The Trump Era Begins

A Q&A with Dr. Ronald J. Granieri, Director of Research & Lecturer at The Lauder Institute

President Trump is now officially in office and has already ruffled many feathers with statements during and after the election. How do you see him navigating the very complicated and delicate issues on policymaking? Do you think he’ll leave that to his VP and cabinet? What do you make of his picks for top cabinet positions and some of the pushback these nominees have already received, even within the Republican party?

Donald Trump was a paradoxical presidential candidate, and his election has not resolved any of the paradoxes. A wealthy man (whose actual wealth remains nonetheless something of a trade secret) who styles himself a man of the people, he has assembled a Cabinet full of some of the richest people ever to hold the positions. Those people have had success in different business areas, but few have any practical governmental experience. These hires, plus his rhetorical rejection of traditional political and policy elites, are supposed to fulfill his promise bold new policies. To this point, however, his transition team has taken so long to appoint individuals to key positions below the Secretary level (especially in the vital departments connected to national security) that his administration will rely on holdovers from the Obama administration to keep the lights on and policy machinery running.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, famous for his soaring rhetoric, is credited with the quip, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose,” suggesting how different things are once you have the responsibilities of the job. The last decades have shown us that the campaign never does completely end, but a lot depends upon the president’s ability to handle day-to-day management challenges and translate his vision into policy. In his Inaugural Address, President Trump has promised to put America First and Make America Great Again. But slogans, however catchy, are not policy.

Ultimately, Trump has not presented himself as a systematic thinker, and has up to now shown little taste for (or, frankly, familiarity with) the details of policy. The problem with insisting on being an outsider, though is that it will take significant time and effort to get the necessary people into office and up to speed. From now on, it will be up to President Trump to decide how hard he plans to study and understand the government he has promised to transform. Critics such a Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times see the unpreparedness as proof that Trump is not ready for the job, and predict disaster. But Krugman’s positions on the issues mean that he would not be particularly pleased if Trump had a complete team either. Republicans have muted their concerns, but the sharp questions offered by Senator Marco Rubio to Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson suggest the worries that continue behind the façade of partisan solidarity.

Trump’s foreign policy positions have been the subject of a great deal of controversy already—especially after his recent interview with the London Times and Bild where he repeated his opinion that NATO is “obsolete” and expressed disdain for the EU and support for Brexit. Those comments, however, have been contradicted by his nominees for Secretary of Defense (James Mattis) and even prospective Secretary of State Tillerson. So, it remains to be seen how his sentiments will translate into policy. It also remains to be seen whether any international actors will decide to test the new adminisyrati0n and provoke a crisis.

On domestic policy, based on leaks from the Trump transition, Trump’s policies sound very much like the traditional positions of conservative Republicans. That may be the influence of Vice President Pence, but it makes sense as a strategy for President Trump. By promising to fulfill longstanding Republican legislative desires—from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to deep spending and tax cuts—Trump guarantees a smooth honeymoon with the Congressional leadership. Considering that the only way the various potential traps for Trump (from conflicts of interest to possible mismanagement) can harm his administration would be if Congressional Republicans turned against him, this makes a great deal of sense. They will not turn on him if he appears to be helping them get what they want. For as long as that cooperation continues, all of Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric is more shadow than substance.

Trump held his first press conference in six months earlier in January. Do you think this is the style we can expect to see in “pressers” going forward – or will Twitter continue to be the President’s main form of communicating with the public? Do you think Americans can and should care? Or, as Trump noted, do you think it’s only the media pressing him, as he stated: “You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters, okay? They’re the only ones. I won; I mean, I became president. No, I don’t think they care at all.” Are Americans turning a blind eye to serious concerns due to his populist support?

Donald Trump is a seventy-year-old man who just won the presidency by disdaining most traditional advice. It’s very hard to imagine that such a man, whose repeatedly declares his confidence in his instincts, is going to change much now that he has achieved such heights of success. So, I was not surprised by the tone or style of his press conference, and think that the combination of contempt, defiance, and bombast is what we are likely to see going forward.

There will be press conferences, but it’s also pretty clear that Trump will not give up his use of social media. President Obama famously had to surrender his personal blackberry when he entered the White House. President Trump has shown no interest in following that example, and has praised Twitter as a way for him to reach the public over the heads of the press. We are in uncharted waters, considering how the unvarnished opinion of the president can rattle markets and disturb relations around the globe.

That being said, the media has an even greater responsibility to report, investigate, discuss, and analyze policy. It is not for the President to announce what issues the press should or should not examine. A free press is vital for keeping holding a government responsible for its words and actions. For all the rhetoric presenting “the media” and “the people” as separate and opposed, they actually are and should be partners. The only way the people can receive honest information about the government is from a vibrant, diverse, diligent, and even aggressive media. The media are not merely stenographers repeating government talking points, and no one who believes in representative government should want them to be that. Challenges from the media will perhaps make the President and his most enthusiastic followers angry or uncomfortable at times, but that’s what representative government is supposed to be all about.

Lastly, it’s all but certain that Russia had involvement in the election and that their favored candidate was President Trump. How concerned should Americans be about Russian involvement – and what do you make of top Republicans pushing for greater penalties and sanctions against Russia? Are they essentially undermining Trump already or are they simply focused on national security? Do you think we can see more “kompromat” (comprising material) from the Russians on Trump? Finally, do you think an impeachment might be on the horizon?

It is much too early for impeachment talk. So far we have no reason to think that President Trump himself has broken any laws. The story of Russian influence over the election will keep analysts and historians busy for a long time. For now, though, I think we can be sure of these points:

  • The current Russian government was no fan of Hillary Clinton, and took advantage of opportunities to undermine and embarrass her and elevate Donald Trump, including the use of internet trolls and other sources to spread false and misleading stories;
  • At the same time, though, there were plenty of homegrown sources of false and misleading news;
  • There has been no evidence that the actual casting or counting of ballots was manipulated.
  • All of which means the Russians may have gotten a result that they preferred, but the decision was made by American voters operating within our imperfect system.

Trump’s clear interest in good relations with Russia has made many observers (including me) uneasy. It’s nonetheless important to remember that there are intellectually respectable reasons for that position, which has been advanced by reputable scholars and policy analysts. The biggest problem, to my mind, alongside Trump’s own failure so far to lay out his policy vision in any detailed manner, is that Trump has magnified questions about his motivations by his rejection of the traditional forms of transparency, such as releasing his tax forms. In the absence of information, conspiracy theories thrive. Donald Trump has the power to answer many remaining questions; he has to choose to use that power. If he chooses not to, it will be up to others to ferret out the facts.

All of which brings us back to the responsibility of the media to investigate, and the responsibility of citizens to seek out multiple sources of reliable information. Partisanship being what it is, we all face the strong temptation to prefer information that confirms our biases. We all need to do better than that.

The greatest threat to the Republic comes not from shadowy figures in foreign capitals, but from our own inability or unwillingness to nurture and value honest and vibrant debate. With all its flaws, American greatness flows from the strength of our institutions and the engagement of our fellow citizens. Without honest debate and sincere respect for what is true over what we would prefer to be true, America cannot and will never be great.