Elephants in the Room
The Trump Transition and the Next 1357 Days
The president devoted his first 100 days to getting settled in. Now the real governing can begin.
Reflecting on last week’s deluge of commentary on President Trump’s first 100 days in office, it seems that the Trump Administration’s detractors and defenders alike overlooked the most revealing aspect of that period. The time since the inauguration has not so much been Trump’s start to governing as it has been the transition period that he had previously skipped in the post-election phase. This is why I wrote in the Dallas Morning News last week that “Never before in modern American history have we known less about a presidency after its first 100 days than now.” Whereas more conventional presidents have raised their right hands on inauguration day with a relatively clear set of priorities and an understanding of the responsibilities of the office, by President Trump’s own admission he is only just now coming to terms with what it means to be the United States’ chief executive, commander-in-chief, diplomat-in-chief, chief law enforcement officer, and first customer of the intelligence community.
Normally the transition period between election and inauguration is when the president-elect undertakes detailed policy study and confirms his strategic priorities and positions, begins taking daily intelligence briefings on the most sensitive issues and programs, and decides his selections for his senior cabinet officials and White House staff and structure. This is the period when campaign statements and slogans are adapted into policy initiatives to be implemented once in office – or in some cases when that campaign rhetoric is revisited, revised, or jettisoned altogether. The principles of major legislation are drafted and prepared to be sent to Congress as priorities for negotiation and passage. Meanwhile the president-elect’s transition team carefully vets thousands of candidates for the critical mid-to-upper level positions of deputy, under, and assistant secretaries at the various departments and agencies, who will be nominated, confirmed, and help impose the president’s policy agenda on unwieldy and often recalcitrant bureaucracies.
The Trump transition did very little of the above. It bears remembering that as pervasive as the shock of Trump’s victory was, perhaps no one was more surprised than the candidate himself. Even though a transition team had been in place since he received the nomination and had been quietly working in the months since preparing many of the needful steps, the President-elect himself was not prepared to utilize their efforts. As has been widely reported, the transition was soon beset by false starts and feuding staff, a rift between New York and Washington DC, a change in transition leadership from Chris Christie to Mike Pence, and a president-elect uninterested in basic duties such as daily intelligence briefings and reading policy papers.
Why revisit that old news now? Because it provides a key to understanding Trump’s turbulent first few months in office. The time since the inauguration have actually functioned as Trump’s transition period, as the realities of governing have begun to sink in and the tasks that were left undone before now assume a new urgency.
This is why Trump’s first 100 days have been consumed with holding auditions for and trying to recruit a National Security Advisor and Principal Deputy National Security Advisor, drafting and then re-drafting executive orders on immigration bans, shuffling and reshuffling West Wing advisors (including family members) and even entire offices, beginning to vet candidates for mid and upper level department and agency positions, issuing and then re-issuing National Security Presidential Memoranda that organized and then reorganized the National Security Council,
Amid these organizational issues, President Trump has also tried out various policy positions, alternately embracing, abandoning, and altering his stances on a range of issues.
As Peter Baker observed in a customarily insightful New York Times essay, just since becoming president “[Trump] was talked out of lifting sanctions on Russia, moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, abandoning the ‘one China’ policy, tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement, reversing the diplomatic opening to Cuba, closing the Export-Import Bank, declaring China a currency manipulator and, in recent days, terminating the North American Free Trade Agreement.” To this can be added Trump’s abandonment of his ban on Iraqis from entering the United States, his change from rejecting an immigration agreement with Australia to upholding it, his pivot from disparaging NATO to affirming it, his reversal from praising Russia to confronting it over its support for the Assad regime in Syria, and his departure from eschewing any military involvement in Syria to launching cruise missile strikes in retaliation for Assad’s chemical weapons use.
In many of these cases I am supportive of the new positions Trump has taken, so for people like me who had criticized candidate Trump during the campaign, the policy reversals are welcome developments. Similarly, Trump’s appointments of officials such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats have been widely and justifiably lauded.
Much less appreciated but potentially of more consequence over the next four years, is the fact that in addition to the high quality of these individuals as a team, Trump’s national security leaders thus far displays a singular unity of purpose and collegiality. In part because of the institutional tensions that exist between State, the Pentagon, and the NSC, most previous administrations have been beset by interagency rivalry and feuding. So much so that the names themselves have become iconic: Powell vs. Rumsfeld, Shultz vs. Weinberger, Vance vs. Brzezinski, Kissinger vs. Rogers, and so on. Instead, Mattis, Tillerson, and McMaster in particular seem to have forged an effective partnership that aligns force and diplomacy.
The near-term risk for President Trump is not that a round of feuding will break out among his national security team but that their collective frustration will boil over concerning the White House’s denials and delays in appointing the senior officials that the NSC and State and Defense departments so desperately need to function. Thus far our nation has been fortunate that no true national security crises have erupted that would demand the proverbial “all hands on deck,” but given the ongoing turbulence in northeast Asia, the Middle East, and other strategic regions, a crisis will almost certainly emerge sooner or later.
Meanwhile, now that the first 100 days and its artifice of significance are behind us, the more enduring questions are what the next four years will hold – or the next 1357 days to be more precise. All transitions must come to an end, even protracted ones like the Trump transition. Now the time for governing begins.
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images
Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.