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Trump's trip to Carrier plant helps buff his image and distract from controversies too

Trump's Carrier Corp. jobs announcement was largely symbolic — on an average day the American workforce adds six times as many jobs.

Donald Trump’s trip to Indiana on Thursday showcased him as the president he promised he’d be, a benevolent billionaire working successfully to salvage almost 1,000 American jobs that had been destined to move to Mexico before he interceded.

Trump has honed that image daily with his effervescent use of social media. But his energetic efforts have also obscured some of the conversation about the administration he is building, and whether it plays against his populist posture.

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Joy over the cancellation of a plan by the Carrier air conditioning and heating firm to move its jobs outpaced questions about the costs of saving them, including the millions in taxpayer money that went to the company.

Similarly, Trump's tweeting about persuading Carrier, and about separating himself from his namesake real estate company, overshadowed developments such as picking a Goldman Sachs veteran as his Treasury secretary and stocking his Cabinet with officials who have pledged to do away with programs relied on by some Trump voters. And particularly with the business announcement, Trump put off mounting questions by promising to address them later, delaying specifics while ensuring future attention on whatever he decides.

All presidents work to cast events in their best possible light. In past administrations, such image-making would have been orchestrated by message experts, speechwriters and video teams.

Trump has so far accomplished it mostly with two thumbs and his Twitter account. Thursday's trip to Indianapolis marked his first significant public appearance since his visit to the White House two days after the election.

"What Trump seems to have figured out is the same audience that's willing to accept a message in 140 characters in every other aspect of their lives is also willing to accept it when it comes to politics," said Dan Schnur, a presidential campaign veteran who now directs USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "He seems to have decided that the best way to avoid a controversy is to create another controversy."

Trump's transition has emphasized approach over policy. The policy will inevitably flow once his Cabinet and administration are fully stocked, but it seems unlikely that he will dramatically change his own bent.

After appearing in Indiana, Trump headed to a rally in Cincinnati, the first of several in states that flipped from Democratic to Republican in 2016, delivering him the presidency.

Trump has something of a luxury to crisscross the country. Unlike during the last presidential transition, the economy is not cratering, uneven though it may be. The nearly 1,000 jobs Trump credited to himself and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, while hugely important to the workers and the surrounding communities, are a smidge of the 11 million gained under President Obama’s nearly eight-year tenure.

The decision by Carrier followed its talks with Trump and Pence, the Indiana governor. To hear Trump tell it Thursday, he didn't remember promising to save the jobs until he recently watched a television news clip of a worker relating his pledge. Most of the time, Carrier had simply been a campaign target, its officials cast as greedy outsourcers of the sort he would deal with harshly after he became president.

The company appeared to have canceled some of the planned job shifts because of the combination of tax breaks and fears by its parent company, United Technologies, that its federal government contracts might be at risk.

The targeting of one company is precisely the criticism that Republicans have long made of Obama, whom they regarded as picking economic winners and losers based on ideology.

Trump's plans regarding his role in his own company won't be known until a Dec. 15 news conference.

He first said he "will be leaving my great business in total" to "in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses."

But then he said he was preparing legal documents "which take me completely out of business operations" — suggesting that his children would run the company, but that he could retain his ownership interest.

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Already the Trump children have been heavily involved in the transition, and they and he have conducted meetings that commingled their business ambitions with his presidential plans.

Aides to Trump declined to answer when asked whether Trump would sell his stake in the company. "Stay tuned," spokesman Jason Miller said.

The Carrier and Trump Organization announcements took the focus off actions that flew in the face of the harshly anti-Wall Street campaign rhetoric that so entranced his supporters.

At campaign rallies, thousands jeered his contention that Hillary Clinton was in the pocket of Goldman Sachs. A late-campaign ad showed a picture of Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein as the narrator declared that it was one of a handful of corporations that “robbed our working class.” 

But this week, Trump named Goldman veteran — and campaign finance chairman — Steven Mnuchin as his choice for Treasury secretary. Another former Goldman employee, Stephen K. Bannon, will be Trump’s chief strategist. The company’s president, Gary Cohn, visited Trump Tower amid word that he might head Trump’s budget office.

It's not unusual for executives from Goldman or similar companies to take high-ranking government jobs, but it was bracing coming from a candidate whose election was powered by antipathy toward elites.

Both Mnuchin and prospective Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are expected to face congressional scrutiny over past deals that either cost jobs or, in Mnuchin's case, led to tens of thousands of foreclosures during the housing crisis.

Trump spokesman Miller brushed aside any dissonance.

"The president-elect has done a fantastic job of putting together a Cabinet of winners," he said.

Neither selection is expected to stumble, given Republican control over the nomination process.

Trump does seem to have some room for maneuvering given the enthusiasm of his supporters. He also has a record of ignoring or upending the conventions of a campaign, and now those of a transition.

Since his election, he has cast aside the typical mode in which sober, private reflection leads to a formal announcement of appointments. In its stead is a freewheeling, Twitter-driven grab bag in which few are quite sure if policies are holding or changing, or if he's inviting people in for vetting, for advising or to display contrition. The transition has been as much reality show as staid government.

"Trump has decided that talking about these things in public doesn't look indecisive but it builds suspense," Schnur said.

"In the political world, that is absolutely revolutionary. On the other hand, it's exactly what they do on 'American Idol.' He's just building interest in next week's show."

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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UPDATES:

2:25 p.m.: This story was updated with Trump's trip to Carrier.

9:55 a.m.: This story was updated with background.

This story was originally published at 7 a.m.

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