since his aides, led by Steven Bannon, are telling him that the so-called “deep state” is itself a lawless force and is out to get him to preserve its own status.
He could use military confrontation ― such as the one brewing now with North Korea ― to emphasize the broad powers of a commander-in-chief who can’t be easily countermanded by institutions that constrain him now. Another terrorist attack on the “homeland” would give him a rationale ― if not justification ― for sweeping new executive actions in the United States.
Leaders around the world, already confused and unsure of American leadership, could distance themselves further from U.S. aims and interests ― no matter how much more money Trump spends on modernizing the military and putting boots on the ground.
Why does a man who claims such great success as a business manager seem so overwhelmed?
Democrats have taken their time filling his Cabinet, arguing, with much justification, that Trump had presented them with a roster of conflict-laden billionaires and ideologues antagonistic to the goals of the departments they had been nominated to lead. But there a host of in-house reasons for the first months’ mess. Here they are:
He only wants to talk to people who have no choice but to agree with him, or who are glad to tell him why his enemies are scum.
I know poll-takers who shied away from doing polls for Trump because they knew that the numbers would not be favorable ― and that Trump therefore would never hire them. “I turned down lots of jobs with him for that reason,” one of them told me. “You never give Trump bad news.” Which means that he is constantly infuriated when his yes men are forced to tell him the world says “no.”
He has to lash out somewhere, and that place is still Twitter.
The Trump administration has been annoyed and distracted for a week ― a crucial week on the budget and on health care, among other things ― by the president’s false accusation of Obama’s purported “tapping.” He never should have said it. But he almost always does.
D.C. is not New York; politics is not real estate.
Trump’s tactical principle is that if someone “hits” you, you “hit back twice as hard.” I have heard him say it in private as well as in public, and it is a method he has used since he came to Manhattan decades ago with a million bucks from his dad. But the paradox of the presidency is this: You are the most powerful person in the world, but in dealing with the rest of government and all of politics, it’s better not to make threats, and certainly not threats in public. Everything Trump thought he knew about how to get things done in the midst of controversy is wrong now.
This is not a parliamentary system, it just looks like one.
The Founding Fathers knew that parliaments could be dictatorial, which is why they chose not to have one. They dispersed and divided power. Even when one American party controls the White House and both chambers of Congress, a president’s clout is limited by the size of the majorities, legislative rules and the courts. Trump can almost be forgiven for thinking that he had parliamentary power: Politics in America has been drifting in the one-party-rules direction for years. Obama passed his health care bill with only Democratic votes; Trump figured he could pass his with only the GOP. That already has been proven to be a faulty assumption.
The GOP doesn’t really like him, and the feeling is mutual.
Unlike Ronald Reagan, Trump did not build from the ground up a new party and a new movement that he then led in the White House. Trump essentially carried out a hostile takeover of the rundown hulk of the GOP, battered by the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush and the rebellious internal assaults of the tea party. Virtually every key figure in the House and Senate was for someone other than Trump, and some of them ran against him. Trump swept the primaries with money and jingoistic salesmanship, but he remains widely distrusted ideologically and personally on all sides.
Trump & Co. were elected because they’d had nothing to do with government ― and it shows.
The “transition planning” cobbled together by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a joke, and even that work was ignored by the coup plotters who burst into the White House. Almost no one in Trump’s inner circle had any executive experience in government. The list of rank amateurs in the highest places includes son-in-law Jared Kushner, chief of staff Reince Priebus, policy strategist Stephen Miller and counselor Kellyanne Conway. They are big into concepts and messages ― sales, Trump style ― but so far not the blocking and tackling of running things.
If they want, the amateurs can console themselves with a semi-philosophical excuse: The government, which they regard as too big and too intrusive, can use a little neglect. And so we see unfilled sub-Cabinet posts, catch-as-catch-can administrative oversight, rule by fiat that demoralizes the denizens of what White House Big Thinker Steve Bannon calls “the administrative state.” Misusing a fancy academic word, he says he’s for “deconstructing” it ― and why not do it by not filling positions or following procedure?
Worse: a contempt for the process of government.
Republicans have joined Democrats in marveling at the sophomoric crafting of something as valuable to Trump ― allegedly ― as his moratoria on travel to the U.S. by citizens of six (originally seven) Muslim-majority countries. But the sloppiness is a sign of the contempt with which Team Trump views government itself. Yes, the Obama Nerds went over the line ― for example, some of what they did on drones is outrageous, many argue. But perhaps because they were Democrats (and lawyers for the most part, led by Obama himself), they showed enough respect for procedure to get things done.
What goes around comes around.
Team Trump seems shocked and outraged that so many forces in public life seemed arrayed against him, almost by instinct. What did he expect? He attacked the press at every turn, and at his rallies he all but sicced rabble-rousers on them. He attacked a federal judge as biased because he was of Mexican heritage. He called his rivals for the GOP nomination by crude nicknames, and reveled publicly in their humiliation. He hired and fired at will, dismissing aides but pulling them back in (because they could cause trouble for him in one way or another) with flattering phone calls.
The Senate alone is a monument to possible payback. Do “Lyin’” Ted Cruz, “Little Marco” Rubio, “One-Percent” Lindsey Graham, “Crazy” Rand Paul and “He’s No Hero” John McCain want to help the president out in a pinch? Trump tried to have House Speaker Paul Ryan defeated in his local GOP primary in Wisconsin. Yes, Rubio and Cruz accepted dinner invitations at the White House. They said they had fun, but revenge is a meal best served cold.
Money isn’t everything in D.C.
With his proud contempt for ethics ― or even the need to appear ethical ― Trump and his family are making a mockery of the notion that public service is a selfless exercise in patriotism. Trump has turned the presidency, at least in part, into a commercial enterprise that is enriching his family wealth. But as cool as that might seem in at least in some avaricious circles in Manhattan and Palm Beach, it doesn’t impress anyone in Washington, a city that needs money, but that doesn’t really value it per se. Money can buy you the White House, as Trump proved, but it can’t buy you D.C. Trump has yet to understand that people in the city care about the law, or at least procedure, because it is power.
A master of cunning, apocalyptic, xenophobic narrative, Steve Bannon has given Trump a grander mission ― that of saving the Christian West from Islam, materialism, Wall Street, Hollywood, the Ivy League and the “Mainstream Media.” Reared and educated in a blue-collar, conservative Catholic family in Virginia, Bannon’s radical medievalism fits Trump’s royal conception of himself. But the risk is that the president will remain oblivious to what is going on outside the reality TV show Bannon has designed for him to live in, or that Trump will think that he has the kind of kingly authority that allows him to ignore the best parts of the Founders’ vision of a pluralistic, secular and welcoming America.
Too many cooks.
Bannon is not the only power center, despite having placed himself on the National Security Council and having created a new “Strategic Initiative Group” inside the White House with himself as head. Other power centers (for now) include Vice President Mike Pence, Priebus and Kushner, not to mention Hill leaders. So who controls the message in these crucial days and weeks? No one, except perhaps the person who has created the most trouble for the White House: Donald J. Trump.