How will Donald Trump govern? Battlelines drawn between conventional Republicans and more radical supporters
Appointment of chief-of-staff may provide a clue to which way President-elect Trump will lean as he seeks to balance competing impulses
Fresh from a successful battle against a Democratic opponent, Donald Trump’s attention must now turn to defining his presidency.
His campaign offered two divergent approaches. He was a disruptive bomb-thrower when it came to general demeanour and his immigration and national security stances. He was a more conventional Republican when it came to his social-issue positions and economic concerns. His competing impulses are already on display as president-elect.
Responding to protests around the country on Thursday night, Trump first issued a tweet in keeping with the defiant tone of his campaign that “professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”
Nine hours later came one that was more presidential in approach, if a reversal from his first sentiment.
“Love the fact that the small groups of protesters last night have passion for our great country. We will all come together and be proud,” he said.
The early discussions about key positions in his administration included similarly opposed sentiments, suggesting that Trump has yet to lock down precisely how he will approach governing the nation.
Among those being considered for presidential chief of staff – the figure who more than any other determines how well a White House works, and at what – was Stephen Bannon, who took a leave as chairman of Breitbart News to serve as Trump’s campaign CEO.
Bannon is a controversial figure even among Republicans, seen in the campaign as encouraging Trump’s more eye-opening stunts such as his news conference with several women who accused former President Bill Clinton of making sexual advances. He also fanned some of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about immigrants, Muslims and African Americans. But he has no experience in governing or keeping on track an organisation as large as the executive branch.
Another person being considered was the far more buttoned-down Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, an establishment figure who has close ties to House speaker Paul Ryan and other Republican leaders, having helped to run the party for almost six years.
Bannon and Priebus share an alliance with Trump, but little else. The pick is seen as essential to Trump’s direction since the chief of staff often has the president’s ear just before a decision is reached.
The picture is no clearer for other top Cabinet posts, such as secretary of state. Trump is considering Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a consensus-builder in the Senate who is well-liked across the aisle. But he is also looking at former UN Ambassador John Bolton, one of the most aggressive neoconservative hawks during the George W. Bush administration and a favourite among the Breitbart set.
Adding further uncertainty, on Friday afternoon Trump shook up his transition team, announcing that Vice-President-elect Mike Pence would take over, replacing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
As much as staffing, Trump’s presidency also will be defined by the issues he chooses to take up early in his administration. Already, outside groups and Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have control of both houses, are pressuring Trump to make good on myriad and sometimes competing campaign promises. And they are moving into the vacuum formed by the lack of substantive policy proposals in the campaign.
Trump’s success in Tuesday’s election rested on running against both parties, Democrats and Republicans alike. That suggests that he may end up cutting a distinct path untethered to the traditional lines, even Republican ones.
For now, the president-elect is keeping his options open, at least publicly. In a brief comment to reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday, he offered only one broad directive.
“We’re going to work very strongly on immigration, health care and we’re looking at jobs, big-league jobs,” he said.
Asked specifically whether he intended to ban Muslims from entering the United States, as he pledged during the campaign, Trump raised his hand, said “thank you” and walked off.
Turning from a campaign to governing is difficult for any winning nominee, but for Trump it represents not just an occupational shift but a cultural one. He will go from being the top man in a company bearing his name, with his children as his chief lieutenants, to commanding the sprawling executive branch with miles-long lines of authority and an expansive reach over issues with which he has no experience.
He will confront not only the majesties of the presidency but its limitations – specifically the other equal partners in government, such as a legislative branch that runs on its own calendar and with its own priorities.
Both Trump and Capitol Hill Republicans appear eager to make the repeal of Obamacare a prime early focus. In the waning days of the campaign, he had talked of calling a special session to repeal his predecessor’s signature achievement, but Congress will already be in session by the time he becomes president.
“We would urge them to go big on the issues and the first would be to repeal Obamacare,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-allied interest group that worked in dozens of states to elect Republicans.
“It was a key issue in the elections in the Senate and the presidential as well. Don’t nibble around the edges. Go big,” said Phillips, whose organisation also favours early action on tax reform.
But calling for the repeal of a measure at campaign rallies peopled by voters who dislike Obama is different altogether than taking health insurance coverage from 20 million Americans without a detailed plan for replacing it.
Already, differences have emerged between Trump and House speaker Ryan as to how expansive changes would be.
Ryan, in a Fox News interview on Friday, suggested a revamping of both health care and the Medicare and Medicaid programmes, long thwarted by Obama’s threatened veto.
“If you are going to repeal and replace Obamacare, you have to address those issues as well,” Ryan said. “Those things are part of our plan.”
But the coalition that helped elect Trump benefits from the very programmes that Ryan wants to shrink. And as a candidate, Trump deviated from Republican promises to curtail entitlements.
Still on his campaign website is a quote from the candidate distancing himself from the very measures Ryan discussed on Friday.
“I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” Trump said.
Ryan and Trump also differ when it comes to immigration, one of the president-elect’s premier issues. Ryan has shirked from the notion of building a giant wall on the Mexican border. While the speaker has emphasised border security, he also has not signed on to Trump’s proposal to deport millions of people here without proper papers.
The initial stages of building an administration are as much about sending messages as crafting a lasting structure. The next days and weeks will be watched closely by the Washington political ecosystem as Trump builds out from an exceedingly small coterie of trusted aides to the much larger assemblage needed for his administration.
Among the questions will be how broad a net he casts into parts of the Republican establishment that opposed him as nominee. Trump is known to value loyalty, but will be under pressure to hire some who were sceptical of him in order to reassure Republicans that the party is unified. Whether he sees that as necessary is an open question.
Trump has similarly made promises that could prove impossible to deliver, whichever path he sets for his administration, said Jon Cowan, president of Third Way, a centrist advocacy group in Washington.
“The distance between the things he said he would do and the actual reality of how he would do them is larger than any nominee for either party I have ever seen,” he said.