WASHINGTON – Donald Trump, that most unconventional of presidential candidates, last spring pledged that he would act perfectly presidential when the time was right.
“I will be so presidential that you’ll call me and you’ll say, ‘Donald, you have to stop that, it’s too much,'” he promised during a March television interview.
Less than two months from Inauguration Day, there are growing signs that Trump’s idea of what’s presidential may never sync up with past norms — to the delight of some and dismay of others.
The president-elect has kept up his habit of sending unfiltered tweets, directly challenged the First Amendment right to burn the flag and selected a flame-throwing outsider for a top adviser.
He’s shown no hesitation to traffic in unsubstantiated rumours, has mixed dealings in business and government, and has flouted diplomatic conventions to make his own suggestion for who should be Britain’s ambassador to the U.S., a job that happens to already be filled.
He’s picked numerous fights with individual journalists, disregarded past practices on press access and dabbled in the name-calling that was commonplace during his candidacy.
Trump’s search for Cabinet nominees has played out like a reality TV show, with a number of candidates engaged in unabashed self-promotion while their assets and liabilities are publicly debated by members of the president-elect’s own transition team. (It’s normally a hush-hush process until the unveiling of an appointee). Trump’s tweet that “Fidel Castro is dead!” had none of the diplomatic subtleties normally associated with such an international development.
Is all of this, then, the “new normal” for what to expect from a Trump administration or a reflection of the growing pains associated with any presidential transition?
President Barack Obama, who knows a thing or two about making the big leap to the Oval Office, has expressed hope that the weight of the office will ultimately have a sobering effect on Trump, cautioning people against assuming “the worst.”
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“How you campaign isn’t always the same as how you govern,” Obama said in one of a string of recent comments trying to provide some measure of reassurance to those concerned about the next president.
“Sometimes when you’re campaigning, you’re trying to stir up passions. When you govern, you actually have reality in front of you, and you have to figure out, ‘How do I make this work.'”
Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a strong conservative and a Trump defender, said of the transition, “You gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet.”
But Thomas Mann, a longtime scholar of government from the Brookings Institution, said that while people can hope for the best, “There’s no reason to take what’s going on with anything other than great uneasiness and caution about the kind of government that is preparing to take control in the United States.”
“To call this the ‘new normal’ is to make light of the seriousness of what’s going on,” Mann said.
Trump has “got to get some discipline,” said New York University’s Paul Light, another scholar of government. “He’s just got to get on this.”
On the matter of Trump’s tweeting, Light said, “If he’s up at 3 a.m. about to tweet, he should start reading something about his agenda instead. He’s under-informed and so is his staff.”
The concerns extend well beyond matters of style.
- Trump’s out-of-the-blue tweet this week that people who burn the flag should face jail time or a loss of citizenship had Republicans stepping forward to defend First Amendment rights.
- His unfounded charges that millions of Americans voted illegally sow distrust in the integrity of the U.S. electoral system.
- On matters of press access, the idea that the whereabouts of the president or president-elect might be unknown in a time of national emergency has troubling implications beyond mere inconvenience for reporters.
And experts on government ethics say that if the president doesn’t sell off his vast business buildings, he’ll be subject to a never-ending string of conflict-of-interest questions that will cast a cloud over his policy actions.
Trump said Wednesday he was drawing up plans to take himself “completely out” of his business operations. But it wasn’t clear if he planned to put his businesses in a blind trust — as presidents have traditionally done — or leave them in his children’s hands.
Polls show Trump’s favourability ratings have ticked up since the election, even if they are still extremely low for an incoming president.
A CNN survey released last week found that Trump’s favourability rating had gone from 36 per cent a few weeks before the election to 47 per cent 10 days after the vote. A little less than half of Americans said Trump’s actions since the election had made them more confident in his ability to serve as president.
A Quinnipiac poll released last week found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans thought Trump should shut down his personal Twitter account. More than half were concerned that Trump might veto legislation that’s good for the nation if it hurt his business interests.
Trump has offered post-election reassurances that he’ll be “very restrained” in his tweets and more going forward. His actions haven’t always confirmed that.