If you believe the Journal, the president-elect didn’t realize until after he’d won the election exactly what he was in for.
Serious question: Is Trump going to enjoy this job? No president really “enjoys” it, but most know what they’re getting into when they decide to run. What if you won and … didn’t know? What if the job is a lot more tedious, with endless crises and managerial headaches, than you expected it’d be after 16 months of rollicking rallies and daily interviews?
During their private White House meeting on Thursday, Mr. Obama walked his successor through the duties of running the country, and Mr. Trump seemed surprised by the scope, said people familiar with the meeting. Trump aides were described by those people as unaware that the entire presidential staff working in the West Wing had to be replaced at the end of Mr. Obama’s term.
After meeting with Mr. Trump, the only person to be elected president without having held a government or military position, Mr. Obama realized the Republican needs more guidance. He plans to spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do, people familiar with the matter said.
Assuming that’s true — and Trump’s spokesman didn’t flatly deny it — you can look at Obama’s behavior here as both patriotic and very, very smart. Patriotic because he’s willing to go the extra mile to help a successor who’s not only from the other party, who not only intends to undo Obama’s signature domestic legislative accomplishment in the first few months of his administration (and maybe his signature foreign-policy accomplishment, the Iran nuclear deal), but who challenged Obama’s own eligibility for the presidency five years ago. The first black president has been turned out of office by the candidate of the alt-right, who until a few weeks ago publicly questioned whether he was constitutionally able to hold the job, and now, if the Journal story is accurate, Obama’s going to help train him. That’s a lot of pride to have to lay aside for the good of the country, but maybe O’s willing to do it on the theory that everyone will suffer if Trump’s not ready on day one. He deserves credit if he follows through.
But it’s smart too. For all the things he dislikes about Trump, and as much as Trump’s victory is a rebuke to Obama’s own legacy, O surely understands that a Trump presidency presents opportunities for Democrats that, say, a Cruz presidency wouldn’t have. Trump used to be a Democrat; he’s given big bucks to Democrats over the years; he’s by no means an orthodox conservative and yet he enjoys the trust and commands the loyalty of the sort of grassroots right-wingers who pressured Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Paul Ryan to resist Obama at every turn. To the extent that Trump, uniquely, can bring those populists to heel and create space for compromise with the left, he’s actually a better outcome for Democrats than a dogmatist like Cruz would be. (Imagine President Cruz talking up a trillion-dollar infrastructure stimulus.) Sensing that, Obama might seize this job-training development as an opportunity to build a relationship with Trump and earn some goodwill, if not to lobby Trump himself in the future than at least to soften him up a bit to listen to congressional Democrats. He’s already done it, in fact: Remember, Trump’s surprising comment on Friday about amending rather than repealing ObamaCare supposedly came out of his Oval Office chat with Obama. If you’re a liberal with a pipeline to a Republican president who’s not very ideological and who’s susceptible to flattery, then flatter him and earn his trust and see if you can influence his direction, even in small ways. There are lots of things Trump might want to do for which Nancy Pelosi will be a more willing partner than Paul Ryan. Obama might remind him of that from time to time.
And if Obama’s worried that Trump really might indulge some nasty demagogic impulses in office, especially if there’s universal antagonism from the left from day one, then making peace early is a good way to cool that impulse. Although that makes you question why O would have shared the details about Trump’s supposed lack of preparation with any of his staff, knowing that they might leak to the media. Reading this in the Journal this morning isn’t going to make Trump better disposed to learning the ropes from Obama. If anything, it’ll do the opposite. There’s more than enough pride to go around between the two of them.
Speaking of being more interested in the exciting parts of the job and less interested in the mundane managerial stuff, here’s a tidbit from a new NYT story about Trump wanting to avoid the Washington bubble:
Returning home to Trump Tower from the White House may not be Mr. Trump’s only embrace of the familiar. His aides say he has also expressed interest in continuing to hold the large rallies that were a staple of his candidacy. He likes the instant gratification and adulation that the cheering crowds provide, and his aides are discussing how they might accommodate his demand.
“I think Trump has discovered that these rallies are tremendous opportunities for him to get his message out,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media, a conservative website. “It’s actually sort of old-fashioned, that you want to actually meet people and press the flesh with him.”
That reminds me of a different Times story from a few months back, about Donald Trump Jr supposedly having called up one of John Kasich’s advisors and offered Kasich not just the vice presidency but control over the direction of domestic and foreign policy — a de facto “shadow president.” (Kasich later confirmed that an advisor told him this had happened.) When Kasich’s advisor asked what Trump would be spending his time on if Kasich was running everything, Don Jr supposedly replied, “Making America great again.” Maybe this is what he meant — Trump out on tour, rallying excitement for his agenda, while the eggheads in Washington like Ryan and Pence handle most of the details. If you’re an anti-Trumper, that is … not the worst-case scenario for a Trump presidency. It might even be the best-case scenario. Send the man on the road. Conservatives blasted Obama for his “perpetual campaign,” but there are a lot of things conservatives will turn out to be fine with now that a guy with an “R” after his name is doing them.
How well this works depends on which eggheads end up in charge, though. Kellyanne Conway was my choice for chief of staff but Paul Ryan’s pal Reince Priebus should ensure a more conservative agenda than Steve Bannon, an avowed nationalist and Ryan enemy, would have — assuming, that is, that Reince rather than Bannon will actually be steering the ship. It’s never been clear to me who had the real authority inside Trump’s campaign. Was it Conway, the campaign manager, who most strongly influenced Trump’s behavior this year or was it really Bannon who had the influence while Conway was more the sunny, articulate face of the campaign to the world? If the latter then the Reince/Bannon relationship in the White House might mimic that dynamic, with Bannon making the important decisions on who has access to Trump while Priebus provides a salable, mainstream, establishment seal of approval to the program. Bannon, I think, is the only true ideologue in the inner circle, which is why he might not mind being in the background as an eminence grise; without real power, though, I think he’d walk and go focus on building the international alt-right movement he and Breitbart seem so excited about. Reince and Conway, as part of the Republican professional class, might not. Lending Trump establishment credibility has been Priebus’s main job for more than a year, in fact, so why wouldn’t he continue to do it under a plum title like “White House chief of staff”?
All that said, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge for the moment. Trump’s first steps are obvious: Appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice and deliver on replacing ObamaCare. If he does those things, he’ll have enough goodwill throughout the American right that any nationalist plans that Bannon has will receive a more credulous hearing afterward than they otherwise would have. We’ll see.