The mystery of Donald Trump’s White House
(CNN) — Winston Churchill once called Russia “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The same could be said of President-elect Donald Trump.
As shock waves reverberate following Trump’s stunning election victory, attention is turning to the kind of president he will be and the character of the administration he will run.
And no one seems to have any answers.
Potential members of his administration, Washington power brokers, media pundits and world leaders alike are grappling for some insight into Trump’s intentions and political direction.
“I don’t think he knows what his presidency is going to look like, either in terms of policy or in terms of style or attitude or temperament,” said Peter Wehner, a Republican who served on the White House staffs of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. “There’s never been a president in modern history, or maybe in American history, where trying to predict how his presidency will unfold is so unknowable.”
Trump has sent mixed signals in the days since his victory, respectfully interacting with President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday before sending a tweet that night blasting protestors and the media only to walk that back on Friday morning.
Part of the uncertainty derives from the shocking nature of Trump’s win — even members of his own team assumed he would lose and had to quickly readjust their expectations when he won.
One source told CNN on Friday that before the election, Trump and his family were not that interested in potential appointments or transition planning but were quickly getting up to speed.
The initial confusion has made the always challenging process of setting up an administration and setting it on an ideological course even more challenging.
Reports filtering out of Trump’s inner circle speak of chaos and disorganization in the early stages of the nascent new administration.
A procession of Trump advisers was moving in and out of Trump Tower in New York on Friday, amid speculation about key appointments like Treasury secretary, secretary of state and White House chief of staff.
The contrast with the secretive, buttoned-down nature of the George W. Bush and Obama transitions could not have been more stark.
Trump’s moved to improve the disjointed nature of the early stage of his transition by putting Vice President-elect Mike Pence in charge Friday. But there are more fundamental reasons for the uncertainty.
Trump’s own lack of experience — he will be the first president in history with no prior political, diplomatic or military experience — make understating how he envisions his own presidency difficult to discern.
He also littered the campaign trail with opaque, often contradictory statements on the key policy issues, from immigration reform to foreign policy, so lacks a blueprint for the policies he will pursue.
Trump’s campaign was not an ideological crusade. It was an attitude and platform to channel the anti-establishment grassroots, so there are no ideological moorings that suggest how his new administration will evolve.
Complex policy challenges
There is little evidence that Trump has thought deeply about the most complex domestic or foreign policy challenges — or that he has an ideological core that could serve as a guide for his administration. And a presidential campaign that turned on personalities rather than policy did little to resolve the nation’s most divisive political questions.
Trump has at times moved close to conservative orthodoxy, for instance on his suggested Supreme Court picks and vow to overturn Obamacare. But his plans for a huge infrastructure program and a wall on the southern border are not supported by many conservatives on Capitol Hill.
And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Friday, Trump suggested he would keep elements of Obamacare after an appeal from Obama, including a provision allowing people with pre-existing conditions to get coverage and another that allows parents to keep their older kids on their policies up to the age of 26.
“I told him I will look at his suggestions, and out of respect, I will do that,” Mr. Trump told the Journal.
Speculation about who will serve as Trump’s chief of staff also suggest a president-elect being torn in two different directions.
Trump is tempted by the idea of tapping Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News firebrand, for the job, sources have told CNN.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell impressed upon Trump that they would much prefer to deal with a more conventional figure. They’re focusing on Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus to fill the chief of staff role, which is responsible for the president’s time and agenda, runs the White House bureaucracy and effectively shapes the presidency.
The choice is between a polemicist with deep ties to the alt-right movement, or a conventional policy professional with an open channel to the political establishment that Trump ran against, but which he needs to pass an agenda.
“When the chief of staff is announced, I think then we will get an indication of the direction he is going to take,” said Kevin Sheridan, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee on on CNN on Friday. “That will be the first indication we have of which way he is going to go.”
Peter Feaver, a former senior Bush administration foreign policy official said that when Trump’s personnel picks do emerge, the trajectory of his future administration will become less of a mystery.
“It is a truism of every administration that ‘personnel is policy.’ Whatever your campaign promises on policy might be, what matters most is the people you appoint and their collective ability to work together as a team,” Feaver, now at Duke University, said.
“That would be true if Secretary Clinton had won. It is true in spades with President-elect Trump.”
The character of the President-elect himself adds to the fog around his transition. Just as no one can say for sure how Trump’s political platforms will evolve, there is no clear indication of how he will behave in office.
Trump put on a statesmanlike display during his victory speech and his first visit to Washington following the election, respectfully interacting with Obama and vowing to bring the country together.
But given the angry and divisive tone of his campaign, and volatile public persona, it’s far too early to say that the presidential Trump is the authentic version of the billionaire reality star who will soon be the commander-in-chief.
New questions about Trump’s demeanor surfaced on Thursday night when he appeared to briefly take back control of the Twitter account that the campaign had reportedly confiscated from him in the final days of the campaign.
“Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now, professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!” Trump tweeted in remarks that appeared to undo his on message performance in Washington earlier in the day.
The tweet was a reminder of the thin-skinned, prickly version of Trump’s character that may be acceptable in a candidate but which infringes the decorum expected of a President-elect.
His swipe at the media also caused consternation among reporters who were often the brunt of Trump’s rage on the stump and who fear a rough ride over issues such as access when he moves into the White House.
Either Trump or someone close to him had second thoughts about the tweet, as it was followed by a more restrained comment on Friday morning.
“Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud!” Trump tweeted on Friday.
Trump’s struggles to find the right tone are emblematic of challenge he faces of in moving on from a campaign to government and have far reaching implications — after all as Obama said on Thursday when meeting in the Oval Office, America’s success now depends on Trump’s success.
Barry Bennett, a prominent Trump supporter told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin on Friday that the new President-elect needed time to adjust
“We should be encouraged by what he has done, we should be encouraged by the Obama meeting — they were good statements. The trend line is very, very good. This guy is a first-time candidate. He has never run anything before,” he said. “He has got a lot of learning to do in the next 10 weeks.”
It is not just in Washington where Trump’s intentions are being closely watched.
His victory caused alarm abroad, especially among close US allies in Europe and Asia shocked by the tone of his campaign and his publicly expressed doubts about the utility of US alliances.
But Trump’s team has apparently been keen to send signals of continuity overseas as the President-elect has worked through a call list of world leaders.
The Elysee Palace said that French President Francois Hollande agreed with Trump to “clarify” his positions on key issues include Iraq, terrorism, Syria and a global climate change agreement that has just come into force.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, like Hollande, pledged to work with Trump. But she delivered a clear warning that the way his presidency evolves would dictate the health of US-German relations.
“Germany and the United States (are) joined by common values — democracy, freedom, respect for the law and human dignity — regardless of skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs,” Merkel said. “Based on these values, I offer close cooperation to the future president.”
In foreign policy, as at home, the team Trump builds will shed light on his intentions.
“His campaign platform on foreign policy was comparatively broad-brush, leaving ample room for specifics to shift the trajectory in one way or another,” said Feaver.
“We will have a better idea of what the policy trajectory actually will be once he begins to name his team and delineate their functions.”