WASHINGTON, D.C. — Forget the first 100 days. It’s only been a week and Donald Trump is reinventing the presidency.
Amid a torrent of action, disruption and protest, the new President’s moves on trade, immigration and foreign policy have honored his campaign promises — and dramatically reshaped Washington’s role in national and global affairs.
Some things are clear at the end of this jarring week. Trump won’t have an epiphany and suddenly embrace Beltway conventions. As president, he will keep conjuring his own reality and is happy to use the backdrop of the White House to advance his many rhetorical wars.
His staff is learning how to work together as they jockey for power. And amid it all, Trump still manages to surprise: Lawmakers and business leaders say the larger than life president and former reality show star listens more than he talks.
But his unorthodox style is also raising questions about whether a presidency built on creative destruction will simply exhaust the political system. Trump’s conveyer belt of executive orders is an effective symbolic device, but they are noticeably lacking in details and actionable plans. Sooner or later, he will have to show proficiency in the harder task of shepherding his agenda through Congress.
Trump’s first week in office leaves one fundamental question in its wake: Can he successfully govern a complicated and divided country without bringing his erratic behavior under control? For now, there is no answer.
Man of action
Trump is making no secret of his top priority: Pay back the disgruntled voters who sent him to Washington to blow things up.
“Think of everything we can achieve and remember who we must achieve it for,” Trump told Republican lawmakers Thursday in Philadelphia. “Now we have to deliver. Enough all talk, no action. We have to deliver.”
In the delivery column, mark down an executive order calling for the building of a wall on the southern US border — honoring Trump’s earliest campaign vow. He’s also made it easier to deport undocumented immigrants. Trump pulled America out of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact, rupturing decades of US foreign policy orthodoxy that power was projected through multilateral deals.
He also hauled business and auto executives into the West Wing and warned they will pay a heavy price for manufacturing abroad. With another sweep of his pen, Trump moved forward trans continental oil pipelines and smashed Obama-era environmental regulations.
Every new administration makes splashy executive actions aimed at appealing to the base. Former President Barack Obama quickly signed an order in 2009 ordering the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility — something that never fully became reality.
But the determination to keep campaign promises is verging on an obsession inside the Trump White House. Those close to the President believe that despite the uproar in Washington, the actions are being well received.
“If you are somebody sitting at home, you say, ‘Wow, there’s a lot going on here.’ The media bubbles on the coast are not the people Trump is talking to,” said a senior aide . “The people that Donald Trump is talking to are the thousands of counties that he won.”
But Trump isn’t dispensing with the Washington game entirely. He spent considerable time with congressional leaders this week, a big departure from Obama, who once joked to journalists who criticized his reluctance to socialize with top Republicans: “Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”
Shattering the norms
It took one day for Trump to shatter the norms of presidential behavior.
On Saturday, his first full day in office, Trump caused offense by boasting about his election win against the somber backdrop of the CIA’s wall honoring fallen heroes. (He later told ABC News the speech was a “home run.”)
The day ended with the new administration escalating a feud with the media over the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd.
Trump sent his press secretary, Sean Spicer, out to deliver an extraordinarily explosive statement about the episode packed with untruths.
Over the course of the week, Trump tweeted castigations of “celebs,” apparently piqued that a massive women’s march last weekend drew more people than his own inauguration. He accused an academic researcher of “groveling” after he said Trump misrepresented his study by claiming that up to five million people voted illegally in the election.
Trump’s ego is the common denominator in all these eruptions. The first week of his presidency has proven the ultra sensitivity to criticism he displayed on the campaign trail has carried over to the White House. In each case, the facts in question also clash with the version of reality that Trump prefers.
“He feels vulnerable when other people have access to facts and when he can be measured against something objective,” said Michael D’Antonio, author of the recent book “The Truth About Trump.” “His favorite thing is to game a system or defy a norm and if he can’t do that, he doesn’t feel as powerful.”
After his highly criticized statement at the CIA, Trump’s more measured performance early in the week sparked hopes that the initial storm had passed.
“He looked like a president today,” one Republican close to the White House said on Monday as Trump pulled out of trade deals, met with executives and watched as Spicer delivered a far more measured press briefing. “Let’s hope it lasts.”
By mid-week, Trump revived debunked claims that millions of illegal voters cost him the popular vote during a meeting with congressional leaders. He’s now pushing to spend taxpayer cash on an investigation into nonexistent allegations of wrongdoing, suggesting an open and public contempt for facts rarely seen from a White House.
