The president-elect is learning what he’s up against — and so is the country.
This is what winging it looks like, America.
Donald Trump is compulsively improvisational and ran the most successful back-of-the-napkin operation in American political history, but the challenge confronting him is, by his own admission, nothing like anything anybody has ever faced. Like practically everybody else in the country, Trump (despite his statements to the contrary) really didn’t think he’d be spending this weekend trying to staff the upper management of the world’s sole remaining superpower.His transition process was practically nonexistent — and was thrown into chaos by the ouster of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie by allies of Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Trump Tower staffers, including Steve Bannon, who feared that Christie’s Bridgegate scandal would overshadow their efforts.
It’s been five days since the reality TV star became the reality president and judging from his public pronouncements and a slightly dizzy “60 Minutes” appearance, he still seems to be grappling with the vast implications of his stunning and unexpected victory. But in the past few days — amid protests in several major cities and a massive case of the national frights about his fitness to govern — Trump has made a handful of moves that offer the first hints of what kind of president he will be.
So what do we know? He’s basically the same brash invader who sacked the establishment citadel on Election Day — but seems a lot more flexible than the sloganeering populist who vowed, in an oath of iron and blood, to build that wall, trash Obamacare and overcome the “rigged system.”
In the space of the past 48 hours, a mellower, more presidential Trump seems a bit more comfortable with the system he will soon lord over: His selection of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has already sparked a minirebellion among some supporters who were hoping Trump would, for real, detonate the establishment.
“Priebus would not have been my choice,” longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone told me. “It’s going to upset people … but one appointment does not an administration make.”
The presidency is, simply put, the most complex job on the planet — and has bedeviled men with far more preparation and experience. Will he imperiously control his underlings — as he did on “The Apprentice?” Or will his disinterest in the mechanics of governing render a politician whose appeal is rooted in strength a staff-controlled weakling? Nobody knows — especially Trump.
Here are five takeaways from Trump’s five days as improbable president-elect.
He’s going to build a big, beautiful … what? Since his election (and a 90-minute sober sit-down with a suddenly admirable President Barack Obama) he’s softened nearly every one of the big, bold policy promises he made — to wild approval — at his rallies. He’s always bought himself wiggle room by emphasizing his flexibility as a deal-maker, but back-pedaling has been the prevailing feature of his brief pre-presidency.
Trump says he won the election “easily,” but he’s well aware that’s not exactly the case, people in his orbit freely admit. Clinton is likely to prevail by 1 or 2 percentage points in the popular vote nationally, when California completes its long, slow count this week — and that erodes his argument for having a clear mandate, Democrats say.
Moreover, he’s well aware of the frayed nerves, domestic and foreign, in the wake of his win.
That explains why his personal volume knob has gone, in the space of less than a week, from a Spinal Tap 11 to an I Like Ike 4.
Repeal and replace Obamacare? Sure, but only if some version of the prohibition against discrimination of patients with pre-existing conditions is preserved.
Lock her up? Not a big priority. Let’s talk infrastructure, he says.
Drain the swamp of “lobbyists and special interests”? Eventually, but not right away. “[E]verybody that works for government, they then leave government and they become a lobbyist, essentially. I mean, the whole place is one big lobbyist,” he told CBS. “I’m saying that they know the system right now, but we’re going to phase that out.”
The threat to re-evaluate security partnerships with allies like South Korea? One call to Seoul cleared that up on the eve of his victory — he reiterated in standard presidentese his commitment to maintain the status quo.
That deportation force that will forcefully eject millions of illegal south-of-the-border types? That’s been modified, in the course of several interviews, to a more moderate plan to more aggressively catch and punish illegals who commit crimes here.
How about the 800,000 college students who might deported if Trump repeals Obama’s 2012 executive order? Priebus, Trump’s new right hand, told MSNBC the day after the election: “He’s not calling for mass deportation”; not a mass rollback of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
But the biggest nonshocker came on Sunday night when “60 Minutes” host Leslie Stahl asked Trump whether he still planned to build his big beautiful wall with Mexico — or whether less drastic measures will do.
“[In] certain areas, a wall is more appropriate,” he said “I’m very good at this, it’s called construction, [but] there could be some fencing.”
Reince reigns. Cue the theme song for the “Odd Couple” — and an updated version of the show’s iconic opening question: Can two men who want to dictate the direction of the Republican Party share a West Wing without driving each other (or Trump) crazy?
On Sunday, the campaign announced the not-unexpected news that Republican National Committee Chairman Priebus — one of the few mainstream GOP leaders to remain (mostly) loyal through Trump’s darkest days — would be awarded the most powerful job next to the presidency, chief of staff. Bannon, the enigmatic Trump Whisperer who runs Breitbart, an alt-right news/propaganda emporium that has been accused of anti-Semitism, racism and sexism, was given the important but subsidiary position of chief strategist and counselor.
In a statement, Trump described the two men (the dapper, disciplined and deeply establishment Priebus — Felix — and the rumpled, rich, literary, laid-back and zealous Bannon — Oscar) “equal partners to transform the federal government.”
