The first 10 days of President Donald Trump’s administration were a blur. For Trump, chaos is a feature, not a bug. That means the rest of us could use some help sorting things out. With that in mind, here’s a guide to what not to focus on.
“Watch what we do, not what we say,” Attorney General John Mitchell said in 1969 at the start of the Richard Nixon administration. That’s good advice for any presidency-watcher, especially in 2017. Trump talks or tweets all the time, often with little thought. His words can’t be ignored — he’s the president. But keep them in context, and don’t allow him to use tweets as diversions.
Looking ahead, expect Trump to pop off in the next few weeks about taxes and spending, infrastructure and a robust military. What matters is when his administration submits a budget next month. Then we’ll see how his neo-populist promises to prevent cuts in entitlements like Social Security square with his choice of a hardliner on spending, U.S. Representative and tea party champion Mick Mulvaney, to head the Office of Management and Budget.
Ignore the claims made by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence that relations between the White House and Congress are going swimmingly. The tensions and fears on Capitol Hill are palpable. A leaked tape showed Republicans agonizing over the weekend at a Philadelphia conference about White House plans to abruptly dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Quarrels over policies on immigration and Russia ended with a Sunday tweet from Trump accusing Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham of “always looking to start World War III.”
These concerns intensified during the past few days with reports that Trump’s chief strategist, right-wing provocateur Steve Bannon, will be a principal at the National Security Council while the Director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will participate selectively.
In the months ahead, look to see if some Republicans start to break openly with Trump. That’s likely to happen in the Senate before the House. At issue is whether mainstream conservatives like Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander or Rob Portman of Ohio — or a few of the principled Western-state conservatives, join mavericks like McCain. The odds are less than likely and more than remote.
Don’t get excited when Trump or Bannon call the media the enemy. They aren’t the first politicians to hate the press, even if they are more vitriolic than most. But they’re playing a game to rally their base, obscure mistakes and intimidate reporters. Treat it as such.
If the administration takes concrete steps to erode First Amendment protections, as Trump has threatened, that’s worth treating seriously.
There are some what-not-to-focus-ons for the down-and-out Democrats, too.
Don’t worry too much about who becomes the next chair of the Democratic National Committee; that’s, at best, a secondary matter. A party leader can help raise money and build better state and local party organizations, but not much else.
Party leaders don’t shape presidential races. The Democrats’ Howard Dean, for example, was irrelevant to Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. Reince Preibus, now the White House chief of staff and earlier Republican national chairman, less than a year ago was horrified at the possibility of Trump winning his party’s nomination.
Ignore speculative pieces about who will be the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. (Unless, of course, I violate this admonition.)
Here’s a simple exercise for those old enough to perform it: Think back to January 1973. Nixon was starting his second term after a crushing re-election victory. Now ask yourself, did you predict that a peanut farmer who was governor of Georgia would occupy the White House four years later? Did you anticipate the rise of Barack Obama 12 years ago? Or, in 2013, of Donald Trump? Focus more on whether Democrats are replenishing their ranks at the state and local level.
And don’t forget John Mitchell’s admonition: “Watch what we do, not what we say.”
2017 Bloomberg L.P.