After grading President Obama’s presidency and now that Donald Trump has been sworn in, I will offer an evaluation of President Trump’s transition. This will cover some appointments and some public pronouncements. I’ve not been a fan of President Trump. There’s been a lot to like, but also a lot that is concerning.
Trump’s economic choices have been surprisingly mainstream with some encouraging picks. One phenomenal pick is Congressman Tom Price (R-GA) at Health and Human Services (which due to the Obamacare repeal and Medicare reform is being covered here.) If anyone can push Trump to address, rather than ignore, the entitlement crisis it’s Price. Congressman Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) is also a strong conservative and a great pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget.
Not every Trump pick has been great, but all have been good solid mainstream picks. This is comforting given some of Trump’s more over-the-top moments during the campaign.
Trump’s personal conduct has a been more mixed. The deal to save jobs at Carrier by giving specific incentives to the company to stay in the US represents crony capitalism. If that becomes the Modus Operandi for the Trump administration, that’s going to be a big problem. If, as Trump supporters insist, the Carrier deal was a one-time thing as a result of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence trying to get good publicity and that Trump will save and create jobs by creating a positive environment, then it doesn’t mean much in the long-term.
Indeed, the prediction of a more favorable business and regulatory environment has led to rallying on Wall Street. Some companies have kept jobs or added jobs in the U.S. such as when Ford cancelled a new plant in Mexico and decided to invest in expanding an existing plant in Michigan.
However, Trump has used Twitter to criticize U.S. companies. On one hand, it’s not a bad thing for a President to use the bully pulpit to encourage American companies to keep jobs in America. On the other hand, several news pieces have aired in which companies have criticized portions of Trump’s agenda, and Trump responded with threats, such as of the loss of government contracts, as what happened with Boeing.
Telling companies who disagree with Trump, “nice company you got there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it” reeks of authoritarianism.
The uncertainty of some of his policies also raise concerns. Will Trump start a trade war or impose so many tariffs it leads to a massive increase in the cost of living? Will a replacement for Obamacare be implemented? Will it be any better given Trump’s statement everyone would have insurance and the government would pay for it? Is the President’s trillion dollar infrastructure plan going to be underfunded and added to our national debt? And could this happen at a time when our debt is already over 100% of our GDP?
These are big questions, but most of the signs from the new administration on the economy have been fairly encouraging, so I will give the President the benefit of the doubt.
Economy Grade: B+
Conservatives have a lot to be pleased with in Trump’s domestic appointments, though some are a bit more lackluster and one is disturbing.
On the good side, Trump’s key appointments such as Betty Devos at Education, Former Texas Governor Rick Perry at the Department of Energy, and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt at the EPA are people who will reform out-of-control federal agencies. As a Westerner, I’m heartened by the choice of Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke (R-MT) to head the Interior Department. Too many decisions that affect smaller western states, particularly forest management, are made by clueless bureaucrats, so this pick was a welcomed change.
The big problem domestically is the presence of Steve Bannon as a Senior Counselor to President Trump. Too much time was spent at the time of his appointment, questioning whether he was a racist or anti-Semite. Bannon boasted of turning Breitbart News into a forum for the alt-right which is teaming with racist, anti-Semites, and far out conspiracy theorists. He saw giving voice to people whose ideology has leveled continents and led to the destruction of millions as a good marketing strategy for his website and also for the Trump campaign.
By opening Breitbart to them as a platform, Bannon engaged, mobilized, and weaponized dangerous racists and anti-Semites in order to intimidate anyone on the right who would challenge Trump. The stories of harassment experienced by those who spoke out against Trump are numerous. National Review’s David French story is heart-wrenching but hardly unique.
And there are consequences. There’s no reason to take Trump’s condemnation of racism seriously with Bannon in the White House in the same position as Karl Rove. Bannon has had no problem engaging and encouraging the White Nationalist movement in this country. The reason Bannon gets along so well with Trump is he’s a big believer in encouraging “Trump to be Trump.” That is, Bannon encourages Trump to be the worst possible version of himself.
Under Bannon, Breitbart wasn’t above coordinating with leftists to disrupt U.S. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) which shows how far Bannon will go to get what he wants. Bannon’s ethics appear to be on par with the people who brought us Watergate. If I had to pick the two most likely people to cause the downfall of the Trump Administration, Bannon would win the number two spot easily.
There are also nominees I’m not entirely sold will be good fits for their jobs. Ben Carson’s experience doesn’t qualify him for Housing Secretary (Surgeon General would be more suitable) but I’d be willing to give him a pass and a chance to prove himself. I also found Trump’s decision to appoint Obama’s Under Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs David Shulkin as Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs to be really odd given the problems at the VA over the last few years. Trump’s general strategy of hiring outsiders to shake things up would seem to make more sense than giving the job to someone already in the department.
