It’s Thanksgiving next week, but thanksgiving won’t be the dominant emotion for the clear majority of Americans that didn’t vote for Donald Trump (53.2 per cent and counting, according to the latest popular vote tally). Be thankful indeed for the saving grace of friends and family.
For this bloc of the population, what happened on 8 November was shattering enough. But worse could be on the way. Will it be Good Trump or Bad Trump: the restrained figure who throttled back his Twitter account and managed to utter some post-victory bromides about national unity, or the bigoted and vindictive candidate who dragged the national political discourse down to depths undreamt of? We try to find a crumb of comfort in every “moderate” remark issuing from the candidate’s mouth: maybe it won’t be so frightful after all. But the evidence so far is not encouraging.
First though, let’s dispense with a couple of red herrings. Contrary to many reports, this hasn’t been an especially chaotic transition. Procedures on occasion may have been unorthodox – not least the initial contacts with foreign leaders – but in terms of top-level appointments, Trump 2016 is running ahead of Obama 2008.
When it comes to shambolic transitions, none beats Clinton 1992, when an undisciplined and chronically unpunctual young Governor of Arkansas didn’t manage to nominate his (third) choice of Attorney General until three weeks after his inauguration. Trump named his Attorney General on Friday, just 10 days after winning the presidency.
Second, why the fuss over Trump’s children and son-in-law, and their possible role in the future White House? Leave aside the fact that when they were showcased during the campaign, they invariably came across as more presentable and presidential than their father.
Trump’s way has always been to surround himself with a coterie of super-trusted advisers (and was “Hillaryland” so very different?) In his case the group includes his family. Much ink has been spilt over whether they will need special security clearances. But that’s hardly the point.
A president’s family always plays a key role, formal or informal. Don’t tell me that Michelle Obama (or Laura Bush in her time) haven’t been aware of great secrets of state and, when asked, haven’t given some spousal advice. More obviously Hillary Clinton ran her husband’s ill-fated attempt to reform healthcare, while George W Bush was so close an adviser to his father that he deputed in late 1991 to tell John Sununu, Bush senior’s unpopular Chief of Staff, that his time was up.
As for the much-cited precedent of JFK appointing his brother Robert as Attorney General, Trump is now barred by law from doing anything comparable, even perhaps from bringing his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to the White House as an adviser.
What matters are the conflicts of interests that could arise if his children run his business interests while he’s in the White House. That’s what Trump wants, and the blind trust requirements that apply to other top government officials with substantial investment assets seem not to cover presidents. The idea of a US president atop a secretive billion-dollar empire with interests around the world is a recipe for trouble. But there’s still time for a true blind trust, or better still the disposal of that empire – even for the President-elect to make public his tax returns.
The point is that neither the manner of the transition nor Trump’s closeness with his family indicate what sort of president he will be. For that, look to the decisions he takes and the team he is putting together. Only then will the first pieces be filled in the puzzle that defines Donald Trump the President-to-be. Can a man who has behaved one way all his life be changed at the ripe age of 70 by a uniquely draining and humbling office for which there is no preparation?
There have been a few hopeful signs, most notably Trump’s choice of Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, as the next White House Chief of Staff. Priebus has close ties to the party establishment. He’s a known quantity and not a boat-rocker. Another is Congressman Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick to head the CIA. Pompeo is a security hawk, but he’s a recognised expert on intelligence matters. Nor is he known as a longstanding Trump crony.
But that’s about as far as the good news goes. Take Jeff Sessions, Trump’s earliest supporter in the Senate, and a former federal prosecutor, whose record of racist comments saw him rejected for a federal judgeship. Sessions is ferociously anti-immigration, and a law-and-order zealot who’s not too fussed by enhanced interrogation techniques (aka torture). Expect little of mercy’s gentle rain from heaven to drop from a Sessions-run Department of Justice.
Then’s there’s retired general Mike Flynn, Trump’s choice as national security adviser, the president’s in-house right-hand man on security and foreign policy affairs. As head of the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency, Flynn proved himself an innovative thinker but a terrible manager. He is as hotheaded as Trump in his worse moments. He has no truck for Islam in any guise, seeing the faith as a “cancer” responsible for Islamist terrorism. He also appears to share Trump’s relatively benign view of Russia.
And finally Steve Bannon, populist and erstwhile boss of the ultra-conservative shriek-sheet Breitbart, mouthpiece of the alt-right, who will be chief White House strategist: in other words Donald Trump’s Karl Rove, but a man with whom Rove is a simpering liberal in comparison. Put most charitably, Bannon and Priebus are a recipe for creative tension. But for America’s non-Trump majority, Bannon embodies the bullying, bombastic and intolerant Trump of the campaign trail, and everything it dreads about Trump the President-in-waiting.
Yes, as Hillary Clinton said, he is entitled to an open mind, at this early stage of proceedings. And families gathered this Thanksgiving will be hoping that somehow, normality can reassert itself, that the “Good Trump” will win out. But the President-to-be tore up every rule as a campaigner. Why stop now?
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