Donald Trump’s First, Alarming Week as President-Elect
Tuesday, November 22, 2016 - Filed in: General Interest
It’s been one week since an unusually subdued Donald Trump gave his victory speech in Manhattan. “For those who have chosen not to support me in the past—of which there were a few people,” Trump said, eliciting laughter from the crowd of ecstatic supporters wearing red Make America Great Again hats, “I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.” After running a campaign defined more by whom and what he opposed, Trump’s remarks were out of character and welcome.
A week later, those words seem hollow. The first sign that our easily distracted President-elect remained unchanged from the campaign came on Thursday. For twenty-four hours, Trump had shown some restraint. His victory speech raised hopes that, despite the evidence of his behaviour on the campaign trail, he might be capable of magnanimity. His appearance with President Obama the following day was similarly restrained, but it was marred by the fact that he refused to bring his press pool with him to Washington, and by a lie he told in his second sentence spoken in the Oval Office: “This was a meeting that was going to last for maybe ten or fifteen minutes.” It was actually scheduled for much longer. Just after 9 p.m., back in Trump Tower, the President-elect tweeted about his frustrations with protesters and the news media: “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”
Some saw the tweet as self-pitying and pathetic. Others saw it as a frightening attack on the First Amendment by the man who will soon swear to defend the Constitution. Either way, as his first substantive public comment since his election, it was widely rebuked. At 6:14 a.m., clearly sensing the building outrage, he tweeted a reversal of opinion: “Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud!” If there is a lesson here, it may be that Trump still cares about élite opinion. He is obsessed with cable news, especially CNN, and the major newspapers, especially the Times, and their coverage might be able to influence his antidemocratic behavior. For those covering Trump, the lesson is that adversarial journalism, not access journalism, will better serve the public interest.
On Friday, the purge began, when Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, was fired as chairman of the transition and Mike Pence was installed in his place. During the campaign, Christie, perhaps the most unpopular governor in America and Trump’s most embarrassingly sycophantic supporter, was appointed to head the transition. At a time when nobody believed Trump would win, the job seemed like a demotion, a way to park Christie away from the campaign. Christie seems to have taken the role seriously, though. While he stacked the transition team with some New Jersey hacks and Washington lobbyists, he also brought in some talented Republicans who were previously alienated by the insular Trump campaign, including Mike Rogers, the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Then the Trump campaign team, led by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, began a takeover of the team run by Christie, who, when he was a U.S. Attorney, sent Kushner’s father, Charles, to jail for tax evasion and witness tampering.
Christie became a vice-chair of the transition, along with a group of top Trump advisers who seemed to be in line for Cabinet positions: Ben Carson, whose spokesman said he actually did not want to serve in the Trump Administration because Carson believed himself to be unqualified, even though he had run for President; the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is seventy-three years old and resigned from Congress in late 1998; Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who was “forced out” of the Pentagon in 2014, and, when he’s not dining with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, spends some of his time as an analyst on RT, a TV channel funded by the Russian government; the former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is seventy-two and, since leaving the mayoralty, has spent his time as a foreign lobbyist and began his high-profile role in the 2016 campaign cycle with a speech saying, of Obama, “I do not believe that the President loves America”; and the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, whose last appointment to a federal position was rejected, in 1986, after a cascade of allegations that Sessions made racially insensitive remarks, including that he believed the Ku Klux Klan was “O.K. until I found out they smoked pot.”
The rest of the transition team was stacked with Trump loyalists, donors, and family members. Four of the sixteen spots were filled by three of Trump’s adult children—Eric, Donald, and Ivanka—and Kushner, his son-in-law. These are the same people Trump promised would be running his business empire, which has interests around the world and could benefit enormously by influencing government policy and staff appointments.
Amid the flurry of news and events on Friday, some of Trump’s comments to the Wall Street Journal, in a story posted Friday evening, received little attention. The Journal led with the fact that Trump wanted to retain two of the most popular parts of the Affordable Care Act: the regulations on insurance companies that require them to allow children to remain on their parents’ plans until the age of twenty-six, and a provision that requires insurers to accept new customers without regard to preëxisting medical conditions. This is classic Trump: he is for any policy that is popular, and he made no effort to explain how he would retain these regulations without maintaining the individual mandate, which was the insurance industry’s price for accepting the new regulations when the legislation was negotiated.
