Leftists of the #Resist stripe should not be too excited and conservatives of the populist stripe should not be too concerned about the ebb and flow of Washington politics. The change of policy direction from Barack Obama to Donald Trump has been broad and stark; the determination of the Democratic leadership to follow their angry base has denied any vestige of cooperation; the conservative optimism created by the Republican control of the White House, the House, and the Senate has gotten ahead of reality; and Trump’s desire to carry every issue directly from the campaign into his yet-to-form government has led to more difficulty than was necessary. It is time for a deep breath.
A few realities that he has (hopefully) learned:
1. He has to be very careful in delegating in a management structure where there are so many egos fighting for power, and so many power centers looking for ways to attack the administration. The order temporarily halting immigration from war zone countries where vetting is inadequate was poorly handled, apparently with the direction of Steve Bannon – done while a hostile Obama holdover was still running the Justice Department; done with little involvement of the Secretary of Homeland Security; sloppily including “green card” holders; done without a clear implementation plan, a public relations plan, or coordination with Congress. Trump cannot be everywhere, but he quickly needs to figure out who he can trust.
2. As part of delegating and trusting subordinates, he needs to allow his key advisers to select their own staffs. He is better off without Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser, but – if reports are accurate – he has publicly botched the opportunity to replace Flynn with Vice Admiral Robert Harward, by insisting that Harward keep Flynn’s chief deputy KT McFarland. With Mattis at Defense, Kelly at Homeland Security, Tilleson at State, and Pompeo at the CIA he does have strong, competent, sympatico leaders, but he needs a strong leader in the White House – in part to keep Bannon in check.
3. There is an unholy alliance between the Democratic leadership who are incensed by Russia’s release of hacked Clinton and Podesta e-mails during the election, rogue Republicans who see Russia as a Cold War adversary, those who are legitimately offended by Vladimir Putin’s KGB management style, and much of the media who are looking for a Watergate-type story to take Trump down. He cannot be sucked in. Roosevelt worked with Stalin. Reagan “trusted, but verified”. Trump’s geopolitical priorities – crushing ISIS, rebalancing our trade relationships with China and others, stopping nuclear proliferation – require a pragmatic working relationship with Russia. An early firing of campaign director Paul Manafort and the recent firing of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn suggest that Trump understands the political poison of an apparent cozy relationship with the Kremlin, but his inclination to develop a good “eyes wide open” relation with Putin is on target.
4. We will be challenged internationally – Iranian missile tests; North Korean missile and nuclear tests; Russian missiles threatening the Baltics and intelligence gathering off of the East Coast; Chinese bases and aggressive patrols in the South China Sea. With nary a supportive word from the Democrats or the media, Trump is showing much patience, not letting words outpace actions. His team needs to provide options to demonstrate that provocations will bring consequences.
5. It is very difficult to control information in the digital age – Snowden; Manning; hackers. It is doubly difficult with a large portion of the bureaucracy – Obama appointees and others further down the food chain – opposed to the Trump agenda. The first manifestation has been in the national security arena where laws have clearly been violated, but it will be worse on domestic subjects – EPA; Education; Obamacare; Energy; HUD – where internal deliberations stand to regularly appear in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
6. The Trump public relations team needs to up its game. It is a tough job with the boss Tweeting, the media viewed as the enemy, and KellyAnne Conway being asked to continue the magic that she brought to the campaign. Strategic messaging is needed.
And a sanity check on where we stand after Month 1:
1. Mitch McConnell is proceeding slower than his predecessors getting Senate approval of Cabinet appointees, and the Democrats are presenting more consistent opposition than is usual, but the one loss to date – Andrew Pudzer at Labor – is about normal, and replacement Alexander Acosta is clearly superior.
2. Trump is establishing candid, if not warm, working relationships with world leaders – Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Japan, China. He does not have Obama’s gift for oratory, but he does have a direct personal style and immense capacity. NATO leaders understand that they must start paying their agreed share. He is digesting longstanding policies, accepting some (One China), and rejecting others (there must be an independent Palestinian state.)
3. With the confirmation of Stephen Mnuchin at Treasury and Tom Price at Health and Human Services, discussions with Paul Ryan’s House can begin in earnest on tax reform and Obamacare replacement. There are many paper and electronic pages being filled opinions and insights about both, but the players are just now taking the field.
4. A stellar Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, is making his way toward installation about April 1 – with Chuck Schumer to decide whether to force Mitch McConnell to change Senate rules to allow acceptance with 51 votes.
5. We have an Attorney General who will support law enforcement.
6. And a Secretary of Homeland Security who will secure the border.
The road is bumpy, but it has been less than a month.