Monday, January 23, 2017

Expectations Of A Trump Presidency

He has been in the public eye for 40 years. When he announced his candidacy for President of the United States, he was viewed as a clown jokester that got continually less funny over time. When the first votes were counted, he leapt to the head of the large pack behind him and never looked back. He surprised everyone by winning a major party’s nomination built upon a wrecking-ball campaign against the political status quo. His personality-driven campaign continued into the general election, which he was given no chance of winning. But a last-minute surge of disaffected and disenfranchised voters –mainly white, lower middle-income,  conservative voters fearful over the loss of jobs and the “traditional” social order – came together to give him the unexpected win. On January 20th, 2017, Donald J. Trump became our President.

By all traditional measures, he is the most ill-prepared President in our history. He ran as the advocate of the average citizen and working man/woman. Yet he has never spent a single day in public service (much less governance), never worked as anything but the absolute-control CEO of a closely-held family business, never suffered the difficulty of losing a job or being unemployed, never wondered where his next meal or dollar would come from. So what are we likely to expect from a minimum of four years of a Trump presidency? Speculating upon future political outcomes is always a risky sport, but there are a few framing themes we can perhaps see in the haze of the crystal ball.

1. No Core Principles. The bad news is that Trump has few, if any, core philosophical or political principles that guide him. The good news is that is that Trump has few, if any, core philosophical or political principles that guide him. Which means that almost any political/social position is theoretically possible to come out of a Trump presidency. Trump is guided by end results, not philosophy or process. Get his ear, convince him of a worthwhile financial or self-glorifying outcome, and that can drive his version of policy. He will most certainly (and intentionally) surprise us, frustrate both political friends and enemies, confirm opponents’ suspicions, and inevitably disappoint his supporters’ high expectations of him.

2. Rules Are For Others. Trump has never answered to a boss/supervisor. He has never been accountable to a Board or to stockholders. He has made his own rules, done what he has wanted how he has wanted. But a Presidency is borne and bred within the nursery of tradition and imagery, and Americans take their role expectations of “the President” very seriously. So far Trump has delighted in flouting these expectations. His ridiculing comments about people, his refusal to divest himself of conflicts of interest, his decision not to release his tax returns, his push to confirm his Cabinet appointments before being fully vetted, his personal attacks on the intelligence community and other government employees, all fly in the face of presidential tradition. It is a pattern that will permeate downward, and continually create unending crises of moral compromises and ethical complaints for him and his administration.

3. Beyond Criticism. The President is the most criticized individual in the world. Almost everyone thinks they know better than the President, and is free and willing to say so no matter how inappropriate their ideas may be. Trump has shown no ability to let such criticism slide off his back or to pick only worthwhile battles to fight. Instead, we are treated to an unending series of petty fights not worthy of presidential attention. Trump has shown no ability to debate criticism in substantive terms. The argument never goes beyond highly personal insults that seek to discredit the criticizer rather than disprove the criticism. People who praise him are “great” and “beautiful”; people who disagree with him are “losers” and their career accomplishments and organizations are “failures.” Credit is taken for achievements not of his doing; responsibility is never taken for failures; it is all “the media’s” fault. Trump lives in a self-made bubble designed to insulate him from admitting the slightest shortcoming; “facts” are invented out of nowhere without regard for truth or consistency to protect that bubble. The credibility of the White House will progressively take a huge hit; such erosion will do significant damage to the ability to lead the country. A person who takes him-/herself  this seriously does not warrant being taken seriously. While a Trump supporter may enjoy reading such insults in the moment, one should never forget that they could well be the next target for Trump’s angry words.

4. Presidents Are Not That Powerful. The presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world. But each ex-president has acknowledged how limited that power actually is. There are the Constitutional limitations on the president’s powers. There are the strong egos and career experience of Cabinet appointees. There is the intentional distribution of balanced power among the House, Senate, and Judiciary and the egos of these officials. There is “the bureaucracy” that was there before you came and will be there after you leave, the president being just “temporary.” There are 50 governors and state legislatures intent on going their own way. There are other countries and their leaders. Regardless of their smaller size and military prowess, they are sovereign nations able to make their own decisions independent of American desires. And then there are “events” over which you have no control (e.g. 9-11; school shootings; North Korean atomic weapons) but which nevertheless dictate the agenda. Trump has been used to giving orders and watching things automatically get done. The deliberateness of government and international diplomacy will frustrate him and create adversaries everywhere.

5. No Pivot. During the early campaigning, pundits said Trump would “pivot” and tone down the harsh and outlandish statements when the primary voting started. Same after he won sufficient votes to ensure the nomination. After the Republican Convention conferred the nomination, he would then pivot and “act presidential” for the general election. After he became president-elect, the weight of the impending office would sober him to leave the campaign mode behind. It never happened. His transition as President-elect has been a continuation of his campaign. He continually stepped on the toes of the one sitting President, inappropriately trying to act as a “second president” by commenting on national and international issues before his time. He conducted a rerun of “The Apprentice” by publically parading potential cabinet choices through Trump Tower in a disrespectful spectacle that demeaned their status while trying to enhance his own image of authority. All while the ugly Twitter words and criticisms continued to come. There was no Pivot. There will be no future Pivot. Trump will be stuck in campaign mode for the next four years. He will not act “presidential” as we have known it; he will act “Trumpial” as he defines it. What we have seen is what we will continue to see. Americans are noted for having a pretty short-term attention span; “Campaign Trump” will wear pretty thin for everyone over a four year span.

