President Trump is moving at an unprecedented pace to change the direction of the country and reset America’s place in the world. Amid the many distractions of his first week in office, the president has kept his focus on the ideas that animated his campaign — most notably immigration and trade — and on the people who most enthusiastically responded to him.
Nowhere has that been more apparent, and with such major implications, than with the indefinite ban on immigration by Syrian refugees and travel restrictions on immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries that he ordered Friday. Even with all the qualifiers, it is a step that two years ago would have been unimaginable for a prominent politician in either party to advocate.
The reality is that he governs as a minority president, and a controversial one. His approval ratings hover around 40 percent. Although he fairly won a majority in the electoral college, a majority of all votes cast in the election went to other candidates. A plurality went to Hillary Clinton. Those facts obviously bother him, as he can’t let go.
His opponents should not be fooled by any of this. Nothing has affected his governing priorities or his seeming determination to act on as many of them as he can as quickly as he can. He is the perpetual-motion president. He may appear obsessed with the false claim that the election was marked by massive voter fraud or the exact size of the crowd at his inauguration. But he is still moving on the agenda that he outlined as a candidate as if he won by a smashing landslide.
Trump’s opening days fully reflect his campaign. He was the chaos candidate, someone who continually found ways to inject controversy and distractions into the conversation. His words and actions often seemed random and self-defeating. But they also seemed designed in part to distract from other controversies and to keep his opponents off balance. His first week in office is an extension of that style and strategy: speed and disorder, but disorder whose partial purpose is to keep his opponents spinning.
Throughout the campaign, the controversies he created drew the most attention. Trump understood there were other powerful forces at work in the election that he could use to his advantage: the dissatisfaction with traditional politicians, a desire for change, Clinton’s political weaknesses, and the iron bond between him and his supporters. What was supposed to sink him did not. Trump has not forgotten.
Nor has he forgotten who put him where he is. He gives no indication that he believes he must reach beyond his base to be successful. His inaugural address was both a vow of dramatic, even radical, change and an ode to the “forgotten Americans” he sees as his base. He also has identified his antagonists, which is always important to him. To the Washington ruling class, Trump rhetorically offered the back of his hand. He would not be bound by convention or tradition. He has been even more blunt in his attacks on the media, which both he and White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon have labeled the true “opposition party.”
Trump’s policies still lack depth and detail. Given a free hand, his would be a United States drawn inward and self-interested, wary of the world. He favors trade and economic policies that not only carry significant risks but also would reverse years of consensus among Democratic and Republican presidents. His executive order on immigration moves the country to where it has never been before, with an all-but-stated religious test for entry into this country. Republicans who reluctantly backed him as their nominee now own the policies, too.
Trump is attempting to take full advantage of one of the biggest powers of the presidency: the ability to set an agenda and communicate his vision and priorities. He is attempting to bend the governmental bureaucracy in his direction, intimidate opponents and even scare his allies in Congress. He has gotten the attention of all of them, along with every world leader of note in every capital around the world. As he was in the campaign, he is the pole around which everyone else moves.
If successful in making good on his vision, his presidency would be described as one of the most important and controversial of modern times — and no doubt one of the most contentious. One week, however, is just one week, which is why it is premature to speculate about how the story ends. No one can project in any linear fashion the future of a Trump presidency.
What is known is that he cannot govern by executive order alone, nor carry out sensitive diplomatic negotiations through tweets, nor do many of the things he says he would like to do without the aid of legislation. Some of these executive orders will carry weight, such as the ban on Syrian refugees entering the country and the temporary suspension of travel from a number of Muslim-majority countries. Others will mostly highlight where Trump would like to go, with action to follow, perhaps slowly.
He cannot replace the Affordable Care Act with an executive order. He hasn’t offered his own replacement proposal. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are in knots over the shape of a plan that would retain some of the best-liked features of the controversial law while creating a new health-care system less dependent on government and more on free-market principles.
Trump’s posture toward the use of torture has been instructive. Since taking the oath, he has forcefully restated his belief that torture works. But in the next breath, he has in essence recused himself from the decision about whether the United States would employ those methods to gain intelligence. On that question, he said he would defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis and the new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, neither of whom supports torture.
The president posits that he is just a voice in this debate, not the deciding voice, unlike Abraham Lincoln, who once, when opposed by members of his Cabinet, cast his vote as the lone “aye” and declared, “The aye has it.” Trump will try to have it both ways here, keeping faith with many in his base by sounding tough about torture in public statements while yielding to the reality that he would face rebellion from congressional leaders and key members of his Cabinet if he ever ordered its use.
He is grappling with what it means to be president when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world. Public comments and tweets about a border wall with Mexico and the need for Mexico to pay for it helped spark a diplomatic rift with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. His joint news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May found the two in apparent disagreement over whether to ease or lift sanctions on Russia, with May firmly of the view that there should be no change.
Trump’s first week in office will not be remembered as smooth. He faces a steep learning curve. The president was at times the undisciplined candidate seen on the campaign trail, perplexing to staff and allies in Congress. At other times, he projected a more serious and sober persona. Through the week, there were mixed signals on policy and distractions that threw his team off course. But as a sign of things to come, it was all that Trump’s supporters might have hoped for and all his opponents feared.