Domestic Policy Grade: B
Trump’s appointment of General James Mattis (USMC, Ret.) as Secretary of Defense is easily Trump’s most impressive appointment. Mattis is a dedicated patriot with a superb grasp of military tactics. His wisdom on defense is going to be a huge asset however long he’s part of the Trump Administration.
Trump’s choice of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the U.N. is also a great appointment. Her testimony before the Senate Foreign relations committee showed solid support for Israel and clear-eyed understanding of the world. She’ll not only do a superb job representing our country, but also gives one of the GOP’s true rising stars a chance to continue her career rather than reaching a political dead end when she’s term limited as Governor.
The appointments of General John Kelly (USMC, Ret.) at Homeland Security, outgoing U.S. Senator Dan Coats (R-IN) as Director of National Intelligence, and Congressman Mike Pompeo (R-KS) at the CIA all have solid backgrounds and can be trusted to do everything they can to keep the country safe.
Unfortunately, not all Trump appointees are solid. Lt. General Michael Flynn (U.S. Army, Ret.) will serve as National Security Adviser and has a disturbing ties to Russia, regularly appearing on Russia’s state-run propaganda network RT. During the campaign, he flew to Russia and appeared with Russian President Vladimir Putin and appeared at a gala for RT. During that visit he questioned whether the sarin gas attack by the Russian-backed regime in Syria was staged to make Russia look bad. He was also found to have mishandled classified information back in 2010. Both he and his son (who until recently was also his chief of staff) have retweeted and encouraged various conspiracy theories on social media.
In addition, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, also brings concerns about his relationship to Russia. Tillerson was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship from Putin. Tillerson has tried to talk tough about Russia during confirmation hearings, but it’s hard to ignore the years of his cozying up to this regime given Trump’s other problems on Russia. Under Tillerson’s leadership, Exxon did business with Iran, Syria, and Sudan through a European subsidiary. Under questioning by the Senate Foreign relations committee, Tillerson used the favorite dodge of politicians, “I can’t recall.” .
When you take into account that Tillerson’s company was indirectly doing business with state sponsors of terrorism, and combine it with Tillerson’s cozy relationship with Russian and Trump’s lack of credibility on Russian issues, Tillerson is the one nominee subject to Senate confirmation who should not be confirmed.
Trump has made several forays into commenting on national security issues. The President deserves credit for standing up for Israel and offering needed reassurances after the Obama Administration allowed a one-sided, anti-Israel resolution to pass in the U.N.
On the other hand, President Trump’s attempt to approach Taiwan over China came off as clumsy and amateurish. His suggestion that Great Britain appoint Nigel Farrage to the British ambassadorship to the U.S. was completely inappropriate. And his handling of the probe of intelligence reports over Russian hacking to influence the U.S. elections have been damaging. He publicly doubted the integrity of our nation’s intelligence agencies in favor of fugitive Julian Assage and the Russian government.
After the situation played out in the press for nearly two months, Trump conceded to the obvious. But not until after impugning the motives of the intelligence community in a way that would have at least two dozen Republican Congressmen demanding the President’s impeachment were a Democrat to do so. Nothing Trump has done as President-elect has dispelled the widespread fear he is severely compromised by Russia . Putin and Russia continue to be the only things Trump will not criticize. Some of these statements are downright embarrassing as Trump practically seems to be kissing up to Putin.
Many members of Trump’s team have expressed concerns with Russia, including Mattis, Pompeo, and Haley, but there’s an open question as to how much sway anyone on the national security team is going to have. There’s already reported conflict between Mattis and Trump’s team over staffing the Defense Deparement with Mattis reportedly “furious” that he had to learn who Trump had appointed as Secretary of the Army through CNN.
Trump has appointed some good people, but Trump’s public statement, as well as the appointment of Flynn and Tillerson, put a question mark as to how America’s national security will look in four years.
National Security Grade: C-
Before getting into the discussion of Trump’s many controversies on Twitter, I want to talk about the most serious issue in Trump’s transition, the disposition of his businesses. The President’s plan to have his sons take over his businesses, but maintain ownership, opens the door for too many conflicts of interest as long considering the Trump Organization’s business dealings in foreign countries and ties to so many other corporations. If the President put his assets into a true blind trust or liquidated them, he would be able to effectively serve the country without having to worry about these conflicts. This is what Trump’s billionaire cabinet choices have done, but Trump couldn’t be bothered to do it.
