The battle for Donald Trump’s presidency is underway, and there’s nothing orderly about it. Washington is rife with rumor, speculation and trepidation. The rest of the country is in the dark and divided. Trump always said he liked to be unpredictable, and so it is left to others right now to imagine how all the conflicts, contradictions and questions will be resolved.
Two signs of the absence of clarity came Friday when Trump reshuffled the leadership of his transition team, jettisoning New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and some of his loyalists and installing Vice President-elect Mike Pence to run the show. At the same time came suggestions that Trump might back away from several key campaign pledges, raising once again the question of what his real convictions are. These might just be hiccups. If not, look out.
One big question ahead is which Donald Trump will emerge after Inauguration Day. Will it be the bombastic Trump of the campaign, the one who insulted his rivals and offended one group of people after another? Or will it be the more temperate, subdued and inclusive-sounding Trump who has been on display since the electoral college vote turned stunningly and decisively in his favor early Wednesday morning?
Republicans spent months encouraging Trump to “pivot” to a more presidential style. He resisted, believing that what got him the nomination and would get him the presidency was to knock his rivals as hard as possible and to be as provocative as he could at his campaign rallies. That was the role he adopted to win. No one has a clue as to how he envisions the role of president — how he will address the American people, how he will interact with members of Congress, how he will deal with allies and adversaries.
Trump ran as the outsider who would shake up the capital. By doing that, he became the tribune of the aggrieved, the left out, the people who have little regard for the views of Washington’s elites. But he is a lifelong dealmaker, and Washington is the ultimate dealmaking town. But dealmaking connotes backrooms dominated by insiders making compromises. Do Trump’s core followers want Washington to work better, or do they expect him to be more disruptive, a president who puts the establishment in its place?
A third issue is playing out daily as the president-elect begins to populate the government he will take over in January. He promised in the closing weeks of the campaign to “drain the swamp” in Washington. That is the rallying cry for a populist movement — Trump’s movement. Inevitably, well-connected political insiders — lobbyists, lawyers, think-tank experts and members of the foreign policy establishment — will populate his transition. Who really will control a Trump government, the 45th president or those who could surround and smother him?
Still another question is Trump’s relationship to the Republican Party. Republicans now have what they’ve dreamed about for years: control of the presidency, Congress and, assuming Trump gets his way, eventually the Supreme Court. They also control most of the governorships and state legislatures. Republicans have lost the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections, but their grip on power is pervasive.
Republican congressional leaders are salivating over the prospect of having a free hand to enact a conservative agenda. But is their agenda the Trump agenda? House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has an agenda ready to go, but how much will Trump go along? They differ on trade and entitlements, among other things. Trump wants to spend big on roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and airports, and put millions of people to work doing so. If that isn’t a big-government, Democratic initiative, what is?
Trump presumably will want to put his stamp on things. If he regarded those congressional leaders as a corner of the swamp he wants to drain, as he suggested by his occasional tweets during the campaign, how does he avoid capitulating to the pressure now to act like a generic conservative Republican? Congressional leaders might see Trump as someone happy to delegate the substantive agenda to others. Trump knows the importance of developing and keeping his brand.
When Bill Clinton was newly elected in the fall of 1992, he held a summit with congressional leaders and, in essence, ceded power to them to set the legislative agenda. Campaign proposals to clean up Washington — symbolic or otherwise — were pushed to the back burner in deference to entrenched powers. His signature proposal to reform the welfare system, the centerpiece of his effort to redraw the image of his own party, took a back seat to other initiatives in part because there was no appetite to confront the party’s liberal base. Clinton later came to regret his decision to defer to Democratic congressional leaders.
The analogy is imperfect but nonetheless holds lessons for Trump. The more he turns over the direction and priorities of his administration to congressional leaders, the more his anti-establishment message will fade to the background. Perhaps he doesn’t care, but the people who supported him so passionately should.
Trump has had little to say publicly since his victory. That has allowed the speculation machine to go into overdrive about his plans and the direction he intends to set. Because his operation speaks with many voices, because of the many factions now vying for attention and power, few people really know what Trump is thinking.
One early indicator of that thinking will be the selection of a White House chief of staff. From various reports, the competitors include Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a true insider and the favorite of GOP congressional leaders, and Steve Bannon, the architect of Breitbart News, a keeper of the alt-right flame and one of the key strategists for Trump in the final few months of the campaign.
At this point eight years ago, then-President-elect Barack Obama had held his first news conference and had named his chief of staff. The identities of other top White House officials were well known. Trump has promised to move swiftly on top Cabinet positions and key White House jobs. Everyone knows that Trump prizes loyalty and has a long memory for slights and disparagements. What his governing principles and policy touchstones, particularly on foreign policy, amount to will be revealed in the choices he begins to make.
Trump won the election by riding a populist revolt driven by people angry, as Dan McGinn and Peter Hart wrote in the Wall Street Journal, at the failure of elected officials, at the absence of secure borders, at the arrogance of the affluent and well educated, at the media and the smugness of many journalists, at their place in the new economy and about “being mocked and vilified as rubes, racists and ‘deplorables.’ ” They are likely to cut Trump considerable slack as president, but they did not vote for him to succumb and become part of the swamp.
One more thing. In the campaign between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, one side or the other was destined to come out of the election desperately unhappy and discouraged. These first days since Trump won have put people in leadership positions on their best behavior, despite the shocks to the political system and in particular to Clinton and her devastated team and Obama and his team, who now see the potential of his legacy unraveling.
Clinton was gracious in her concession speech. The president said his priority is to ensure a smooth transition. Trump was respectful and appeared sobered by his 90-minute meeting in the Oval Office. But the street protests remind everyone of the toll the campaign has taken and of the divisions that remain. It will take more than a smooth transition to overcome all that.