March 28th, 2020


Trump looks skilled at the important theater of building an executive team

Andrew Malcolm

By Andrew Malcolm McClatchy Washington Bureau/(TNS)

Published Dec. 6, 2016

Just 10 months ago, candidate Donald Trump said: "I will be changing very rapidly. I'm capable of changing to anything I want to change to."

Millions of Americans watching the bombastic, boastful billionaire hoped so. It's very early, of course. Still six weeks are left until the historic Oval Office desk belongs to the real estate magnate who bragged about his keen talent-spotting eye.

So, what can we discern from the first month of assembling a Trump administration?

So far, Trump has been surprisingly steady. The wee-hour Tweetstorms have largely disappeared. For someone who boasted of not preparing for presidential debates, Trump is reaching out to consult with an impressive array of job candidates and area experts, geographically and politically.

Despite early wishful news coverage describing Trump team infighting and chaos, he's moving quicker than previous modern presidents. His appointments so far - and those reportedly under consideration - are serious, experienced people - doers, not talkers.

For instance, the nominee to head Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price, is a doctor who's been working on an Obamacare replacement since Democrats rammed the massive bill through Congress without reading it and without a single Republican vote.

Trump's pick for secretary of defense, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, has been an outspoken critic of President Barack Obama's national security policies and military drawdown, which is why the general is retired.

He's a Trump kind of no-nonsense guy. Mattis, Trump told an Ohio rally, "is the closest thing we have to Gen. George Patton, and it's about time."

We'll soon see who Trump selects for secretary of state, fourth in line to the presidency.

If it's a serious reformer and doer like, say, Mitt Romney, who salvaged the Salt Lake Olympics and numerous troubled companies, we'll know the president-elect is more interested in building a strong team than holding grudges over harsh campaign exchanges.

Trump looks skilled at the important theater of constructing a new executive team. His minions leak word of likely upcoming picks, which dominates news cycles. When officially confirmed, the positive story lives again.

Trump news virtually drowned out coverage of Obama's final foreign trip. That's no small feat when static lobby shots of a Trump Tower elevator door top the doings of a veteran photo op-er like Obama.

And Trump's post-election behavior is having an effect. His early moves and plans violate conservative economic orthodoxy. But to paraphrase "The Godfather," this is the president we have chosen.

In public opinion, Trump's doing better. His approval has jumped 9 points since Nov. 8 and his disapproval dropped 15.

Fifty-one percent of Americans - and even 19 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters - now say they have more confidence in a President Trump, Gallup finds. That's a post-election poll standing very close to Bill Clinton's and George W. Bush's.

Even before taking office, Trump combined a campaign jobs promise with one concerning American companies moving jobs to other countries: He announced a deal with Carrier to cancel the transfer of 1,000 jobs from Indiana to Mexico.

Here's the art of that Trump deal: Carrier, which makes furnaces in Indiana, is owned by Connecticut's United Technologies, which has large federal contracts, including engines for the F-35. No one wants any trouble here, right? That's called leverage.

Trump also clearly likes unpredictability, a trait he admired and displayed during the campaign. And - oh, look! - a tactic he used effectively on reality TV. Curiosity prompts many to tune in for ensuing episodes.

Without the usual State Department guidance, Trump's been talking with many foreign leaders, including Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. They discussed the two countries' "close economic, political and security ties."

By political tradition this is a serious breach of protocol because since 1979 the U.S. has officially recognized only mainland China, while quietly bolstering Taiwan defenses.

Trump talked cordially with communist China's president last month. Nervous aunties in Washington's diplomatic establishment fretted that Trump's break with tradition might roil relations. Again, that Trump leverage.

While media try to concoct a hypocrisy case over Trump working with D.C. establishment types after promising to "drain the swamp," many Trump supporters give him free rein and don't seem to care.

Meanwhile, VP-elect Mike Pence solidifies working relationships with old GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill and talks of an aggressive and ambitious opening agenda for the Trump administration's first 100 days in office.

These first 30 days pre-oath-taking have had a few revealing wrinkles on Trump style. And they've provided a modicum of holiday reassurance that this really is just another man carefully confronting the unimaginable responsibilities of becoming commander in chief.

Andrew Malcolm
McClatchy Washington Bureau

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Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s.