international analysis and commentary

Transitioning to the Trump presidency


By recent historical standards, Donald Trump’s transition is not moving any more slowly than previous ones. In 2008, many of Barack Obama’s major appointments weren’t made until well into December. But Obama was relatively consistent in his pronouncements, and his appointments largely proceeded along predictable lines. By contrast, Trump’s habit of reversing himself on major positions and his lack of public service experience makes it difficult to predict how his idiosyncratic campaign style will translate into governance in the long term.

We can, however, draw some inferences from Trump’s announcements on his initial priorities by comparing his transition plan to what is plausibly achievable within the constraints of the Beltway.

In broad strokes, the first part of Trump’s plan is to “clean up Washington”, including a proposed constitutional amendment requiring congressional term limits, a federal hiring freeze, various lobbying bans and other related measures. A few of these, notably restrictions on White House staff lobbying, can be accomplished by executive fiat; the others are less likely to become law. A federal hiring freeze may gain some traction, but its impact would likely be limited as most federal departments have already seriously limited their hiring due to the budget sequestration passed to resolve the 2012 budget fight between the Obama administration and Congress. And term limits on members of Congress is a guaranteed non-starter. Simply put, instituting that restriction would require hundreds of long-standing congressmen and women to willingly vote themselves out of their seats, which isn’t going to happen.

Second, Trump has promised to step up immigration enforcement and deport two to three million undocumented immigrants who have criminal records (though the exact number is in dispute). But the Obama administration, despite its moves towards immigration reform, also significantly increased immigration enforcement and deportations, so it is not clear how Trump’s new plan would differ from existing policy. He may simply scrap the reform initiatives and claim credit for the ongoing deportation activities. Similarly, Trump and his advisors seem to be slowly backing away from the border wall with Mexico that was the source of so much campaign attention and controversy. It is likely that Trump will push Congress to allocate additional money for physical security measures along the border, but the practical obstacles of building a wall along the full length of the border (and the low likelihood that Mexico would actually pay for such an endeavor) make it extremely unlikely that this project will ever come to fruition.

Finally, on trade, Trump will possess significant executive authority that will allow him to push to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). However, it is a topic that both Canada and Mexico have signaled that they will discuss with him, meaning that he’s unlikely to cancel the agreement immediately. He can, and almost certainly will, pull the US out of the nascent Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which has yet to enter into force. This won’t have any immediate economic impact, but it will complicate diplomatic relations with US allies in the Pacific in the longer term.

Of course, much of this depends on the character that Trump’s administration will take on once he is inaugurated. The first 100 days will be a serious test of the model that worked for him in the election. His initial picks for cabinet positions and senior White House staff suggest that his first stretch is unlikely to go smoothly: while some have government experience, many (including his Chief of Staff, his chief political advisor and three of his four cabinet secretaries named thus far) will be taking their very first jobs in government. Even well-prepared administrations stacked with veterans struggle with the complexity of taking over the federal bureaucracy; the Trump team’s ad hoc approach suggests that they will struggle more than usual. How Trump himself responds to this will be a key indicator of how his presidency is likely to play out.

One possibility is that he accommodates the difficulties and learns to navigate the competing interests with more grace and diplomacy than he has demonstrated thus far. In doing so, he might revert to the more accommodating version of himself put forward during his abortive 2000 run for the Reform Party’s candidacy for president – a model used by fellow celebrity-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.

Another is that he may double down on his most extreme positions, using the power of the presidency to intimidate his opposition (including possibly in the Republican Party on issues that are controversial with traditional conservatives) by any means available. His angry response to the petition to recount ballots in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania suggests that he has not yet come to terms with the fact that presidents inevitably face criticism and opposition, and that many of their initiatives are defeated by Congress, the courts or simple political inertia. Add to this the growing scrutiny of the potential conflicts of interest between Trump the business and Trump the head of the executive branch and the potential for presidential retrenchment cannot be dismissed.

Trump made numerous outsized promises during the campaign; at the time, it was an effective tool to build enthusiasm amongst his base. From January, though, he faces a much more complicated task where success cannot simply be measured by polls, votes or crowd sizes. How much of his initial agenda he sticks to will be a key indicator of what kind of president he will be, but how he evolves in response to setbacks may be even more significant.