In the same interview, Trump articulated a new Syria policy:
He suggested a sharper focus on fighting Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria, rather than on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria. . . . Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are.” If the U.S. attacks Mr. Assad, Mr. Trump said, “we end up fighting Russia, fighting Syria.”
A careful reading of the logic behind this policy is that President-elect Trump accepts that American foreign policy should be guided by Russia. According to Trump, if Russia has an interest and military presence in a region, the United States needs to align with Russian interests or “we end up fighting Russia.” Later that day, after Trump talked to Putin, the Kremlin issued a statement welcoming a “dialogue of partnership with the new administration.”
That same day, Trump announced his top two White House advisers. I’ve written about the disturbing background of his new chief strategist and senior counselor, Steve Bannon, who ran a Web site, Breitbart, that helped mainstream the neo-white-nationalist movement known as the alt-right. Reince Priebus was named the incoming chief of staff; his lack of an association with a racist movement made him seem palatable by comparison. It’s worth noting that, like Trump, neither adviser has ever served in the federal government, and certainly not in a White House.
On Saturday, Trump made no appearances and no public statements, save for a single tweet in the morning: “This will prove to be a great time in the lives of ALL Americans. We will unite and we will win, win, win!”
On Sunday, Trump woke up and attacked the press:
9:16 a.m.: Wow, the @nytimes is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the “Trump phenomena”
9:43 a.m.: The @nytimes sent a letter to their subscribers apologizing for their BAD coverage of me. I wonder if it will change – doubt it?
11:03 a.m. The @nytimes states today that DJT believes “more countries should acquire nuclear weapons.” How dishonest are they. I never said this!
All three of these tweets were false. The Times said that subscriptions were up by four times more than normal since the election. There was no letter “apologizing” to subscribers. The paper sent an e-mail noting, “After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?” Finally, the Times had written that Trump “suggested” more countries, specifically South Korea and Japan, should acquire nuclear weapons if the United States withdrew from protecting them—and he did say that. (His tweet was described as “false” by PolitiFact.)
Later that evening, Trump’s interview with “60 Minutes,” recorded on Friday, aired, which my colleague Amy Davidson covered. The most worrying aspect of his interview may have been his hint that the Justice Department, the part of the federal government that, in the hands of an unscrupulous White House, has enormous potential for abuse, was a tool of the President. “I don’t want to hurt them. I don’t want to hurt them,” Trump said, when asked if he still wanted a special prosecutor to reopen the case of Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information. “They’re, they’re good people. I don’t want to hurt them. And I will give you a very, very good and definitive answer the next time we do ‘60 Minutes’ together.” There was no appeal to the rule of law. Instead, Trump talked the way an autocrat talks and suggested that the Justice Department was simply a tool to be used against opponents, unless he felt like sparing them based on his mood and if he believes his potential targets are “good people.” This is terrifying.
On Monday, Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who has questioned whether 9/11 and the Newtown massacre were inside jobs, bragged that Trump had made time to call him, and had promised to appear on his show, as he had done during the campaign.
On Tuesday, the purge of the Christie-ites from the transition team was completed with Rogers’s ouster, and Trump reportedly asked that Kushner, a thirty-five-year-old with no national-security or government experience, be allowed to have a security clearance giving him access to classified information. (Trump, on Twitter, denied that he was trying to get his children “top level security clearance.”) Last night, Trump’s staff told his travel pool that the President-elect would not be leaving Trump Tower. With the pool dissolved for the evening, Trump left for dinner at the “21” Club. The next morning, Trump woke up and launched a storm of tweets against the Times. (“The failing @nytimes story is so totally wrong on transition. It is going so smoothly.”)
As of Wednesday morning, Trump has given two interviews—the ones to the Journal and “60 Minutes”—and has spoken in public twice, at his victory speech, early Wednesday morning, and at his Oval Office meeting with Obama, on Thursday. His transition office has issued half a dozen press releases, and he has made several important personnel and policy decisions. He has tweeted twenty-three times. Seven days may not be enough time to fully assess any new leader, especially in the case of Trump, whose first week was marked by seeming chaos in his efforts to put together an Administration. But what we’ve learned so far about the least-experienced President-elect in history is as troubling and ominous as his critics have feared. The Greeks have a word for the emerging Trump Administration: kakistocracy. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as a “government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens.” Webster’s is simpler: “government by the worst people.”
Note: This a reprint of an article by Ryan Lizza appearing in The New Yorker..