First, we had a candidate and a campaign like no other, then an election and transition like no other. We should have expected President Trump’s first two weeks in office to be just as dizzying as they have been.
Yet Trump lovers and haters alike have stood by, mouths agape. Editorialists have worn out the words “whirlwind” and “firehose,” just as they had recently burned through “unprecedented.”
What has flummoxed official Washington about President Trump more than anything else is his almost manic determination to do things he said he would do — and to do as many of them as possible all at once and right now.
In almost any daylight period of his first fortnight, he has signed at least one executive order upending some element of national policy, indulged in at least one personal feud, disputed at least one news story as it was widely reported and vented his emotions in at least one Twitter outburst.
Flying off to Florida for his first “working weekend,” he left the nation’s capital, and the nation itself, panting for breath.
Trump is now the focal point not only of national political events, but of national attention, period. When was the last time football was so overshadowed in the media the week before the Super Bowl?
Even on the day of the Super Bowl, Trump was making news by defending Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Fox News and by taking to Twitter to blame a judge “and the court system” if there is another terrorist attack in the U.S.
Trump drives the conversation more constantly than any president before him, with his deeds by day and his tweets at dawn. He does it with his most significant action to date — nominating Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court — and a day later he does it by using the National Prayer Breakfast to make fun of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice.
With Gorsuch, Trump made the one move most certain to unite and delight his voters in his first days in office. If all goes well, Gorsuch should be confirmed and on the bench by late April — in time to be the crown on Trump’s first 100 days.
But if the behavior of the first fortnight is any indication, by then we will all be talking about something else, or several somethings else, that the man once known as “The Donald” has done.
“New sheriff in town” goes global
Lest we forget one of his earliest and most famous pledges, the new president wasted no time issuing an order initiating work on a wall on the border with Mexico. He also threatened to impose a 20 percent border tax that would, he said, force Mexico to pay for the wall.
The Mexican president then canceled a planned visit to Washington. Trump later called him and said the U.S. would send troops if Mexico could not handle its own “bad hombres.”
The new president also made good on promises to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that has been in the works for years, substituting talk of a special trade relationship with Great Britain. He made it clear that any previous agreements by the U.S. would be subject to review.
One such agreement struck by the Obama administration apparently riled up the new president during his first conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The U.S. had told Turnbull it would take 1,250 refugees off his hands this year, a deal Trump denounced as “dumb” in the truncated and tumultuous phone call. Australia has been the most consistent backer of U.S. policy on the world stage for the past century.
In other highlights, the president’s first flurry of foreign outreach reportedly included a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a call the White House said was not recorded.
In their Super Bowl Sunday interview, Fox host Bill O’Reilly asked about Trump’s avowed respect for Putin, whom O’Reilly called “a killer.” President Trump shot back: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
Promise keeping leads to problems
But if delivering on promises has a satisfying ring to it, Trump’s actions themselves have also had repercussions — often beyond the intended.
His flurry of executive orders and pronouncements began on the afternoon he made his inaugural address. He said the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) would no longer be enforced where it burdened a person or a business. There, he seemed to say, done.
Of course, neither the White House nor the majority party in Congress is quite prepared to offer a replacement to the ACA just yet, so the health insurance companies wonder who will square the circle on costs. But Trump has set the nation’s new course, and for the rest, well, time will tell.
So it was with a rash of other shifts in policy as well. The new president instituted a federal hiring freeze and said any proposed new regulation would have to be accompanied by the killing of two old ones. He froze some government research into climate change, restarted the Keystone oil pipeline project, and temporarily shut down some federal departments’ social media accounts.
Perhaps the greatest controversy thus far has arisen from Trump’s sweeping order barring entry to the U.S. for anyone coming from any of seven predominantly Muslim countries. Coming one week into the new administration, the order also suspended the nation’s refugee program in general, blocked Syrians indefinitely and placed other new restrictions on immigration.
Although the White House denied this was a “Muslim ban,” it was close enough to please those supporters who wanted it to be precisely that. Longtime backer Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, said the idea had always been to have a Muslim ban and the president had asked to be shown “the right way to do it legally.”
In other words, it played as another campaign promise kept, perhaps the most salient yet. That was surely the tone in the president’s own Twitter messages on the subject, in which he continued to call it a ban even this weekend.
No one should forget that Trump first moved ahead in the polls among Republican candidates for president in December 2015 when he proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. And it was clear from polls and interviews that these moves were resonating with Trump’s legion.
Whatever else polls may show about the current political moment, Trump’s voters are still with him and his hard base could not be more excited.
Pushback scales up quickly
At the same time, there has been pushback on a Trumpian scale. The day after he took the oath of office, hundreds of thousands marched in protest in Washington, D.C., and other major cities in the U.S. — thousands more in Europe.
A week later, when the travel ban was announced, it caused chaos and confusion in international airports around the world. Protesters soon arrived to add their voices. Soon, businesses and schools were objecting as well as human rights activists. Cable TV filled with images of families torn asunder.