6. Yardstick for Presidential Success. Trump’s whole history is built around financial success. A large profit on one’s Income Statement may be a satisfactory measure of business success; it is not a sole measure of government service success. There are too many agendas, too many diverse “stockholders,” and – in spite of all the campaign rhetoric and economic statistics – too many financially successful citizens for economic success to be solely sufficient. There are many other issues that will drive the public’s response to Trump’s presidency. Unfortunately, it appears that Trump is setting up a bifurcated presidency going forward. He seems very interested in foreign affairs, defeating ISIS, negotiating trade deals and creating more domestic jobs. So he will be very engaged with those Cabinet departments. But domestic affairs / social issues will prove to be less interesting, so he will pay only cursory interest there. This will leave Vice President Mike Pence – the darling of social Conservatives – in de facto leadership over the domestic agenda and those Cabinet departments, several of which have truly reactionary Cabinet-level leaders. They will run amuck for a while in their moment in the sun. It will last until the negative reaction sets in as the public realizes that cutting budgets means cutting services, American jobs means higher costs at Walmart, tariffs on imports means reciprocal tariffs on exports, eliminating support for the Arts means no more Sesame Street for parents, restricting voting rights hurts everyone, not just minorities. Trump will cut heads when the blowback becomes personal against him.

Such is the framework for the next four years. Lacking both a popular vote mandate and high approval ratings, the upcoming political landscape will be an unending series of contentious adversarial encounters. We will each find much to disagree with, whatever is our political positioning. But some stuff will get done that we can agree with due to differing alliances on one issue to the next. We need to pick our battles, select the Tweets worth reading, conserve our energy, not get on the roller coaster. It is going to be quite the ride, regardless of our politics and for whom we voted. A unified America is not just around the corner.

©   2017   Randy Bell     

Monday, January 2, 2017

Trump's Team

After a presidential election is completed, the singular job of a President-elect is to create “the Team” of people who will be sources of advice and/or managers of Executive Branch departments. (It is not his/her job to try to run or speak for the country until after the inauguration.) So what are we to surmise of Donald Trump’s appointments to date?

Of the 16 cabinet-level positons appointed thus far, 3 nominees are retired generals – a concern given our tradition of civilian control of government. 5 have no government experience; 4 have no expertise in their department’s mission – a potentially steep learning curve. More of a concern is that 6 appear openly hostile to the Mission of their department – expect many contentious intradepartmental and public battles to be fought. (The Environmental Protection Agency, and the environment itself, are bracing for a full frontal attack, including from its nominated Director.) 5 have previous federal/state government or military leadership experience – which should help provide some balance to the inexperience.

5 nominees are successful mega-rich business people, including 3 with background at Goldman Sachs – which Trump criticized heavily, and faulted Hillary about. 5 were active campaigners for Trump – suggesting Trump does pay his political IOUs. 3 are female (19%); 1 is African-American (6%); 1 is Indian-American (6%); 1 is Asian-American (6%). 4 are generally considered downright scary by a cross-section of politicians and commentators (Bannon; Flynn; Price; Pompeo).

It is certainly a mixed group, with some glaring inexperience. It also includes some “anti-government” individuals more dedicated to crippling their departments rather than enhancing them, with just as much a disturbing propensity for “making up truths” that Trump evidences. For a campaign directed to “the working people,” the Cabinet seems awash in dollar signs. The CEO community is well-represented; the worker community is conspicuously absent. There are many unknowns as to what to expect from this group. Much will depend on whether they will be left to run freely on their own. A key question is how much Trump – a non-detail and delegate-oriented manager – will give them more specific directions and expectations as to their targeted outcomes, and in what direction he specifies. Trump ran on changing the political and diplomatic status quo; this Team seems aligned with a change agenda. A fresh look at old ideas and programs is always worthwhile to do, but unthoughtful change for its own sake ultimately benefits no one. The next four years will be all about arguing over the specifics of those changes.

It is always dangerous to predict how someone will respond once they find themselves in a powerful government position. I will not do so here, regardless of some very real concerns. Except for “the four scaries” noted above, it seems a futile waste of time and energy to fight battles that have not (yet) presented themselves in substance, especially given a Republican majority Senate set to confirm most nominees pro forma. We can encourage the asking of substantive and revealing confirmation questions, remain vigilant and informed about new policy proposals, be objective and supportive of worthwhile and reasonable changes as they arise, and react responsibly where and when needed.

Meanwhile, you might want to note the following: American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), 125 Broad Street, 18th Floor, New York NY 10004; I suspect that our state and federal court systems are going to be very busy during the next four years trying to rebalance an unbalanced political structure. I am sure the ACLU would appreciate your assistance.


