Analysis

Trump the president-elect: So far, acting a lot like Trump the candidate

Nearly three weeks into his presidential transition, Donald Trump has hewn closely to the habits that won him the presidency.

He continues to brush aside fine points of policy and freely contradict earlier positions, with some of the shifts seemingly based simply on the latest advice he’s received or the most recent audience he’s spoken to.

He has been drawn to those with whom he shares a personal affinity, preparing a Cabinet that from early indications leans in the direction of tough-talkers and billionaire political outsiders like himself.

And he has turned a deaf ear to concerns about his ethics and temperament: mixing business ambitions with his pending government power in unprecedented fashion and unleashing decidedly non-presidential commentary via his favorite social media platform, Twitter.

On Sunday, angry that Green Party candidate Jill Stein had proposed recounts in three states in which the election results were close, Trump tweeted an exaggeration of the size of his electoral college victory.

Then he falsely asserted that he would have won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Later, and again without evidence, he tweeted that “serious voter fraud” had occurred in California, New Hampshire and Virginia — all states that Hillary Clinton won.

Trump’s claim of illegal voting, a serious charge which, if true, would undermine the legitimacy of the election he won, contradicts extensive analyses that have shown consistent voting patterns from one state to the next and no sign of serious anomalies. But it repeats a theory widely believed among his supporters.

In reality, state by state tabulations have shown Clinton with a popular vote lead of 2.2 million votes nationwide that will probably expand to about 2.5 million once all the remaining ballots are counted. California, where Clinton won by nearly 2 to 1, has the largest share of ballots still to count.

The Oval Office exerts tremendous gravitational pull on its occupants. President Obama, in a fingers-crossed wish, has already predicted that the tug of the office eventually will move Trump into a more conventional orbit.

Not so far. Indeed, if anything, the transition has been a re-run of the campaign that preceded it — more publicly riotous than most with Donald Trump as its centering force.

Such tactics served Trump well in the 17 months since he declared his candidacy for president. Their persistence in the transition resurrects a question asked repeatedly since then: Are these growing pains, or the way it’s going to be?

Some answers may come with the appointments of the most influential Cabinet posts — State, Treasury and Defense — which can be defining positions.

For now, the rancor is public, with one of those jobs being a key point of contention. Fresh evidence came Sunday on network news shows when Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager and advisor, excoriated Mitt Romney, who is under consideration for secretary of State.

Romney visited Trump last weekend at his New Jersey golf club in what was the first visible rapprochement after Romney scalded Trump’s fitness for the White House earlier this year.

Some leading Republicans have said a Romney appointment would heal divisions in the party. On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Conway, by contrast, said that she felt “compelled” to say publicly that she had seen and heard opposition to Romney’s selection that was “breathtaking in scope and intensity.”

“The number of people who feel betrayed to think that a Gov. Romney would get the most prominent Cabinet post after he went so far out of his way to hurt Donald Trump,” she said. “He gave speeches against Donald Trump. He attacked his character.”

“I'm all for party unity,” she added, “but I'm not sure that we have to pay for that with the secretary of State position.”

Conway also cast doubt on Romney’s experience. 

“In the last four years, I mean has he been around the globe doing something on behalf of the United States of which we're unaware?” she asked. 

Her comments followed criticism of Romney by two other Trump surrogates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

That sort of public dispute — whether it was an effort to influence the president-elect or a signal of his intentions —  was one of several Trump hallmarks prominently on view in recent days.

On policy, Trump repeatedly has softened or de-emphasized key components of his campaign pitch. A video released 13 days after the election did not mention three of the biggest applause generators at his campaign rallies — his promises to build a wall on the border with Mexico, to tear up the NAFTA trade agreement and to repeal Obamacare.

In interviews, he backpedaled on another vow — his threat to appoint a special prosecutor to seek to imprison Clinton. 

Sunday brought another item of policy uncertainty — his posture toward Cuba. 

After Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s death was announced, Trump’s personal response was a tweet that said simply, “Fidel Castro is dead!”

Later, his campaign put out a statement saying the Trump administration would “do all it can” to help Cubans achieve prosperity and liberty. But it did not mention reversing Obama’s actions that had expanded ties with Cuba,  as Trump had pledged to do during the campaign.

“Nothing is definite. He'll be speaking with his advisors,” Conway said during an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when asked about Trump’s plans for Cuba.

For more on politics »

Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, sent a very different message in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” 

“President-elect Trump is going to be looking for some movement in the right direction in order to have any sort of deal with Cuba,” he said.

As he seeks to fill in his senior staff, meantime, Trump has seemed untroubled by a looming issue for him: how, or whether, to separate his business activities from his presidency.

Early in the campaign, he said he would turn over his company to a blind trust, then said he’d turn it over to his children, who already serve in executive roles in the real estate firm.

But in an interview Tuesday with the New York Times, Trump pointed out that presidents are exempt from conflict-of-interest statutes and said that it would be impractical to sell off his business empire, which ethics experts from both parties have said is the only way to avoid conflicts.

In the interview, Trump also admitted that he already had mixed business and political talk in some discussions with foreign leaders.

Those moves are reminiscent of his campaign decision to flout decades of tradition by refusing to release his income tax returns or details about loans he’s received. In part due to that decision, Americans have no firm notion of the full range of conflicts that could present themselves during his presidency.

A New York Times survey published Sunday found that Trump’s businesses are operating in at least 20 countries; in many of them, any significant real estate project requires extensive involvement by government officials. They may now have motive and opportunity to try to give favors to — or solicit them from — the Trump family. 

With less than eight weeks to go before he takes office, Trump’s plans, if any, for addressing that issue may be the transition’s chief unanswered question.

On “Meet the Press,” Conway backed away from any suggestion that the Trumps might now distance themselves from their sprawling businesses. 

“Why deny his adult children the ability to do what they do so brilliantly already?” she asked.

She noted that Trump was talking to “ethics compliance folks” to figure out a strategy.

“Everything will be done the way it needs to be done,” she said.

Then she uttered a line that defined Trump’s 20 days as president-elect, and perhaps the weeks and months to come: “There's no question that we're in unprecedented times.”

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

ALSO: 

Trump’s twitterfests: a diversionary tactic that extends the culture wars

Updates on California politics

Live coverage from the campaign trail

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
60°