Still, those who hope against hope that Trump’s more extreme instincts will be mollified by the responsibilities of his office might take succor from his clear pleasure at the trappings of the White House and Air Force One.
“He continues to react the same way he has throughout his time in his presidency, in awe of the splendor of this plane and what the White House represents,” Spicer told reporters during Trump’s first ride on the presidential jet.
The unpredictable president
Count this as another campaign promise Trump has lived up to: Being unpredictable. Washington now braces early each morning for the first blast from Trump’s Twitter account.
A series of tweets by Trump about street violence in Chicago showed how he is changing the way the presidency interacts with the American people.
“If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.
The tweet caused uproar in Chicago, sending law enforcement and local political officials scrambling to work out what Trump meant. Was he planning federal funds for Chicago, to deploy the FBI or even taking the highly unusual step of sending the National Guard on a law enforcement mission? Should his warning be taken seriously or was it simply a throw away tweet that represented a whim not a new policy?
“I would welcome, always have, welcome federal participation in working with local law enforcement to dealing with guns and gangs,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded.
In other administrations, such an explosive intervention would only have come after serious internal debate. Temperatures would have been taken locally.
Trump just watches cable TV and tweets.
His approach is sparking questions not just in Washington but in foreign ministries abroad, which are already trying to work out exactly what to make of Trump’s idiosyncratic and unilateral tweets on key national security issues.
But it’s also illustrative of how Trump wields power.
The business chieftains left the West Wing fearing new tariffs that could hurt their bottom lines. Democrats were put in a tough spot by his destruction of the TPP and vow to renegotiate NAFTA, moves that fall in line with much of the party’s progressive base. In a sign of how he is scrambling political calculations, the AFL-CIO, which backed Hillary Clinton last fall, welcomed Trump’s moves.
Those who see Trump’s ignition of controversies as a distraction from the real work of governing miss the point — his behavior is an intrinsic part of his method. Trump is leaving rival centers of power uncertain about his motives and unsure of his red lines, putting everyone off balance and increasing his own influence as the only stable force in the chaos.
Putting the world on notice
The first week of the Trump administration tested one of the biggest questions about his presidency: How will his disruptive, impulsive political style play out in foreign relations?
The answer: Quickly rupturing relations with Mexico.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a meeting with Trump that had been set for next week after renewed tensions erupted over the plan to build a wall. Trump later tweeted it would be better to skip the meeting if Peña Nieto continued to insist Mexico would not pay for the wall.
Other nations are watching and learning from the perils of tangling with Trump. The foreign policy establishment in Washington is dreading the first serious national security crisis and worrying that Trump’s unpredictability and rash rhetoric could lead to miscalculations.
Trump’s policy track is also causing alarm. His musings about a return to waterboarding for terror suspects has sparked widespread condemnation and marked a break with some defense and national security figures in his own Cabinet.
Israel, however, is wasting no time in seizing on Trump’s arrival, announcing the construction of 2,500 new homes in West Bank settlements. That comes just weeks after the outgoing Obama administration blasted such moves.
A restive White House
There are few things harder than taking over the White House at the start of a new administration.
On the surface Trump’s team has done well, rolling out a well planned set of executive orders despite the boss’s frequent eruptions.
But below the surface, tensions are simmering.
After only a couple of briefings, leaks suggested that Spicer’s position was less than secure. Reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times appeared to lift the lid on antagonism between rival power centers in the West Wing. Trump made clear that he was not impressed by Spicer’s performance on Saturday — a review that other aides were quick to leak to the media.
In photo-ops, staff including senior advisors Stephen Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus almost seemed to be jostling to get in the camera frame to emphasize their clout.
When Trump was at the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, Priebus and Bannon were on opposite sides of the room and had no interaction.
Senior White House advisers have grown more insular — and more convinced than ever that they’re delivering for the Americans who elected Trump. They’re convinced they are outrageously misunderstood — and even being actively undermined — by the national media and Washington pundits.
Still, some sources said that political trench warfare was beginning to draw Trump’s team together against a common enemy — the press corps. Contempt for the media burst into the open late Thursday in an interview by Bannon with The Times.
“The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
Spicer told reporters Bannon “speaks for himself” and is known to be “very passionate about his views.”
He added: “Steve’s views on how the media covers conservatives is very well known and as you said, it’s not shocking.”
Speaking on PBS, Conway said “we should all learn to listen more to America and I think that’s probably Steve Bannon’s central point.”
One person likely unruffled by the West Wing unrest is Trump. He thrives amid chaos.