OPTION: For some of you interested in reading more details on these nominees, short bios follow.


State: Rex Tillerson, retiring ExxonMobil CEO. No government experience. No diplomatic experience. Extensive business dealings internationally; has close ties with Russian government. Reportedly holds conservative political views, but not an ideologue.

United Nations Ambassador: Nikki Haley, Governor, South Carolina.  No diplomatic experience. A strong critic of Trump during the primary, especially his call to ban Muslims from the U.S. Indian-American.

Defense: James Mattis, Marine General (Ret.). “A Marine’s marine.” Very thoughtful and well read, slow to push for warfare, but once in goes all in. Independently minded on international issues, not a knee-jerk hawk. Appears highly respected by Pentagon, State Department and Intelligence personnel.

CIA Director: Mike Pompeo, Representative, Kansas. On House Intelligence Committee, which oversees the CIA. Committee investigated Benghazi, "found no new evidence of wrongdoing by the Obama administration or Clinton"; Pompeo was convinced there was a cover-up. Favors use of torture and surveillance programs.

National Security Adviser: Michael Flynn, Army General (Ret.) Ardent Trump supporter. Former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Fired in 2014; began campaign against Washington elite and dangers of radical Islam. Accused of being loose with his facts. Very connected to alt-right movement and conspiracy theorists. Senate approval not required.

Veterans Affairs: no selection yet.


Homeland Security: John Kelly (Ret.). Oversaw American military operations in South America and Central America; commanded American forces in Iraq; was aide to defense secretaries Leon Panetta and Robert Gates.

Attorney General: Jeff Sessions, Senator, Alabama. Early Trump supporter. Will play a critical role regarding civil/voting rights issues, policing, and prison reform. Has been accused of “Old South”-styled past racial comments and insensitivities, opposition to civil rights groups, and is an ardent foe of illegal immigration. Former federal prosecutor; Senate rejected him for federal judgeship in 1980s.


Treasury: Steven Mnuchin. No government experience. Billionaire. National finance chairman for Trump campaign. Former partner at Goldman Sachs. During 2008 financial crisis, chair of a mortgage company accused of improperly foreclosing on homeowners.

Commerce: Wilbur Ross. No government experience. Private-equity investor with estimated wealth of $2.9 billion. Business niche has been buying troubled companies cheap, restructuring them, and then selling them for billions in profit. Some of those businesses had a poor track record of treatment of workers, particularly with coal companies.

Labor: Andy Puzder. No government experience. Millionaire. Trump supporter. Chief executive of CKE Restaurants Inc, operates Carl's Jr. and Hardee's fast-food chains. Critic of government intervention in labor markets and increasing minimum wage.

Agriculture: No selection yet.


Health and Human Services: Tom Price, Representative, Georgia. Formerly orthopedic surgeon. Leading proponent for repealing the Obamacare, deeply pro-life. Opposes funding for Planned Parenthood, free birth control, and same-sex marriage. Wants to privatize Medicare.

Housing and Urban Development: Ben Carson, pediatric neurosurgeon. No government administrative experience. No experience in housing and urban development. Former Trump rival for nomination. Previously opted out for any cabinet position because he said he was not qualified. Has said "It's not the government's job" to take care of the indigent in our society"; has opposed Obama’s effort to improve housing integration. 

Education: Betsy DeVos, billionaire businesswoman. No government administrative experience. No experience in public education, which neither she nor her children have attended. Extensive nonprofit work in education; big supporter of moving money from public schools to charter, private and parochial schools. High-profile Republican fundraiser.

Interior: Ryan Zinke, Montana Rep. Priorities include increasing coal mining and oil and gas exploration, protecting public lands, providing more resources for American Indian tribes. Raised doubts about climate change as "unsettled science," but said that "something's going on" and an energy strategy including renewable sources such as wind and solar would be prudent.


Energy: Rick Perry, former Governor, Texas. No experience in energy other than governor of “big oil” state. A previous dance contestant on DWTS; his two predecessors were scientists in physics. As 2012 presidential candidate, sought to eliminate Energy Department he will now head (“Oops”). Director, Energy Transfer Partners, developing Dakota Access Pipeline.

Transportation: Elaine Chao. Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush; deputy transportation secretary under George H.W. Bush. Born in Taiwan, married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Little controversy regarding her appointment.

EXECUTIVE STAFF (non-Cabinet level):

Chief of Staff: Reince Priebus, Chairman, Republican National Committee.  Stood by Trump when other party officials criticized him. Experienced with “staff role”; lack of experience running government could limit effectiveness of counsel to inexperienced Trump. Has strong ties to Speaker Ryan and Vice-President Pence. Senate approval not required.

Chief Strategist and Senior Adviser: Steve Bannon. No government experience. CEO of the Trump campaign in later stages. Former Goldman Sachs employee. Former chairman of Breitbart News, far-right-wing website appealing to extreme views such as white supremacy, anti-immigration, and anti-feminism. Has promoted conspiracy theories, his own questionable “facts,” and National Inquirer-style sensationalist headlines. Has vowed to bring down the Republican political establishment. Senate approval not required.

©   2017   Randy Bell