Then on the next Friday, a federal judge in Seattle issued a restraining order against the entire executive order. On Saturday night, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit (that has jurisdiction over several states on the West Coast) let the judge’s ruling stand pending further proceedings.
The president reacted with outrage, on Twitter. “What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, came come into the U.S.?”
Of course, not “anyone” can come into the U.S., at least not through an airport or border port of entry, and that has been true for a long time.
But on Sunday, the president was tweeting again: “Just can’t believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and the court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
The Justice Department (where one uncooperative acting attorney general, Sally Yates, had already been fired and replaced) got busy on an appeal. But in the meantime, the Department of Homeland Security went back to admitting people from the targeted countries and the State Department went back to issuing visas.
Other executive actions may also find disfavor once they are more widely known, especially where they may seem to contradict Trump’s campaign promises rather than fulfill them.
One such order struck at the effort to give consumers greater leverage in dealing with investment brokers who manage their retirement money. Snuffing the so-called “fiduciary rule” was only one of several moves that helped bank stocks put yet another leg on the “Trump rally” that propelled the Dow Jones Industrial Average up over 20,000 again on Feb. 3.
There was also an order scrambling the “principals committee” of the National Security Council, dropping the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence but adding presidential chief strategist Steve Bannon. This followed a series of crossed-swords moments with both the retiring DNI (Gen. James Clapper) and the exiting CIA director (John Brennan).
If we are thinking here about points to remember, many Americans may one day look back on these two weeks as the time they realized how important Bannon was to Trump, his election and his plans to govern America. Time magazine marked the emergence of Bannon as the central White House figure by putting him on the cover, calling him both “The Great Manipulator” and “the second most powerful man in the world.”
Bannon had, indeed, begun to look like the power behind the throne, the gray eminence behind much of what Trump was prioritizing — a rival in influence to Jared Kushner, the husband of Trump’s daughter Ivanka, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Kushner is seen as the most trusted intimate, Priebus as the conduit to Congress and party leaders.
Bannon is also notable in that his background is in finance (Goldman Sachs as well as his own firm) and the media, having been a publisher of the self-proclaimed “platform for the alt-right” Breitbart.com, which has been a haven for white nationalists and a variety of conspiracy theories. He and his close adviser Steve Miller are generally regarded as the architects of the inaugural address and the blitzkrieg of policy moves that followed.
Bannon is also seen as a flash point in the new White House’s media relations. He has told the news media in general to “keep its mouth shut” and be chastened by their failure to anticipate Trump’s victory in the election.
Arguing over “alternative facts”
But Bannon has not been alone in his open animosity toward the traditional news media. What had been a difficult relationship during the campaign has persisted into the governing phase of the Trump phenomenon.
On Day 1 of the new regime, an almost absurd controversy arose over the size of the crowd in attendance on the National Mall at Trump’s swearing-in, which Trump and his spokesman called the largest in history. Photographs, transportation records and other evidence suggested the crowd was substantially smaller than for the Obama inauguration in 2009.
Trump sent his press secretary out on a weekend afternoon to dispute all other sources of information and insist on the president’s version. Another White House counselor, pollster and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, later referred to the “alternative facts” about the crowds offered by the White House.
A few days later, in his first meeting with congressional leaders, Trump insisted that campaign totals showing him losing the popular vote by 2.8 million were wrong because “between three and five million” people voted who were not citizens.
The state authorities in charge of this process immediately said this was not possible. Indeed, every study done by officials or academics has found little or no evidence of actual voter fraud. Trump said he would order a major investigation of the matter, but no such probe has yet begun.
Stunners relegated to minor mishaps
It is difficult to assess how a given story would have played in the media, or in memory, had it happened at a different point in time.
How would the country have reacted if the first days of any other presidency had included a nasty firefight in a foreign country that killed a U.S. Navy SEAL and a substantial number of civilians? Or if the senior career staffers at the State Department had decided to retire, almost en masse?
How would the country have reacted had either of the last two presidents issued a proclamation on Holocaust Remembrance Day that failed to mention Jews? And would that story have had legs if it turned out the State Department draft of that Holocaust message had indeed included a reference to Jews that went missing from the White House version?
What if another president, having campaigned on support for expanded Israeli settlements on the disputed West Bank, suddenly said 5,500 such units “would not be helpful” to peace talks? What if that president also suddenly softened support for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
In our particular point in time, stories such as these can scarcely find space or time in the media. Even stories that seem to gasp for air find oxygen in short supply.
The new president remains popular among Republicans, and intensely so among that harder base of backers who voted for him in the primaries. These supporters could not be more gratified by the first two weeks of the Trump presidency if he had finished it by walking across the Potomac.
More generally, however, polls find the new president getting no bounce at all from taking office. Gallup and CNN/ORC put his approval in the low 40s, CBS News’ poll had him at just 40 percent.
The election of 2016 should have taught us not to place too much faith in polls. But it is hard not to notice these numbers are the lowest for any new president since polling began.
Someday, we may look back and be amazed at how high President Trump soared from a poor start. Or we may say the first report card was a portent of what was to come for his presidency.
In any event, we are not likely to forget how it began.