L’état, c’est Trump?
Other than Donald Trump’s vaudevillian press conference on Wednesday, the news out of Washington, D.C., this week was dominated by the confirmation hearings of the president-elect’s cabinet appointments.
We heard a lot about Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions and James “Mad Dog” Mattis, and we will eventually learn more about Steven Mnuchin, Betsy DeVos and other nominees. Much of it will matter.
But none of it will matter more than the one question that couldn’t be answered this week, and which may take several months to reveal itself: How will Mr. Trump lead once he takes power next Friday?
Will Mr. Trump listen if Mr. Sessions, the nominee for attorney-general, repeats the assertion he made this week that waterboarding is illegal, a position that defies Mr. Trump’s electoral pledge to use the torture method on terror suspects?
Will the president-elect allow Mr. Tillerson, his nominee for secretary of state, to continue to say, as he did Wednesday, that the U.S. must live up to its NATO commitments?
Will he listen to Mr. Mattis, the defence secretary nominee, who said in his confirmation hearing that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to break up NATO, and that sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Crimea and its meddling in the U.S. election should remain in place?
Those are conventional and reassuring positions that don’t jibe with the often unsettling policy statements made by Mr. Trump during and since the election.
Will Mr. Trump listen? Will he be open to changes in tone and direction based on the advice of his cabinet? Will he seek and take counsel? Being able to believe so would be a big relief for the many who worry that Mr. Trump will live up to his campaign rhetoric and reject tenets of American foreign and domestic policy that U.S. allies have long relied upon for their security and prosperity.
Will he listen, or will Mr. Trump expect his cabinet members to be enablers, showing unquestioning fealty to his positions, even if they violate the U.S. Constitution (banning Muslim immigration), harm the economy (recklessly tearing up free-trade agreements), or defy common sense, such as building a wall the length of the U.S.-Mexico border?
Will they encourage their boss’s taste for showing favour to those who praise him, and for using his office to bully anyone, no matter how small, who criticizes him? Will they dare show him up, or take the risk of outshining him on the files they were hired to manage?
“I think we have one of the great cabinets ever put together,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday. We will leave it to history to judge. The one thing they are most definitely not, however, is representative of the working-class Americans who voted for Mr. Trump.
Many of the nominees are extremely wealthy businessmen who, like their new boss, view government as an unfair constraint on their ability to maximize profit.
The cabinet includes Mr. Tillerson, until recently CEO of Exxon Mobil, Mr. Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs banker who made millions off the real-estate collapse following the 2008 crash, and who is slated to run the Treasury Department, and Andrew Puzder, the fast-food executive nominated for the job of labour secretary.
Some of the nominees come with considerable baggage. Mr. Sessions, a former Alabama attorney-general, was refused a judgeship in 1986 after witnesses testified at his confirmation hearing that he had made racially insensitive remarks. Mr. Mnuchin made his money foreclosing on people during the mortgage crisis. Mr. Pudzer is seen by many as an out-of-touch millionaire who opposes a higher minimum wage and better conditions for the working poor.
Negatives aside, they are successful and experienced, and they are not stupid. Mr. Trump – who has zero government experience – is supposed to rely on their advice and their abilities in order to manage the vast American federal bureaucracy.
We have our doubts that he will. “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!” Mr. Trump tweeted on Friday, after his nominees repeatedly contradicted him on key issues. If only we could believe him. Let’s remember whom we are dealing with. Mr. Trump has demonstrated that he is vengeful, narcissistic, mean-spirited and able to lie with a sociopath’s ease. He is not one for consistency. And he doesn’t like rules.
You saw it in his news conference this week. His explanation as to why he will not release his tax returns? “I won.”
The American presidency has increasingly accumulated powers over the past three decades. President Barack Obama set records for the number of regulations he unilaterally signed into being. George W. Bush before him repeatedly ignored Congress as he stripped away rights in the name of his “war on terrorism.”
And now we have Mr. Trump, who is used to being the star of his own show. He has never demonstrated much patience with checks and balances of any kind, and seems uninformed about the roles of the different branches of the U.S. government. He sometimes even refers to himself in the third person – “Nobody has ever had crowds like Trump has had,” he boasted Wednesday – a habit suited to mad kings.
The job of president always reveals the person holding it. The worry with Donald Trump is that there is nothing left to learn. The qualifications, or lack thereof, of his appointees will be irrelevant if he governs by whim, impulse and late-night tweet, and with the expectation that everything will work out just because “Trump” says it will.