Far from the packed arenas and showy lights of the campaign trail, the education of Donald Trump has quietly begun.
The unlikely Republican presidential candidate who rose to popularity as a political outsider is now preparing for a general election battle against one of the most experienced policy professionals ever to run for president, presuming Hillary Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee.
So as Trump’s team begins to ready the candidate for the fall debates and drafts a series of speeches, including one on the U.S. economy, the New York businessman with no elected experience is cramming to get up to speed, consulting experts, asking questions and refining his ideas in anticipation of certain assault by Democrats.
The crash courses in foreign and domestic policy are a rite of passage for virtually every presidential candidate. But they carry even greater importance for Trump, who has mocked the Washington establishment as overcomplicating problems and won over many voters with simple ideas that often lack details: build a wall to stop illegal immigration, defeat Islamic State, bring back jobs, make America great again.
The campaign has tapped many of the usual sources to school the candidate. Trump visited with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose national security counsel is a mainstay for White House hopefuls. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) chatted with the candidate at Trump Tower. The conservative Heritage Foundation served up names for Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees.
But in addition to the more established committee chairmen, Trump has also assembled an unusual roster of informal advisers – less a Kennedyesque collection of the best and brightest of Washington’s policy elite than an eclectic group of back-bench members of Congress and early campaign allies.
Among them is Sam Clovis, an Iowa college professor and former conservative talk radio host, who is Trump’s senior policy advisor and emissary to the Washington establishment.
On Capitol Hill, Trump is relying on some relative newcomers. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a climate change skeptic, is advising Trump on energy. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), the former mayor of Hazleton, Pa., is putting together an immigration paper for the campaign.
Those who have met with Trump in recent weeks describe him as an attentive, inquisitive pupil, far from the bombastic showman of the campaign trail. They say he tends to listen more than he speaks, can occasionally dip into wonky topics, and is a quick study even if he still has much to learn of the detailed nuances of public policy.
Republican Rep. Chris Collins, an early Trump backer from New York, was taken aback slightly when Trump, during one session, began taking handwritten notes on their conversation.
“The Donald Trump on stage, the entertainer – he is not the Donald Trump in a meeting with six people,” said Collins, who is co-chairman of Trump’s “House Leadership Committee,” a rapidly growing caucus of Trump supporters and advisors.
“Is he high ego? Yes, he is. Does he dominate? No way,” Collins said. “He would rather hear other people speak on their issues and their concerns because he knows what he thinks. He wants to know what they think.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a former presidential rival who once called Trump a “nut job” and has yet to endorse him, was nevertheless impressed that during a recent call Trump asked a pointed question about Syrian President Bashar Assad and that war-torn country.
“He’s really trying to inform himself,” Graham said. “Whether he takes the advice, I don’t know.”
Cramer, a two-term congressman, was amazed during a recent meeting about energy policy when Trump brought up the problem of a farmer who said his pond was being regulated under a new federal waterway rule.
“I thought, ‘Hmm, this is good,’” Cramer said. “I find him to be quite curious.”
Washington insiders believe Trump has much catching up to do as he races to make up ground already well-traversed by a Clinton campaign whose policy staff is thought to outnumber his by about 10 to 1.
Earlier this year, the American Enterprise Institute’s Mackenzie Eaglen had to repeatedly nudge Trump’s campaign for a meeting since he was one of the only Republican candidates she had not yet briefed on defense policy.
Trump’s office eventually dispatched Clovis, who stayed for a two-hour session. Since then, he has been back for a second visit and a third is scheduled.
At one European embassy that has met with the campaigns, an official said that Trump’s policies appear to be more in the formative stages, whereas with the Clinton camp “there are already established policies in the drawer.”
“The style is very different,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to frankly assess the campaigns.
In some cases, the campaign relies on Clovis or other aides to collect information. But often, Trump takes the meetings himself.
Budget guru Larry Kudlow, a former Reagan administration advisor, along with Stephen Moore at the Heritage Foundation, recently had a brief meeting with the candidate after the pair was contacted by the campaign and offered “tweaks” to Trump’s tax plan. Kudlow described an encounter that sounded more like an exchange of ideas than a policy seminar.
“You’re not going to spoon-feed anything to Donald Trump,” said Kudlow, who expects the campaign to also roll out a proposal for spending cuts and deliver an economic address. “There’s no long memos, there’s no documents. There’s conversations…. You toss things out there.”
Some of those who have tried to provide depth to Trump’s views have left unsure whether he will apply the lessons learned. Others wonder whether the advice given to Trump’s surrogates filters up to the candidate.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, the GOP’s keeper of conservative orthodoxy, was engaged in almost daily staff discussions with Trump’s campaign in an effort to find common ground on policy principles before ultimately giving his endorsement on Thursday.
But early reviews of Trump as a policymaker have been mixed, and there are few signs that he has adjusted his fiery stump speeches to reflect a more refined platform. In fact, in recent months the campaign has repeatedly come under fire for policy shifts on such issues as taxes and minimum wage.
His March foreign policy speech was received by some as stiff and contradictory, and his energy address was panned as made-to-order for the oil and gas industry.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
This summer, Trump is expected to roll out additional policy speeches – on taxes, the economy, veterans – that will become a test of his studies.
“This man can focus,” said Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, who was the first senator to back Trump and whose top advisors now populate Trump’s campaign staff.
Sessions says Trump is popular precisely because he doesn’t wade into the weeds to sound like a traditional politician. Like another onetime Republican outsider, Ronald Reagan, Trump has used the power of his personality rather than book-smart expertise to capture voters.
“But he doesn’t have to spend, on most things, long hours to understand the nature of NATO or the Soviet Union or China’s economy,” the senator went on. “He understands that intuitively.”
Added Sessions: “I think it’s what people want.”
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