They aren’t. Trump, who is not exactly a student of presidential history, may not know it yet, but he will eventually: Chiefs of staff, by definition, run things — controlling the day-to-day flow of information that reaches the president, critical under-the-radar appointments (like deputy Cabinet secretaries) and, most importantly, the tenor and direction of the communications, political and legislative teams that determine the direction of an administration.
One senior Trump aide likened Priebus to one of Trump’s property managers. “Trump’s attitude is just get the job done, and do anything you need to do.”
Bannon’s role of counselor (last occupied in the Obama White House by John Podesta) can be a powerful position, but it is essentially advisory, and fits Bannon’s chosen (and paradoxical) role during the campaign. He was a goad, pushing Trump to take on a crooked system. But he was also an insecure candidate’s Linus blanket, calming Trump down and urging him to resist the urge to haphazardly tweet or defend himself to distraction.
“Bannon doesn’t give a s—t about the day-to-day stuff and didn’t want to get into that kind of minutiae during the campaign, so he’ll be cool with this,” said a Trump ally close to both men. “People get Bannon all wrong. … They think Trump loves him for the ideology. Wrong. He’s businessman. He loves him because he helped him win. That’s why he’s in the White House, period.”
Two West Wings? No two presidential advisers have ever represented such radically different visions of the conservative movement as Priebus and Bannon.
Trump aides say everybody gets along pretty well. But suppressed rivalries have a way of popping up under the pressure of running the country.
Even before Trump takes office, the Priebus-Bannon appointments set up a natural, if not irreconcilable, factional division in the West Wing.
The 44-year-old chief-to-be has never held a government job, but he’s a seasoned and temperate political operative who rose from running the Wisconsin GOP to the big national job by dint of his flexibility and commitment to enlarging the party’s appeal. It was Priebus who presided over the famous-infamous 2012 RNC post-mortem of Mitt Romney’s losing campaign, which pinned the blame on archaic ground and data operations and policies that alienated blacks, Hispanics and women.
“Our message was weak; our ground game was insufficient; we weren’t inclusive; we were behind in both data and digital; our primary and debate process needed improvement,” Priebus said when the document — which was shredded, burned and mocked by Trump’s team in 2016 — was released four years ago. “There’s no one solution. There’s a long list of them.”
But Priebus is a pragmatist, and the RNC’s commitment to providing Trump with the rudiments of a battleground state ground game (coupled with Trump’s innate appeal to white working-class voters) helped deliver his candidate’s big win in the upper Midwest — including a razor-thin victory in basic-Blue Wisconsin.
Bannon couldn’t be any more different. His conception of the GOP establishment is as a diseased host organism ripe to be taken over by outsider candidates who tap the coiled rage of the forgotten men and women of the lapsing white electoral majority. Under Bannon, Breitbart has become a traffic-driving, baldly pro-Trump site promoting a populist, anti-globalist agenda that targets establishment Republican stances on trade, world affairs and the inclusiveness championed by Priebus and the party’s macerated mainstream. He’s also been accused of pushing racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric — and reportedly told his ex-wife he didn’t want his kids hanging around Jews.
Most importantly, the 62-year-old former naval officer and Goldman Sachs investment banker has encouraged a war’s worth of Trump frontal assaults — and was one of the principal authors of the president-elect’s midnight-in-America closing argument that targeted bankers, media elites, and the Democratic coalition of minorities and coastal elites as villains who were keeping America from being great again.
“Trump likes to have his subordinates battle it out — but this is something else,” said one senior Republican Party official friendly with Priebus. “This is either going to be ‘Team of Rivals’ or ‘Hunger Games’ — or maybe both.”
Paul Ryan, winning. Priebus is close to the squeaky clean, policy-obsessed House speaker — a widow’s peaked anti-Trump who delayed his endorsement, then flayed the GOP nominee for the “Access Hollywood” tape. Trump returned the favor by calling the speaker “weak and ineffective,” while tweeting (a month before Election Day): “Despite winning the second debate in a landslide (every poll), it is hard to do well when Paul Ryan and others give zero support!”
But Trump’s pique with Ryan was nothing compared with Bannon’s animus, which predated the candidate’s tussle with the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman. Bannon railed against Ryan as “the enemy” and claimed his policies were aimed at creating “a one world government,” according to Breitbart insiders interviewed by The Hill’s Jonathan Swan.
When one staffer suggested building a bridge to Ryan in a December 2015 email leaked to Swan, Bannon replied that his goal was to see Ryan “gone by spring.”
Ryan and Trump have, for the moment, patched things up: Tthe speaker lavishly praised Trump’s win and even gave him props for minimizing GOP congressional losses, a move one Trump associate called “paying his tribute.” And Ryan is likely to stay out of the firing line as long as Priebus remains in the president-elect’s good graces.
“I think it could be a problem,” said one top Trump adviser who has talked with him several times since Election Day.“Reince is Paul’s guy, not Trump’s.”
Trump is nervous — and he should be. White House officials present for Trump’s visit to the Oval Office last week said the man who ridiculed Obama and questioned the legitimacy of his birth certificate seemed genuinely humbled by the encounter and grateful for assistance.
“It’s enormous. I’ve done a lot of big things, I’ve never done anything like this,” he told Stahl of his reaction to being elected. “It is — it is so big, it is so — it’s so enormous, it’s so amazing. … I realized that this is a whole different life for me now.”
The country feels the same way.