The sheer depths of Trump’s business ties both domestically and overseas means, sooner or later something is going to look fishy and the country will face a scandal. Further, the President still refuses to release his tax returns, and this is already opening the door to speculation about where his interests might lie and where he’s made his money. It casts doubt on his promise to “drain the swamp” and he’s almost certainly guaranteed that before his tenure is over, there will be a dark cloud over his presidency.
Trump has had a few moments where he was gracious, by his standard, such as his election night speech. In a few interviews, he sounds professional and serious. His inaugural address was above average for him and, to his credit, it contained the strongest denunciation of racism he’s delivered.
Beyond that, the Trump transition has been marked by harmful controversy. The President has gone to war with the cast of Hamilton, the cast of Saturday Night Live, Meryl Streep, and John Lewis among others. These attacks aren’t pointless ego. Some are obvious diversionary tactics. His attacks on the cast of Hamilton for their after-show speech to Vice President Mike Pence ensured the media focused on that rather than the fact, earlier that day, he’d settled the $40 million Trump University fraud suit for $25 million. Even Dave Barry’s year-end review singled out the Hamilton story and ignored the Trump University case, which illustrates how effective Trump’s tactic was.
Other attacks firmed up and retained the conservative base without having to do anything conservative at all. Trump goes to war with liberal actors like Streep and Baldwin, a far left politician like Lewis, and news media outlets many conservatives love to hate like The Washington Post and The New York Times. This secures the support of many on the right. They may find Trump distasteful, and he cuts against core conservative principles, but they’ll support him because he goes after their cultural enemies rather than being nice, polite, and a gentleman. Decency is so last decade.
Trump’s attacking these people doesn’t fix anything, show respect for the office of the Presidency, nor does it draw anyone to the conservative cause. But it feels good to many, and as long as Trump provides this catharsis, many people will continue to support him no matter how far he strays from conservative principles because “he fights.”
It’s a clever way to lock down a political base and it’s a brilliant method to manipulate the media into giving mass coverage to easy-to-understand controversies rather than more complex and more substantial stories about the lack of transparency in Trump’s finances and the ethical conflicts inherent in how Trump is disposing of his businesses. But it isn’t presidential and it’s no way to lead the country.
The same thing can be said of Trump’s constant boasting and exaggeration about his accomplishments. Only Trump would see that the way to heal the country’s wounds after the most divisive presidential election since 1860 was for the winner to go touring the country on a multiple swing state gloat fest claiming to have won in a landslide. In the real world, he’s President because he won three midwestern states by a total of 100,000 votes.
Like Obama, Trump talks about national unity but doesn’t know how to achieve it. Even at the holidays, Trump can’t seem to help himself. On New Year’s Eve, he sent out best wishes to “my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do.” That’s not how you bring about unity. It’s a statement that justifies the fears many have about the Trump Presidency given the recent legacy of regimes in other nations that viewed their own citizens as “enemies.”
This behavior has cost Trump with the American people. Fox News polling in November showed Trump with a 38% favorable rating. However, in December that favorable rating was up to 47%, now in the latest poll in down to 42%. This tracks with other polls which show Trump’s approval ratings in the low 40s, after having bounced up to high 40s after the election. Typically, the day of the Inauguration and the week after represent a peak in a new President’s popularity as it is the honeymoon period. These polls suggest, for the American people, the honeymoon is over even before Trump has taken office.
Ultimately, the way Trump has carried himself wears well with his fan base, but not with the American people as a whole.
By no means do Trump’s low ratings doom his presidency. If we have good economic growth in the next four years without a foreign policy disaster, Trump will probably be re-elected. Even when the American people don’t like a leader, they don’t replace a President when things are going well. So Donald Trump may end up a two-term President, but if he continues to conduct himself as he has over the last two and a half months he’ll never be a President who will make our country proud.
Deportment: Grade: D-
If you were concerned about Trump enacting a ton of liberal policies, falling back into his lifetime New York liberalism, there’s reason to be encouraged by Trump’s cabinet appointments. Though, it remains an open question as to whether he’ll listen to them.
If you’re concerned about Trump’s totalitarian instincts, there hasn’t been any comfort. We’ve seen the President-elect of the United States undermining the American Intelligence Community while implying he found the Russians more trustworthy. Trump has tried to create not an alternative to the media, but an alternative to reality itself where stubborn facts are sacrificed for his fancies and where the only people who can be trusted are Trump and those who mouth his lines.
Ultimately, the question of the Trump administration is whether the good people he’s appointed are going to be able to check his bad impulses. Even if they can, Trump’s fast and loose handling of ethical conflicts has planted a minefield that he’s very likely to step in.
Overall grade for the Transition: C