One week after Donald Trump won the presidency, the country he will take over in 65 days lacks a precise idea of what he will do as the nation’s chief executive.
President Obama has tried to push Trump in the direction of pragmatism. The president-elect’s colleagues on Capitol Hill are trying to pull him in a more ideologically conservative direction. Some members of his own team are advocating a more provocative line.
Trump has offered only general comments since his election, which in some cases have been contradicted by his actions. The coherent message that helped Trump secure victory has blurred.
Uncertainty reigns because Trump came into office riding the anger of an electorate whose resentments he correctly assessed, rather than because Americans fully embraced his policy positions. There were in fact few of those, and mostly without details.
In the absence of a predictable path, Trump stands in contrast to previous Republican presidents. George W. Bush came in as a “compassionate conservative” bent on expanding the GOP’s reach. His father, George H.W. Bush, ran on a desire to soften the edges of his more ideological predecessor, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan’s core views had been honed a generation before he assumed the presidency. He presented a sense of ideological certainty that is so far lacking in Trump, despite his many efforts to cast Reagan as his model.
“Nobody really knows,” Boehner said in an interview on CNBC. “Donald Trump is not an ideologue…. He is barely a Republican. He could be barely a Democrat as well. Nobody really knows where he is going.”
So far Trump seems intent on maximizing his options.
He filled the highest reaches of his governing team by simultaneously appointing a man who had pressed Republicans to reach out to women and minorities and another man who has used his media organization to blister women and minorities as part of an agenda closely allied to white nationalist sentiments.
The construction of a giant wall on the Mexican border? The shredding of U.S. alliances with NATO? Sending Hillary Clinton to jail? Those may or may not remain part of his administration’s program, but he has issued contradictory messages on all three.
Trump may have best described his approach during the campaign: “I like to be unpredictable,” he said on more than one occasion.
“This is a guy, the nearest I can tell, who is the closest we’ve had to an independent president,” said Reed Galen, a former George W. Bush administration official who opposed Trump.
“This is a guy who ran against Republicans, Democrats and Washington,” he said. “He’s not a conventional anything. Who knows how much he cares about unifying the country he won without them?”
Still, forces are at work to influence him. Obama on Monday went out of his way to try to shape-shift Trump toward the middle.
“I don’t think he is ideological. I think ultimately he is pragmatic,” Obama said in a news conference, suggesting that Trump may eventually reside closer to the mainstream than his campaign indicated.
Obama practically pleaded with Americans to give Trump time to find his footing on the matters that will be before him on Jan. 20.
Among them is the fate of the so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the country by their parents at a young age, without proper papers. Obama protected them from deportation, and his administration collected information about them in what was meant as a precursor to granting legal status.
Now, that information belongs to a government soon to be led by a president who has insisted that he would force out those without proper documents. Trump said in recent days that his priority is deporting 2 million to 3 million migrants who he says are criminals — independent estimates place the number of criminals far lower — and he has not said what happens to the rest.
“Think long and hard,” Obama publicly counseled Trump.
Countering Obama’s push is one by members of the president-elect’s party on Capitol Hill. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has reinterpreted Trump’s campaign plans to merge with his own. Trump’s detail-short vow to repeal and replace Obamacare became, in the speaker’s hands, a mandate to wholly change the nation’s Medicaid and Medicare programs, making both less generous.
On some points, the Ryan view appears to have prevailed. Trump talked frequently in the campaign’s early days about steps to control the prices of prescription drugs — something opposed by the drug industry and the congressional Republican leadership. That pledge has disappeared from his statements and his transition website.
Ryan and Trump remain on opposite sides when it comes to their positions on trade, on the construction of the Mexico wall and the sort of infrastructure spending that Trump promised.
Most of Trump’s first week as president-elect has been spent at meetings in Trump Tower in New York.
In the “60 Minutes” sit-down, taped Friday, he did not seem particularly concerned about the street demonstrations that have followed the election.
Yet a telling moment came when questioner Lesley Stahl pushed him on the topic of assaults against minorities, women and gay Americans at the hands of purported Trump supporters.
“I would say, ‘Don’t do it. That’s terrible,’ because I’m going to bring this country together,” he said. “I am so saddened to hear that. And I say, ‘Stop it.’ If it — if it helps.”
Trump sounded sincere, if perhaps unsure of the reach of the grand megaphone he had just won.
But two days later — hours before the interview aired — he announced that he had picked as his senior strategist his campaign chief executive, Stephen K. Bannon, the head of the Breitbart media organization that has regularly tormented a whole range of Americans, including the groups involved in the episodes Trump had just decried.
In a Trump transition team memo, Bannon’s appointment ranked higher than the naming of Reince Priebus as his chief of staff. It was Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee, who commissioned a 2013 report calling for future candidates to embrace women, minority and young voters.
If the campaign is any indication, the most important measurement pushing Trump one way or the other may be public opinion. Nearly every speech he made included some reference to his strong standing in polls, whether that was true at the moment or not.
Interviews with Trump supporters at his rallies suggest that many are looking for a change in direction but will not hold Trump to achieving all of his promises. Executing some of them, however, probably will be necessary lest Trump look as ineffective as the politicians he defeated.
Based on what other presidents have done, “he will try to follow through with the promises that he made,” said Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan. “On the other hand, he offered a less detailed policy agenda than any candidate in recent memory. He may be malleable on some issues and not others.”
Trump may be able to claim victory without actually fulfilling his promises, Nyhan said. He cited the contradiction between Trump’s campaign promises to repeal Obamacare and his statements since the election that he would keep the program’s most popular elements.
“These aren’t all-or-nothing questions and he’s shown himself to be willing to reverse himself on the dime,” he said. “We shouldn’t be surprised.”