Donald Trump’s turbulent transition already suggests that the instinctive off-the-cuff leadership style that powered his outsider campaign is a prototype of the impromptu approach he will adopt from inside the Oval Office.
He hires people, he fires people, he sets them against one another, he says things and takes them back, with the chaos often unfolding in real time on cable TV. It happened in the campaign and there’s no reason to think his presidency won’t be the same.
Trump has only been President-elect for a week. But he’s already dismembered the team that under Chris Christie spent months preparing the transition and put his future vice president Mike Pence in charge. He’s set up future competing power centers in his White House, including son-in-law and close adviser Jared Kushner, who is at the center of the effort against Christie, sources say. And though he’s been restrained on social media, Trump has still fired off contradictory tweets on protests against him and the Electoral College.
It’s clear the President-elect is just getting started.
Trump is the only person elected to the top job without political, diplomatic or military executive experience. And he ran a campaign rooted in breaking the mold of the gridlocked capital city. So no surprise that Trump is already approaching his presidency in an unorthodox manner.
“He comes from from a different school of thought than we are used to here in Washington. People here, they want everything choreographed. They are by nature risk averse. He is going to be very different from that perspective,” said Howard Schweitzer, managing partner of Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies, who had high level posts in the Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.
“He is not going to be afraid, nor should he be, to throw some spaghetti against the wall and see if it sticks. He is not afraid to have people with differing views on his team and play around with some things and throw people overboard if merited,” Schweitzer added.
While Trump’s transition appears chaotic from the outside, the President-elect Tuesday night tweeted that things are “organized” and proceeding apace.
“Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!”
But Peter Emerson, a Democratic communications consultant who took part in the Jimmy Carter and Obama White House transitions, said if Trump Tower wanted to make things run more smoothly, it could.
“If the Trump people wanted it to be the no drama Obama transition then Trump would make it happen — but they don’t,” he said.
Meetings, more meetings and leaks
Wannabe White House advisers and would-be cabinet members are streaming in and out of Trump Tower in New York.
Tuesday’s day of meetings was for going over cabinet names and plans for various departments, a source tells CNN.
“This was a ‘dig in with a CEO who knows how to get things done day,'” said the source, who called it “very productive.”
Pence, meanwhile, is scheduled to visit the Trump transition offices in Washington Wednesday morning.
But leaks regarding potential administration appointments proliferate by the hour, about Trump loyalists who are angling for jobs and others apparently trying to elbow their way into his administration.
Top figures are ruling themselves in and ruling themselves out of jobs. Rudy Giuliani, seen as a possible attorney general, says he won’t do the job, and sources say he wants the State Department. Ben Carson, who had been seen as a possible Cabinet pick, says he doesn’t want to be considered. Another Trump presidential rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, visited him Tuesday as well.
Rumors are flying about already bitter internecine warfare already raging between various parts of Trump world, the role of the billionaire’s children and sources inside the operation are using phrases like “knife-fight” and “buffoonery” to describe the spectacle.
One establishment figure, former Rep. Mike Rogers, seen as a rare safe of hands in Trump’s orbit and a possible CIA chief has quit — apparently a casualty of too close ties to now out-of-favor Christie.
There are also signs of disarray in the Trump foreign policy shop, such as it is.
“After exchange w Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming “you LOST!” Will be ugly,” said Eliot Cohen, a former George W. Bush foreign policy official in a tweet Tuesday.
Trump has only made two appointments so far: Reince Priebus will serve as White House Chief of Staff and far more controversially, Stephen Bannon, who has close ties to the white nationalist alt-right movement, will be a counselor and senior adviser to Trump.
Anyone who thinks that the wails of protest among political elites at Bannon’s suitability to grace the White House would sway Trump were not watching his populist, convention-busting campaign closely.
The contrast between the buttoned up, intricately choreographed transition minuets by the future Bush and Barack Obama administrations could not be more pronounced.
From Washington, it all looks chaotic, disorganized and made up on the fly and utterly at odds with the conventional wisdom about how best to prepare a presidency.
“They are choosing to not have Trump lay down the law,” Emerson said, arguing Trump was the first reality show president of the Kardashian era.
“In previous transitions its been top-heavy — that is to say either the president or his designated adviser have said no leakage to the press we are going to do everything internally,” he added.
What’s it mean for Trump’s Oval Office?
The question that will arise as the transition moves ahead over the coming weeks is if Trump’s instinctive, gut level, improvisational management style is suited not just to the job of building an administration but to the presidency itself. On the one hand, the business of policymaking, enacting an agenda and maintaining alliances with friends abroad requires a high level of planning and execution for which Trump seems ill prepared.
After all, in running his family business, Trump has had to answer to no one but himself, and has the freedom to do what he wants when he wants, something the President, with all the constraints on his power, rarely has the option to do.
“For sure he is going to have to adapt to Washington but Washington is going to have to adapt to him,” said Schweitzer.
“The sacred cows that people here hold so dearly are not going to be as sacred to him,” Schweitzer said, though added “I do think he will have to adapt. He is going to find out that the reality of governing is very different from the reality of even being in government or not having any power. ”
Some Republicans are watching the media coverage of the last few days, and predictions of strife to come between Priebus and Bannon especially, a sensing a bit of a double standard.
“This whole conversation is something that speaks to Trump supporters and Republicans who think they can’t get a fair shake,” said Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director on CNN Tuesday.
“In 2008, at this point, when there were internal divisions, in the Obama transition, we were told it was a team of rivals and something to be applauded,” Heye said. “And now we are being told this is a Game of Thrones knife fight.”