The Trump Presidency Begins
Instead of “The Trump Presidency Begins,” an alternative headline for this column might have been “Trump’s Presidency Begins.” Each describes a different reality.
Until recently, “Trump’s presidency” has been about one thing—Donald Trump. It’s been Trump 24/7. Mr. Trump owned the presidency the way Mr. Trump owns a tower on Fifth Avenue. For better and for worse, Trump’s presidency was all about him.
In the past few weeks—the Gorsuch appointment, the Syrian strike, the meeting with China’s Xi Jinping —we are finally seeing the beginning of the real Trump presidency.
Like all the others dating back to George Washington, the presidency is not an object captured by one person; it is an office held in trust for the people of the United States.
The Trump-centric phenomenon of these early days is the product of our celebrity-centric times, not least the presidency. He drove it with social media, and the media torrents washed back over him.
There are some realities, though, that the media torrents haven’t washed away yet. America’s institutions, its politics and the distant world are still too large for anyone to hold and command alone. That is the lesson of recent days.
Neil Gorsuch was nominated by Mr. Trump to fill the ninth seat on the Supreme Court. What followed was a mighty political struggle. The opposition to Judge Gorsuch, led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, revealed that the legal philosophies of progressives and conservatives have arrived at incompatibility.
Confirming Judge Gorsuch required the Trump presidency to recede so its political allies could rise and execute. The legislative branch eliminated the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, thereby preserving the president’s prerogatives.
While the Gorsuch drama played out on the Senate floor, Mr. Trump met at Mar-a-Lago with China’s Xi Jinping, who traveled nearly 8,000 miles to meet the American president. Possibly, the Chinese thought that Muhammad going to the mountain would flatter the flatterable Mr. Trump. Instead, the strikingly low-key meeting acknowledged the high stakes for the two nations and the world.
On Wednesday, Mr. Xi called the president to discuss North Korea again. That no doubt had something to do with Mr. Trump’s soufflé surprise over dinner with Mr. Xi—a missile strike against an Assad airfield and chemical-weapons depot in Syria.
Unlike the assassination of Osama bin Laden, when the mission details leaked out overnight, there was no self-congratulatory media dump out of the White House of this presumably ultra-media-conscious president. Just a blow to the Middle East status quo.
For our purposes, the important thing isn’t the strike but what came before. It requires little imagination to guess the import of the conversations about operational and political details between the president and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis —former head of the U.S.’s Middle Eastern Central Command—and his national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster. As Dorothy said to Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.
Days before the Syrian strike, Mr. Trump with little fanfare met two Middle Eastern leaders crucial to U.S. strategy for the region—President Sisi of Egypt and Jordan’s King Abdullah. In March, he hosted a working lunch for Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Salman, creator of the 41-state Arab coalition to fight Islamic State. A successful presidential foreign policy needs allies. Watch this space.
There has been the difficult matter of the Trump-Putin mutual admiration society. Over the past week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Russia may have been “complicit” in the Syrian gas attack. Mr. Tillerson flew to Moscow for a tough chat Wednesday with Mr. Putin. Any Putin investment in the U.S. election is deep in the red right now.
One reads that the Trump White House’s communication shop is up late imagining bullet points for the president’s “first 100 days.” One reads that Mr. Trump is arbitrating disputes between his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his Cromwellian counselor Steve Bannon over the presidency’s proper direction.
This isn’t complicated. There was only one Trump promise—Make America Great Again. If you type that phrase into Google Translate, this is what should appear: Get the American economic engine retuned or pack it in. Every other pet peeve or project is secondary.
There are two levers for achieving this goal: tax policy and deregulation. To get there, the Trump presidency just inserted two key players.
Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute, an expert on what makes a tax code productive, becomes chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Neomi Rao, director of George Mason University’s gloriously named Center for the Study of the Administrative State, became the Trump White House’s czarina of regulation. A Chicago Law grad.
We have arrived in the foothills of the Trump presidency, and warnings no doubt abound. Not least is the Republican obsession with the sport of cliff-diving over dry land. What’s important is that a presidency that was almost too much fun has taken a turn for the serious.
Appeared in the Apr. 13, 2017, print edition as ‘The Trump Presidency Begins.’