Brace yourself now for the deluge of predictable stories about Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride during these first 100 days in office: the erratic tweets and tirades, the confusing shifts in policy on health care and Russia and, underlying all of it, the intensifying rivalries between aides, family members and department chiefs.
Even in normal cases, the whole 100-day construct is pretty silly. Anyone who’s ever started a new job — even one that doesn’t involve overseeing the world’s most formidable bureaucracy and its most powerful arsenal — knows that three months is barely enough time to figure out where the good vending machines are.
Trump’s case, though, isn’t close to normal, seeing as he was the least prepared president to assume office in any of our lifetimes. I say this not because he didn’t have the skill set needed to govern (that’s debatable), but because he literally wasn’t prepared to win. He’d given about as much thought to governing before November as I have to piloting a hot-air balloon.
The reality, to paraphrase Lincoln, is that history will little note nor long remember anything about these blurry 100 days, and when we look back even a year from now, trying to remember exactly who did what in Trump’s first months will be like trying to name the Marlins’ opening day lineup from, well, ever.
We still don’t know what kind of president Trump really wants to be, but I’m betting we’re about to find out.
Consider for a moment how this presidency thing normally works. You’re supposed to spend several months campaigning with a team of longtime advisers and new additions from the top ranks of your party, while emissaries from your campaign begin planning for a smooth handover of power.
It’s unheard of, historically speaking, to wake up as the president-elect without having a pretty good idea of who your main appointees and advisers will be — a list usually gleaned from years in political life.
Then you’ve got a few months of transition time to fill out the ranks of senior management in the various agencies and cement your agenda for the legislative session. By the time you take over, it ought to feel as if the curtain is rising after a long season of rehearsals.
Trump’s journey was nothing like this, and that’s not really his fault, or at least not entirely. Because he ran as an upstart with no political experience, Trump couldn’t rely on the usual cadre of steady and loyal hands. And because no one expected him to win the general election, his campaign never attracted the kind of old-hand operatives like a James Baker or a John Podesta, who can steer you through the serpentine waterways of Washington with a blindfold on.
Trump’s televised transition was really more of a slow acclimation to his having won the job — for him and for the rest of us. Far from having methodically chosen his most senior aides for their intellectual depth and management skill, Trump, apparently in shock, seems to have looked around the room he was sitting in on election night and appointed whoever was standing closest.
“People seem to like you, Priebus — you’re my chief of staff, OK? Bannon and Kellyanne, give yourself some fancy titles and figure all this out. I’m going to bed.”
This is how Steve Bannon ended up on the National Security Council, and how Trump ended up hiring and then firing a national security adviser who was secretly lobbying for Turkey. There was no plan to speak of.
This is an administration that’s apparently struggling with the annual Easter egg roll. You can imagine what that means for trade policy.
And so you have to look at these first few months as really more of a delayed transition. Trump’s been figuring out what day-to-day governing looks like, and whose judgment he can actually trust, and how enormous the bureaucracy turns out to be. He’s had mere weeks to think through what most new presidents have spent a lifetime in politics considering, which is what he really wants to accomplish.
Now Trump seems to be losing patience with his slapped-together and fractious senior team, and if he isn’t, then he’s clearly not paying attention.
Priebus’s sole qualification for the job, his warm relationships with Washington Republicans, proved pretty much useless when Republicans in Congress couldn’t even roll back the health care law that’s had them foaming at the mouth for years now.
Bannon’s paranoid ramblings about war with the media and deconstructing the central state have endeared him to no one, least of all Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. “I like Steve, but you have to remember that he was not involved in my campaign until very late,” Trump told the New York Post this week. You don’t have to have watched “The Apprentice” to know what that means.
Sean Spicer’s months-long meltdown at the podium reached a truly bizarre level this week when he raised Adolf Hitler as an example of humanitarian restraint. Which was kind of fitting, in that Spicer is like the political equivalent of “The Producers”; he keeps trying to get the act closed down, and yet every day the show somehow goes on.
You’d have to think that none of these people are likely to be in their jobs by year’s end, to be generous about it. So it’s pointless to spend a lot of energy divining the differences among Trump’s starter team and cataloging their early failures. What’s more telling — what was always going to be more telling — is whom the president turns to next.
Already you can discern the emergence of powerful voices who weren’t part of the campaign or the postelection reality show. Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs president, seems to have his hands on the economic tiller. H.R. McMaster, the general who took control of a flailing National Security Council, is consolidating his grasp on foreign policy.
Trump seems to have figured out, after his first painful foray into Congress, that the far-right faction of his own party can’t be counted as an ally. He’s made noises about reaching out to Democrats, which seems unlikely to work but might burnish his standing with the independent and moderate voters he needs on his side.
I’ve suggested before that he’ll ultimately choose an experienced, mainstream Republican, perhaps a governor or Bush alumnus, as his next chief of staff. It’s easier to campaign as an outsider than it is to govern as one.
None of this means that Trump is suddenly going to become a more deliberate, less reckless leader than he’s often shown himself to be in these first few months, especially if he grows more insular and more reliant on the counsel of his dilettante daughter and son-in-law. None of it means there aren’t consequences for the decisions he’s made, because there are.
What it means is that, when we look back on this moment, we’ll understand that everything to this point has been a kind of extended prologue, and the real first chapter of Trump’s presidency is only now coming into view.
It’s not the first 100 days that will matter, so much as the next 100 days to come.
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