Trump’s fiery first year is not all that unusual. Ask Bill Clinton
Niall Ferguson says getting mad is part of the job as the presidency can be inherently infuriating, noting that US President Donald Trump’s tumultuous start has much in common with Clinton’s dramatic first year in office. Clinton, of course, went on to be re-elected
“Once Trump came into the Oval Office with a newspaper folded into quarters showing some story based on a leak from the White House. ‘What the f*** is this?’ Trump had shouted. Presidential flare-ups were common enough, but Trump often would not let an incident go, roaring on for too long before calming down.” “The White House problems … were organisation and discipline. The staff was too often like a soccer league of 10-year-olds.”
You are probably thinking that you have read more than enough about Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury , the core thesis of which received fresh support last week from the president’s potty mouth and Twitter feed.
In fact, the quotations are taken from another book, Bob Woodward’s The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, published in 1994. I just changed the president’s surname. A recurrent theme of The Agenda is Bill Clinton’s explosively bad temper.
My point is not that Clinton is like Trump, but that the presidency will infuriate even the best of men. Show me a presidential biography and I’ll show you eruptions of fury. Yet each biographer presents this as a significant trait of his subject, rather than appreciating that it’s structural: the job is inherently maddening.
So let’s leave aside personality and consider a structural interpretation of the past 12 months. Most presidencies have the following characteristics in the first year. The White House operates much like a royal court in the time of Shakespeare – an analogy suggested to Wolff by Steve Bannon, but not a new one. The president is the focal point; access to him is power.
Initially, however, he is a powerful novice. Those appointed to key positions are also often new to government. The other branches of government operate according to different rules. To work with them, the president needs experienced insiders. Meanwhile, the press exists in a symbiotic relationship with the government. Out there, too, are the other governments of the world, sizing up the new guy.
The Clinton and Trump administrations shared five traits in year one: a painful transition in personnel; failure over health care reform and narrowly won success over taxation (hikes for Clinton, cuts for Trump); a fixation on a financial market as a metric of success (the bond market for Clinton, the stock market for Trump); excessive involvement of family members in policymaking (Hillary/“Javanka”); lousy press coverage.
Wolff could have written Woodward’s book and vice versa. Clinton’s campaign manager was dating a Republican spokeswoman who called Clinton “a philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger”. Clinton’s nominee for attorney general had to withdraw because of tax evasion. Not only did the first lady play an absurdly large role in formulating health care policy; Clinton even put a relative in charge of the White House travel office. The deputy White House counsel and a friend of the Clintons shot himself dead in a Virginia park. Now that’s what I call fire and fury.
As for Trump and the media, we’ve seen the movie before. Things were so bad in 1993 that Hillary tried to move the press out of the White House. Just as Trump jettisoned Sean Spicer, so Clinton sidelined George Stephanopoulos. Still to come were David Hale’s revelations about Whitewater, the allegations of the president’s liaisons with women and the Chinese attempt to meddle in US elections. Context matters too. Neither Clinton nor Trump had to contend with a crisis as big as George W. Bush (September 11) and Barack Obama (the financial crisis).
I know what you’re thinking. Trump is crass. Clinton is charming. Trump doesn’t read. Clinton was a Rhodes scholar. Trump is a racist. Clinton’s best buddy was Vernon Jordan, a former civil rights lawyer. But does that matter in terms of historical outcomes?
How did the Clinton era unfold after its first, chaotic year? The Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in year two. He still got re-elected but the other side later impeached him. He survived and, with the economy booming, even saw his approval rating rise. Trump’s fate may not be identical. But what makes you sure it won’t be the same old Shakespearean drama – just with a different cast?
Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford