Less than 2 weeks since his unexpected election victory, it is already becoming clear that one of the major problems Donald Trump is going to face is the established media’s hostility to everything he does.
A case in point is the way the media is misreporting his discussions aimed at setting up his new administration. There has been much talk about how this process has supposedly be chaotic, with much talk of a backlash against Trump for some of his appointments.
On the contrary my opinion is that the process has been going quite smoothly. Trump acted decisively and quickly to replace Christie with Pence as head of the transition team, rather than remove Christie too late when it was already obvious that he was not up to the job, whilst the appointments of Reince Priebus as Chief of Staff and Stephen Bannon as chief strategist seem to be carefully judged to balance the appointment of a seasoned political insider and professional manager (Priebus) against a loyal publicist and ideologue (Bannon), whilst his appointments of Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser, Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and Mike Pompeo as CIA chief bring in seasoned professionals who in the cases of Sessions and Pompeo should not have difficulty getting Senate confirmation.
The latter is important because the way Trump obtained the Presidency set him at odds with the Republican Party establishment, which means he has few obvious allies in the Senate. In order to ensure a smooth transition and to avoid embarrassing defeats in the Senate during the confirmation process, Trump has to win over the leading Republican Senators and the leaders of the Republican Party’s establishment.
That almost certainly explains Trump’s meetings with figures like Mitt Romney. Whilst it is possible that Trump is considering Romney for a cabinet post, it seems more likely that Trump met with Romney in order to buy Romney’s support by negotiating over jobs lower down the hierarchy for people Romney proposes.
Trump is almost certainly doing the same thing with other senior figures in the Republican leadership. In this way Trump can neutralise in advance opposition from the Republican Party establishment and in the Senate to his more senior appointments when they are announced, ensuring that they will have no difficulty getting confirmed by the Senate. With 4,000 appointments to make, Trump has any number of jobs he can negotiate over to buy support in this way.
In the meantime, whilst the process of winning over support for the more senior appointments is underway, Trump is filling key positions in the administration which do not require Senate confirmation – such as those of Priebus, Bannon and Flynn – with people close to his own views, and whom he feels he can trust.
This is very much the way a businessman and deal – maker works, and that of course is exactly what Trump is. In other words Trump is acting exactly as someone of his background and personality would be expected to act.
What this means is that Trump will finally name whoever he intends to appoint Secretary of State – the post that is attracting the most speculation – only once he is confident that he has fixed things sufficiently in the Senate so that whoever he nominates is going to be confirmed. In the meantime it is in his interests to keep this information to himself.
Again this approach – fixing things in advance and playing with his cards close to his chest – is very much how Trump the businessman and deal – maker can be expected to behave. As it happens I suspect that Trump already has in mind the person he wants as Secretary of State. Whether this is the person he will eventually nominate will however depend on how well his deal making goes.
I would add that though Trump’s conduct of the transition is very much in the style of a businessman, the use of patronage to build a winning coalition is an entirely traditional part of the style of US government. Past Presidents who were extremely skilled at it included Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. It is those Presidents who do not have a good feel for how to use patronage effectively that struggle in the US to get things done.
As it is Trump has apparently already made more appointments than Obama did at this point in his transition, and there is certainly no warrant for talking about a chaotic and disorganised transition, such as Bill Clinton’s was in 1992.
In saying all this I make no comment about the calibre of the people Trump is appointing. The criticisms of Bannon and Sessions for being racist seem to me overdone, and besides it is ultimately hardly surprising if a right wing President is appointing right wing people like Bannon and Sessions to positions close to him. As for Michael Flynn, it seems to me that many of the attacks on him are more the product of his known opposition to the Obama administration’s Syrian policy than any real judgement on his professional and managerial abilities. Ultimately however I simply don’t know enough about these people to be able to judge them fairly.
Regardless of how good or bad these people are, the fact is that Trump is forming his administration, and so far is doing it successfully. There is no warrant for talking about chaos when on the facts there is none.