WASHINGTON—Donald Trump will be sworn in is as America’s 45th president on Friday with a speech he has suggested will be inspired by Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.
His transition has not been like theirs.
Or anybody’s, really.
Trump has raged through the two months since his victory, casting aside norms of decorum, policy and international relations while refusing to temper the anger that thrilled millions of voters while scaring much of the world.
Here are 11 things his transition has taught us about the president-to-be and his looming administration:
It wasn’t just rhetoric: Trump supporters and critics alike brushed off much of his campaign rhetoric as bluster, strategic metaphor to be discarded the day after the campaign. His preposterously tall Mexico wall seemed a prime example. In fact, he appears serious about building a barrier, even if it doesn’t precisely match his previous description. While he has backed off on other pledges — ripping up the Iran deal, for example — it wasn’t all nonsense.
Ball of confusion: Democrats used the Senate confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet nominees to grill them on his most controversial remarks. Instead of defending the boss, as nominees are usually expected to do, they simply disagreed — on Russia, on torture, on climate change, on NATO. Will his views or their views prevail? Until further notice, there’ll be an unusual degree of policy uncertainty.
Expect upheaval: Forget his campaign words. During the transition alone, Trump has declared the “One China” policy up for negotiation, suggested he still thinks NATO is “obsolete,” said he doesn’t care what happened to the European Union, and expressed a desire for closer ties with Russia. For better or worse, he was signalling the dawn of a new international order, with America’s role in the world transformed. The consequences of this kind of realignment are impossible to predict.
Look, a fly!: Trump has a famously short attention span. His transition conduct suggests he might have trouble focusing on the weighty matters of governance at the expense of trivialities. Exhibit A: while he has declined to receive a standard daily intelligence briefing, he has made time to weigh in on the table settings for inauguration balls.
Republicans won’t stand in his way on conduct: The chairman of the House oversight committee, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, aggressively pursued investigations into the official conduct of Hillary Clinton. He is now making clear that he has no intention of spending much energy overseeing the dealings of the party mate in the Oval Office. Unless Democrats win back the House in 2018, don’t expect much checking-and-balancing from Congress . . . .
. . . but Congress is where the policy action is: Trump is a master attention-monopolizer, and it’s tempting to obsess over every pronouncement and feud. The meaningful action, though, will often be in intraparty policy battles between congressional Republicans, especially as the incoming president usually has little interest in specifics. On Sunday, as Trump set Twitter alight with a vague proclamation that his Obamacare replacement would include “insurance for everybody.” Republicans were working on plans that would not do so.
Resistance is possible: Republicans control the entire federal government, and Democrats are demoralized. That doesn’t mean they can’t get results. A public uproar, led by the left and joined by Trump, pressured Republicans into abandoning plans to gut an ethics watchdog.
He’s no invincible juggernaut: It’s understandable if everyone is a little suspicious of polls at the moment. But national polls were pretty accurate; Trump lost the popular vote by two percentage points after trailing in the polls by three, and national polls now show him with an approval rating in the 40s, 20 points worse than his three predecessors at this stage. His base is loyal, but not big. A big error or two might make him toxic fast . . . .
…but he is a formidable political force: Betting on a quick impeachment? It is more likely that Trump again proves unexpectedly successful. His command of political showmanship, evident again in his skilful claiming of credit for job creation that has little to do with him, allows him to establish powerful narratives before the facts can catch up.
Ethics problems abound: Ethics-in-government experts are unanimous: to avoid conflicts of interest, Trump needs to sell his company. He isn’t doing so. His decision to merely hand over management control to his sons guarantees that there will be clashes between his private business and his official duties . . . and very possibly the constitution.
Healing isn’t happening: Trump delivered a gracious victory speech in which he said “is time for us to come together as one united people.” He has made no effort to make that happen. Between mocking Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, insulting civil rights legend John Lewis and turning a Happy New Year tweet into a gloat, Trump has proven unwilling to attempt to heal the wounds of the campaign. By all indications, this will be a scorched-earth presidency.