A split runs through the heart of the American presidency. Looked at one way, it’s a large, centralized bureaucracy designed to translate ideas into policy. From another angle, it’s a man — so far, always a man — sitting behind a desk as the world’s knottiest problems play on his quirks and insecurities.
Seldom has the dual nature of the office been more on display than in the first week of the presidency of Donald John Trump.
All week, the White House rolled out executive orders and presidential memorandums, most of which were strikingly normal — a word Trump’s opponents hate to hear applied to him.
The rhetoric may have been sweeping, the scheduling startlingly ad hoc and the pace unusually hectic. But few of the actions, with the major exception of the ban on refugees and restrictions on immigration announced Friday, would have surprised anyone had they been taken by other Republicans, from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz.
Then there was the rest of it — the displays of presidential id, unfiltered by retainers.
In speeches, interviews and off-the-cuff remarks, Trump obsessed about the size of his inauguration crowds, nakedly declared that he favors “torture” — dispensing with George W. Bush-style euphemisms about “enhanced interrogation” — and sought to explain away his loss of the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by insisting on the falsehood that 3 million to 5 million illegal votes had been cast.
“This is going to be an unconventional presidency,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Thursday in Philadelphia, where Trump spoke at a GOP legislative retreat. “That’s something we’re just all going to have to get used to.”
What voters ultimately will make of all this remains unknown, although Trump’s early standing in polls has been consistently poor. For all the attention the first week of a presidency gets, it’s “seldom determinative,” said veteran pollster Peter Hart.
What is clear is that for the rest of Trump’s tenure, the White House will provide the stage for an ego-driven drama not seen since at least the days of Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson — daunting historical precedents for the new 45th president.
Trump is “conventional in that he wants approval. People in politics seek admiration,” said historian Robert Dallek, a biographer of Johnson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and other presidents.
“In that sense he’s a very conventional politician, but he does this in a very exaggerated way,” Dallek said. There’s “a personality flaw in the man,” he added. “He just cannot abide criticism.”
The problem for Trump, said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington, who has advised presidents going back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, is that “the presidency is constantly surrounded by criticism.”
“It’s a tightrope that he’s walking,” Hess said. “The question is when and if he really steps off the edge.”
So far, nothing as dramatic as that has happened. But the uncensored side of Trump has interrupted his more sober side repeatedly through his first week, like an impish child running into a dining room to stick his tongue out at the adult guests. In the process, the president disrupted his own introduction of an unusually large number of policy initiatives.
The day after his inauguration, a rambling speech at the CIA in which he denounced the media for its reporting on the inaugural crowd count overshadowed Trump’s initial executive orders. Monday went smoothly until evening, when in remarks to members of Congress at a reception, Trump veered into talking about illegal votes. Wednesday brought a televised interview with ABC’s David Muir in which Trump returned to both themes.
“I had a tremendous victory, one of the great victories ever,” he said, adding, “They say I had the biggest crowd in the history of inaugural speeches.”
Trump’s unconventional outbursts and the volume of major policy shifts deeply unsettled the sorts of voters who had opposed him all along, said Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University who studies the presidency.
The campaign had a “postmodern element” that led many people to “assume that most of this was just rhetoric, and now they’re surprised that it wasn’t,” she said. “Some of the things that were written off as demagoguery that would go away, maybe won’t.”
On the flip side, many of Trump’s supporters are clearly thrilled by what he’s done so far, telling reporters about their renewed sense of optimism for the country.
As before, Trump’s aides haven’t worried much about winning over opponents, instead focusing relentlessly on the issues of most importance to the supporters he already has: jobs, trade, Obamacare and immigration. They’ve done so in ways that allowed for bold rhetoric but mostly undefined action, giving the new president maximum room to maneuver in the weeks and months to come.
Trump’s order on the Affordable Care Act, for example, which he issued within hours of taking the oath of office, opened the way for the administration to begin dismantling Obamacare, but did not change anyone’s coverage for now.
Wednesday’s order directing the Department of Homeland Security to begin building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border did not commit to any particular type of barrier, or any specific amount of money. It directed the department to come up with a plan for “operational control” of the border. That could end up meaning a few dozen miles of new fencing or a few hundred, but most likely not a wall stretching the 2,000 miles from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific or new construction along the parts of the border that already have extensive fortification.
Similarly, a second order issued the same day on sanctuary cities allows the administration “at its discretion” to cut off an unspecified range of federal funds from certain cities that “willfully refuse to comply” with federal immigration law. That could sweep in a lot of localities or very few, depending on how big a confrontation the new president eventually decides he wants.
The exception so far — the one order that had major immediate consequences — was the temporary ban on granting entry visas to residents of seven majority-Muslim nations in the Mideast and North Africa, which stopped travelers at airports worldwide. That order, especially the favored status it provided to Christians and other non-Muslims, brought threats of lawsuits and outraged denunciations by Trump’s opponents.
The lack of protest from all but a couple of congressional Republicans, however, reinforces what polling during the campaign season showed: Even a full ban on Muslim immigration, which would be more sweeping than Friday’s order, has considerable support among Trump’s voters.
In other areas, the administration has so far steered away from actions that would have carried big political risk.
Most notably, Trump has not ended President Obama’s program to exempt from deportation young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
Through the week, the administration continued to accept applications for the program, known as DACA, for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly indicated that Trump has no immediate plans to act against the more than 740,000 so-called Dreamers who have the temporary right to live and work legally in the U.S. because of the program.
Trump also has taken no steps yet to end U.S. involvement in international efforts to combat climate change or to renounce Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. And his aides sought to distance him from a draft executive order aimed at reviving CIA secret interrogation sites overseas.
Trump, when asked Friday about his comments on torture, said at a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May, “I happen to believe it does work,” but added that he would defer to his Defense secretary, retired Gen. James N. Mattis, who disagrees.
“He will override,” Trump said — a startling degree of deference by a president to a Cabinet official.
For now, “much of what [Trump’s] doing at this stage is symbolic,” said Hart, who conducted extensive focus groups with Trump supporters during the campaign year.
Ultimately, however, while aides in every modern presidency spend huge amounts of time getting the symbols right, “performance trumps theatrics,” Hart said.
Because of that, Trump has “a longer leash than some expect,” he said.
Trump’s actions in his first week in office may “galvanize the opposition,” Hart said, but “the people who may be the swing voters won’t be as quick to react, nor will they care as much about his outbursts or things that the establishment sees as unpresidential.”
“My sense,” Hart said, “is that they’ve gotten used to Donald Trump.”
Times staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this report.
For more on politics and policy, follow me on Twitter @DavidLauter.