It is said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. It would be difficult to identify any particularly poetic moments during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, but the sentiment still applies: The idealistic rhetoric of any campaign is invariably overtaken by the gritty realities of running a country. That evolution has been evident in the short time since Donald Trump won the Nov. 8 ballot. A candidate committed to overturning the established order now appears to be working with it, backing away from his most incendiary comments while promising to stick to his core message of “draining the swamp.” The result is considerable confusion about what President Trump will actually do.
Consistent with a campaign that was thinly staffed, riven by infighting and subject to frequent turnover, the Trump transition process has been messy. His transition team was first headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie but he was replaced shortly after the election victory by Vice President-elect Mike Pence — reportedly as a result of animus with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner; Christie sent Kushner’s father to jail when he was a prosecutor — and it took time before paperwork was completed to allow Pence access to critical information. As a result, the new team had not begun to liaise with various bureaucracies, including the departments of state and defense, even as the president-elect began to talk to world leaders. After meeting President Barack Obama, Trump was reported to have been surprised that he had to replace all the staff at the White House.
Nevertheless, it took Trump less than a week to announce his first two appointments, selecting former Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as his chief of staff and Steve Bannon, the chief strategist of his campaign, as White House counselor. From one important perspective, the two men could not be more dissimilar. Priebus is the consummate Washington insider, administrator of the Republican machine that candidate Trump was convinced had rigged the system against him and which he was determined to destroy. Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker, was president of Breitbart News, a website that is the key outlet for the “alt-right,” a reactionary strand of hardline conservatism that rejects mainstream Republicanism. In other words, the two men occupy opposite ends of the GOP spectrum.
A week later, Trump announced his picks for national security adviser (retired Gen. Michael Flynn), CIA chief (Rep. Mike Pompeo) and attorney general (Sen. Jeff Sessions). While the three are not part of the GOP mainstream, they are by no means outsiders: Flynn served as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Pompeo and Sessions are congressional representatives. Thus for all the reported disarray, Trump has been quicker to select key staff and Cabinet members than any of the last five presidents, save for Obama.
These choices give us important insight into what to expect from the Trump presidency. The president-elect has been a very different animal than the candidate. He has been much more restrained, has looked much more presidential and has spoken far more about unity than division.
Still, it is hard to anticipate what to expect from the Trump presidency. His campaign was deliberately vague, avoiding policy detail on purpose. When the candidate did speak specifically about what he would do, he often later qualified those statements, calling them bargaining positions, or denied them completely. Today, the American people and the world are trying to discern what he will do. For example, since the election, he has retreated from his harsh depictions of U.S. allies as freeloaders and suggested that those relationships will continue as in the past.
In these circumstances, personnel are critical. Large organizations take their direction from their leadership — if not the president himself then the department heads. His staff decisions suggest that Trump will retain a combative edge to his presidency, and that he has no interest in making overtures to those he defeated to gain their support. With the exception of Priebus, all his selections are on the far end of political and ideological spectrums. They are all alpha males, which means that their managerial skills — these people are running big bureaucracies — will be tested, and managing them will be difficult too.
It appears as though the most important factor in the selection process is loyalty to Trump. That is useful in a large organization (although it can have drawbacks), but it is worrisome in the presidency, especially when the occupant of the Oval Office has little understanding of the problems that he will be facing. People must be ready to challenge the president; loyalty is important once decisions are made, but truly critical thinking is needed up to that moment.
Equally troubling is Trump’s continuing reliance on a tiny inner circle of confidants, mostly his family. While these people appear to be intelligent, they do not have official positions in the administration, have no particular knowledge of the issues that the president will address and, more disturbing of all, have other jobs that create conflicts of interest. The president-elect seems unconcerned about these potential problems. That indifference is another worrisome indicator of what may be part of the Trump presidency. But, in truth, we are all guessing about what lies ahead.
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