WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump is first and foremost a showman, and he loves nothing more than a good cliffhanger.
“I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said when asked if he’d accept the election results if he lost, one of the many times during the campaign when he tried to keep the focus from drifting away from his favorite topic: him.
Of course, Trump didn’t lose ― well, not the Electoral College, at least ― and he is now playing the same coy game with the media when it comes to staffing his new administration. “Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!” he tweeted amid the chaos.
The approach to governance from the president-elect has been both puerile and entertaining, like a magician doing cheap sleight-of-hand tricks for a roomful of kids, over and over and over again. But on a fundamental level, there has been nothing all that surprising about the first two weeks of the Trump era. Those who held out hope that a different Trump would emerge after the election should be disappointed.
Trump supporters during the campaign had a remarkable ability to see in him what they hoped he would be, rather than what he promised he would be. As Trump backer Peter Thiel put it: “The media always is taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously, but not literally.”
For those who worried that Trump would use the White House to personally enrich himself, he has declared himself above ethics laws (which, to some extent, is true) and posited that he could, “in theory,” run his business and the country simultaneously.
There are already multiple anecdotes to suggest he is prepared to do just that. Foreign diplomats have said they feel pressured to stay at the Trump International in D.C. His daughter Ivanka, who is supposed to run the Trump empire while he is in the White House, has sat in on meetings with leaders from Japan and Argentina, and hawked the jewelry she wore during a “60 Minutes” interview. During a call just days after the election, Trump pressed British officials to help with a wind farm operation he detests because it ruins the views from his golf course. During a call with Argentina, according to regional reports, Trump pushed to get his stalled Buenos Aires hotel approved. (The Argentinian government subsequently, and unsurprisingly, denied the report.)
For those worried he was serious about his anti-immigrant demagoguery, Trump has tapped Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of Alabama ― an ardent immigration critic who once dismissed virtually all Dominican Republicans as useless for American society ― to be his attorney general, and Steve Bannon ― who rose to prominence on the back of the white nationalist movement ― as his chief strategist.
For those hoping Trump’s flirtations with white supremacy were merely a campaign ploy, his response has been underwhelming. He disavowed a group of neo-Nazis and white nationalists who organized at an event in downtown D.C. this week to celebrate his victory. But that only came after he was repeatedly pressed to do so in an interview with The New York Times. Prior to then, he gave what amounted to a gentle wrist slap.
For those who hoped he’d drain the swamp, he has pulled together the most fattened pack of alligators to prowl the city in decades, handing over key elements of his transition to lobbyists, bankers and hedge fund managers. (The lobbyists were eventually kicked out, but were told they could return if they de-registered.)
Trump has since laid out a thorough lobbyist ban for people working at his White House. But the past week hasn’t exactly been a showcase of good governance. His university settled fraud lawsuits for $25 million; his campaign was fined $1.3 million by the Federal Election Commission; and his foundation admitted to self-dealing, which could subject it to a penalty or fine.
For supporters who hoped Hillary Clinton would finally meet with justice, Trump announced unilaterally that, in fact, there’d be no prosecution after all. He then told The New York Times that maybe he still would, but he didn’t want to “hurt the Clintons.”
And for those who hoped he would respect longstanding government precedents, that announcement was more jarring. Trump, they worried, was conveying that he had the power to decide which cases would be pursued and which would be avoided ― thereby stripping away the agency of the attorney general or an independent prosecutor.
For supporters on the isolationist right and anti-war folks on the left who hoped he would pursue non-interventionism, Trump floated John Bolton as his secretary of state, one of the most militant hardliners in the foreign policy community.
For those who hoped he’d surround himself with smart and capable people, he appointed Michael Flynn, a retired lieutenant general fresh off his stint as a paid contributor to the Russian government-funded television network RT, as his national security adviser. What Flynn has for a resume he lacks in friends and a diplomatic touch. Most Republican foreign policy professionals want nothing to do with him. “He’s your typical short Army general with Napoleon syndrome. He knows what he knows, and screams a lot when he doesn’t get his way,” said one source close to the process who knows Flynn. “Flynn will have some serious personnel issues and he might just wash out.”
For journalists, who hoped that Trump’s repeated attacks on the press were mostly show, he has done nothing to soothe concerns, save to signal that he might not try to open up libel laws as he once suggested. Trump has ditched his protective pool of reporters, lashed out at those covering him, declined to hold a press conference and berated an off-the-record gathering of network executives and anchors.
Though Trump called for people to take the streets after President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election, he condemned protests against his own win. He then spent the weekend tweeting his anger at the cast of the Broadway show “Hamilton” for pleading with his vice president-elect, Mike Pence, to run an inclusive administration.
There is much time to go, even before Trump takes the oath of office. But past is proving to be prologue so far.
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