The early indications are that President Donald Trump will be pretty much the same as candidate Donald Trump. He’s still on Twitter, he’s still incredibly thin-skinned and sensitive and he’s still fighting with the media. The notion that once elected he would become more pragmatic and less volatile seems like a fantasy just now, a desperate coping mechanism by those dispirited by the outcome of the election.
Trump promised that he would be “presidential” after the campaign was over, but we’ve never seen this version of “presidential” in the history of the Republic. Some of that disconnect is fed by the optics of a billionaire holding court in his downtown New York City tower/castle as office seekers march past cameras next to the elevators in Trump Tower.
On the other hand, the actual decisions that he has announced so far, almost all about appointments to his administration, trigger reminders of what alarmed so many people about his candidacy. Rather than considering the “best minds”, Trump has chosen a group of policy hard-liners, many on the fringes of American politics.
Most attention has been paid to chief strategist Steve Bannon of Breitbart News and the alt.right, promoters of fake news, conspiracy theories and racial division. No one is really sure how much influence Bannon actually has with Trump, but the image of him whispering in the ear of the new president is not a reassuring one. At very least, and the reality will likely be much worse, Bannon’s appointment sends a signal that tolerance and sensitivity to anyone not in the Trump inner circle is unlikely.
To me, the scariest selection is that of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to be the next Attorney General. Sessions was rejected by the U.S. Senate in the 1980s for a federal judgeship because of his racist ties in Alabama. His most recent stances as a Senator from that same state have been virulently anti-immigrant.
As Attorney General, Sessions will wield considerable institutional power on his own. Voting rights, already imperiled by the Supreme Court’s decision rolling back the 1965 landmark law that gave real protections to those arguing voter intimidation, are likely to be even more under siege with Sessions heading the Justice Department.
Do you remember the perverse glee that conservatives took in referring to our current president as Barack Hussein Obama? They were trying to imply that he was connected or at least sympathetic to Islamic terrorists. Sessions, by contrast, is named for two people who actually participated in armed rebellion against the United States. I won’t use the reference again, but I did want to emphasize how sophomoric any such labelling is.
Reince Preibus has been appointed as Trump’s chief of staff and looks like a moderate compared to the others in the first round of selections. Whether he can actually manage Trump or will even try and whether he can restrain his worst impulses remain to be seen. What I find most troubling about Preibus is his close connection to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a link that many see as a positive attribute.
Trump promised during the campaign to protect Social Security and Medicare. Ryan has viewed those programs as a top priority to privatize and thereby reduce the cost to government. I really doubt that most of Trump’s working class supporters would find that acceptable, but there’s a risk that Preibus will advocate to Trump for Ryan’s agenda with respect to those programs.
The National Security Advisor, General Mike Flynn, has been widely regarded as a top flight military officer who has become increasingly bellicose in recent years. Given free rein, he sounds like he might be eager to intervene militarily in foreign conflicts. What his influence will actually be remains to be seen since the rest of the national security team, including the Secretaries of State and Defense, has yet to be named. A bad omen, however, is that the new CIA Director seems to share the same hard-line views as Flynn.
Personnel appointments are not the only indicator of what a Trump Presidency could be. The President-elect’s disregard for standards, much less rules, of ethics and conflict of interest is ominous. Trump apparently wants his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to serve in the White House despite an unambiguous law that bars nepotism. The notion that Kushner’s not taking a salary would solve the problem shows an obliviousness to ethical standards that is stunning.
The problem with Kushner having a formal role is that it underscores just how insecure a person Trump really is. Many have reported that he has few, if any, real friends and seems to really trust only family members who give him absolute loyalty. To be successful, it’s critical that a president be open to a variety of points of view and not be surrounded by an echo chamber.
Trump’s vast holdings and wealth, his plan to turn control of them over to his children in a trust that is anything but blind, and his continued business transactions while President-elect show not so much a blind spot as an attitude that the rules don’t apply to him. Who will step in and remind him that this is a government of laws, not of individuals?
This is the moment at which you may remember that Trump has still not released his tax returns. Even though the election is over, the American people are entitled to a reasonable expectation that their president is acting on their behalf, not in his own self-interest. Making his tax returns public would be one important step in providing that reassurance.
We’ve also had several incidents that demonstrate that his temperament has not mellowed since November 8. He still feels the need to criticize Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him on Saturday Night Live. Trump blasted out two days of angry tweets after the “Hamilton” cast took the opportunity to address Vice President-elect Mike Pence when he attended a performance. Pence gave a classy and appropriate response; Trump went ballistic.
On a more encouraging note, a spokesperson on Tuesday indicated that Trump does not plan to seek an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s activities despite “Lock her up” being a thunderous applause line during his campaign. For those looking for slender reeds to grasp, that’s the best so far.
Then there’s the “off-the-record” meeting with media leaders at which Trump called them all liars and choose to inflame a feud rather than create a blank slate. He followed that outburst by cancelling and then rescheduling a meeting with the New York Times, a paper that he has attacked relentlessly since the election as well as during the campaign.
Let’s not understate the issue: Trump is trying to intimidate the media. During the campaign, he talked about his intention to change the country’s libel laws to make it easier to sue the press. Trump has no tolerance for criticism and no respect for the historical role of the press as a watchdog for democracy.
All of these are deeply disturbing signs for the country. Trump won and gets to govern, but he doesn’t get to disregard the Constitution or the reality that our system is one of limited government. Unless the remainder of the transition is very different from what the start has been, we are in for an extremely trying four years in which basic democratic values are genuinely at risk.