A month after his victory in one of the greatest upsets of American political history, the country remains deeply divided over Donald Trump and his prospects as the country’s 45th president.
Roughly 4 in 10 Americans approve of Trump’s cabinet picks and his performance so far, according to a new study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
And although views of Trump have improved somewhat since the campaign — on both sides of the political divide — he remains a lot less popular than previous presidents-elect, according to Pew’s research and other recent surveys.
Good afternoon, I’m David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in the presidential transition and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
STARTING OFF WITHOUT A HONEYMOON
The Pew study is worth looking at more deeply because it puts a spotlight on a key element of Trump’s transition: So far, he’s not getting the kind of honeymoon that past presidents-elect have received.
Part of the reason is obvious — most Americans didn’t vote for Trump: He got about 46% of the popular vote, while Hillary Clinton got about 48% and smaller-party candidates took the rest.
But that’s not the full explanation. Bill Clinton didn’t win a majority, either, in his three-way race against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in 1992. Yet in Pew’s survey after that election, he started out with the approval of just over 6 in 10 Americans. George W. Bush lost the popular vote, narrowly, to Al Gore in 2000, but he started out with approval of about half of Americans, with almost 6 in 10 approving of his Cabinet picks.
Trump’s lower standing so far reflects continued doubts that Americans — even many who voted for him — have about his suitability for the job. Almost two-thirds in Pew’s survey called him “reckless,” while just over 6 in 10 said he has “poor judgment” and nearly 7 in 10 called him “hard to like.”
At the same time, people on both sides of the partisan divide perceive the country as deeply divided, and they don’t see much sign of Trump trying to heal the breaches.
The share who see “strong conflicts” in the U.S. between blacks and whites, young and old, Democrats and Republicans all have risen between 2012 and now, Pew found.
By a margin of 54%-31%, Americans said Trump had done too little to distance himself from white nationalist groups who say they support him. And more than 8 in 10 Americans said Trump needs to be “more cautious about the kinds of things he says and tweets.”
GOVERNING FROM THE RIGHT
Trump appears to recognize that the country’s divisions could be a problem for him. Starting with his victory speech on election night and continuing through the past several weeks, he has made some conciliatory statements aimed at those who oppose him.
He has softened his language on immigration and climate change, saying he had an “open mind” on that issue.
But he has been inconsistent on that score. His conciliatory remarks have alternated with tweets and campaign-style rallies in which he often has lashed out at perceived enemies.
More importantly, as Evan Halper wrote, his selections for Cabinet posts have presaged a far more conservative government than his rhetoric might suggest.
Cabinet picks like Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia at Health and Human Services and, this week, Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, for the Environmental Protection Agency, will all come into office with detailed, highly conservative agendas. Based on their past positions, they will want to roll back not just policies adopted by President Obama, but, in some cases, programs that date back to the elder George Bush’s administration a generation ago.
Trump’s transition team on environmental issues, for example, is led by a man with close ties to the Koch brothers who, as recently as this past summer, often was dismissed as a figure on the political fringe. Now, he’s near the center of power.
All that raises questions for voters about what to expect from the new administration. Republican elected officials have struggled with how to balance support for the president-elect with adherence to long-standing party principles that he appears to be discarding, as Lisa Mascaro reported.
Democrats have a different dilemma: Should they work with Trump on any of his plans, seeking to moderate them when possible, or would any cooperation improperly “normalize” a politician who should be considered beyond the acceptable limits, as many liberal activists argue?
Al Gore’s brief meeting with Trump this week, is being held up by many Democratic activists as a prime example of what not to do. As Halper wrote, many Democrats believe Gore was played.
Meantime, Trump is moving quickly to finish his Cabinet picks. On Thursday, he announced his choice for Labor Secretary, Andy Puzder. The head of the fast-food company that owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, Puzder has been a strong opponent of Obama policies on minimum wages and healthcare, as Jim Puzzanghera noted.
He also has been a big supporter of moves to reform the nation’s immigration laws and allow businesses to employ more immigrant labor. That could set up a fight within Trump’s new administration between business leaders, represented by the new Labor secretary, and advocates of immigration restriction led by Sessions.
MIXED MESSAGES ON CHINA
Immigration is not the only issue on which the transition team has sent conflicting signals. Trump often says he likes to be unpredictable, and world leaders are starting to get a taste of what that means.
The biggest example so far came with his telephone conversation with the president of Taiwan. The call appears to have been carefully planned by GOP figures who wanted to send a message to China that the U.S. would expand its support for Taiwan, which the government in Beijing considers a renegade province.
But rather than say that publicly, Trump’s top aides insisted that the conversation — the first in decades between a U.S. president or president-elect and a Taiwanese leader — was merely a courtesy call. That left Chinese officials struggling to figure out what to make of it all, Jonathan Kaiman and Jessica Meyers reported from our Beijing bureau.
Then, this week, Trump named Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa as ambassador to China. As Barbara Demick and Tracy Wilkinson reported, Branstad is what the Chinese call lao pengyou, an old friend, who has known Chinese President Xi Xinping since Xi was a mid-level Communist Party official visiting Iowa on a trade mission three decades ago. He also was an early supporter of Trump’s in a key state.
The president-elect has not tried to explain — or even acknowledge — the contradictory messages. That’s left China’s leaders and American voters to wonder whether relations between two of the world’s biggest powers will now be warmer or more tense.
A FEW OTHER STORIES OF NOTE
The debate about “fake news” suddenly got very real in Washington this week when an armed man showed up at a popular local pizza shop, firing at least one shot before surrendering to police. As Cathy Decker and Mike Memoli wrote, the man told police he had gone to the restaurant to investigate a bizarre story that had spread through the Internet during the campaign.
The story falsely claimed that the pizza shop was the center of a Democratic child-sex ring. It may seem absurd, but workers at the pizza shop and other businesses up and down the block have been receiving death threats.
Sen. Barbara Boxer brought to a close four decades in public life this week with her farewell speech in the Senate. As Decker reported, she defended politics as a noble profession, urging colleagues to keep fighting for their ideals. (Of course, Boxer isn’t leaving quietly and has said she’ll spend her final hours in Washington mounting a filibuster over a water bill.)
And Obama gave one of his final speeches, as well — this one about counterterrorism. As Memoli and Bill Hennigan wrote, the president, over the last eight years, has built a huge, secretive and lethally effective counterterrorism machine. Now he’s facing the prospect of turning the drones and other covert weapons over to a successor whose judgment he doesn’t trust.
White House officials insist they have put in place restrictions that limit how those counterterror efforts can be used. The problem, as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) noted to reporters at a breakfast this week, is that most of those restrictions were imposed by executive order, not legislation, and they can be overturned the same way.
That’s an “unfortunate legacy” for Obama, Schiff said, adding that “now we go into a new administration where the door is left so wide open that there’s no meaningful congressional limitation on the president-elect’s ability to go to war.”
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That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in the 2016 campaign with our Trail Guide, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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