Washington DC is an intimate city that is the backdrop to politics on the grand scale. It’s a “company” town whose trade has a global impact. Spending three days there talking with journalists, business people, and political and church leaders was an opportunity to hear firsthand how it felt adapting to the opening chapter of the Trump Presidency.
Whatever else Mr Trump may be, he is certainly a transformational president. He is no political neophyte. Like his friend Nigel Farage, Donald Trump is a seasoned and continual political being. He has run or publicly thought about running for the Presidency multiple times. He has publicly considered running for Governor of New York. He has made donations to and spent time with candidates from both the Democrat and Republican parties. Over decades he has met many [residents, attended annual Washington political dinners, and given interviews on a wide range of public and policy issues. In Jon Meacham’s excellent biography of George H. W. Bush, he recounts the story of how Donald Trump telephoned the then new Republican nominee to offer his services as his vice presidential running mate – an offer Bush did not take up.
He may never have held public office before the presidency, but Donald Trump has been a public political figure for a very long time. At 70 years old, never having been invited to hold any governmental position by anyone, this was his last chance of running for the office he had long coveted. The desperation of the last throw of the dice was evident in his willingness during the campaign to do whatever was necessary to win. It is evident now in the early stages of his presidency.
Rocky starts to new presidencies are quite normal – Washington is used to change and churn. Ronald Reagan had a difficult first two years. Bill Clinton had to call in Republican heavyweight David Gergen to put his White House back on track. Jimmy Cater’s presidency was a shambles for four years. The current chaos of the White House is not aberrational.
President Trump is having to fill more public offices than any previous president. In recent years the number of political appointees to departments and bodies has increased, whilst the number of full-time public officials has fallen. It is not just the big jobs at the top the federal government that is taking time to fill, but much more junior ones too. Keeping the government working day-to-day is a serious problem. As part of “draining the swamp”, the president could reduce the number of political appointees and restore a greater number of public officials – restoring non-party integrity to these roles and reducing the number of jobs he has to fill in one move.
People say the last president who had as bad a relationship with the intelligence agencies as Donald Trump was Kennedy. President Kennedy had great problems with both Allen Dulles and J. Edgar Hoover. One he moved on, the other he did not dare challenge. So far no great clash with the Chiefs – military leaders – has occurred, at least in public. Indeed, the President has continued Obama’s military deployments in Ukraine, and elsewhere. There is a growing sense of some action in the South China Sea region.
Richard Nixon had a famously tricky relationship with the press, but Donald Trump has taken it to a whole new level. Indeed it’s not really possible to describe it as a relationship in any meaningful sense at all. Yet this seems to be serving both the president and the traditional print press and broadcast media well. Trump won at least in part by running against the mainstream media. It set him apart and he forged a relationship with America that is separate from mainstream news outlets. In turn, the mainstream media has found a renewed purpose in covering, reporting and fact-checking the president and his team – and not just a new purpose, but significantly higher ratings and readership figures. Only time will tell how much damage this great clash between the White House and the White House press corps is doing to the wider public discourse. But one thing is evident: people are certainly more engaged than they have been for a long time. Everyone, everywhere, has a view.
For most of his time in office President Obama had a difficult and often unproductive relationship with Congress. Unlike Presidents Johnson, Reagan or Clinton, Obama was unable to charm and cajole his Congressional and erstwhile Senatorial colleagues into working with him more frequently. Even President George W. Bush managed more legislation than Obama. The most immediate question being asked on Capitol Hill is whether President Trump can deploy his deal-making skills to effectively push through his legislative agenda. On the campaign trail, Trump raised great hope and expectations that he would do something, do many things, for ordinary people. Executive Orders have their place, and the president has not been slow in issuing them, but legislation is where real change is made. On Capitol Hill they are waiting to see if the great deal-doer can actually get the deals done.