The performance of the President-Elect continues to be both unpredictable and deeply troubling in various respects. The shape and direction of the impending Trump administration is unclear, and while the fears and alarms of Trump’s harshest critics may be exaggerated, then again, they may not be.
At times there appear to be two different Donald Trumps and it is difficult to know which one will appear at any particular time. For example, on November 21, Trump met with a group of thirty or forty television anchors and producers and subjected them to an ill-tempered rant attacking their competence and integrity. He continued in a similar vein the following morning with a tweet denouncing the New York Times as a “failing” institution that covered him inaccurately — “and with a nasty tone.”
Having wielded those brick-bats, Trump turned to flowers in an interview only eight hours later with editors and reporters of the Times. There he presented a very different persona, conciliatory and respectful, even referring to the Times as “a great, great American jewel” and even a “world jewel.”
In the Times interview, Trump noticeably appeared to moderate some of the extreme positions taken during the campaign including the torture of terrorist suspects, prosecuting Hillary Clinton and denial of climate change. But many issues were not touched on, and for those that Trump did mention, it was not clear what might lie ahead.
On the appointments front, Trump’s most recent nominees represented a welcome effort to diversify his cabinet by naming South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to be Ambassador to the United Nations and Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education. Both would be considered mainstream Republicans who might have been appointed by, say, a President Kasich or a President Rubio. Governor Haley lacks a depth of experience in foreign affairs, but the position at the UN is more one of tactics than basic strategy and her personality and energy should serve her well. The selection of Betsy DeVos is more controversial because she has been a controversial advocate of school choice in the form of both charter schools and vouchers.
Both charter schools and vouchers have the potential to improve educational opportunities for children from lower-income families that should be acknowledged. Neither, however, is free from problems, and both are vigorously opposed by teachers’ unions. Apart from the merit of charter schools and vouchers in general, Ms. DeVos will face criticism as one of the architects of school reform in Michigan and, in particular, Detroit. The Detroit experience is widely considered to have been unsuccessful, and DeVos is certain to be questioned closely about it. For the moment, David Leonhardt made an apt and concise recommendation in the New York Times:
Many conservatives praised her, and many liberals blasted her. For anyone who still has an open mind about the politics of education, though, I’d urge a nuanced, wait-and-see reaction.
The most appalling aspect of the appointment process in the past week has been Trump’s allowing the candidacy of Mitt Romney to dangle in the wind as the latter is publicly attacked by members of the Trump team. The nastiest attack dog has been Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s erstwhile campaign manager, who took to the Sunday talk shows to savage Romney at length. Trump has been reported to be “irritated” by Conway as well he might be. Trump has indicated that Romney is still under consideration and the two are scheduled to meet again on Tuesday. Under the circumstances, Conway’s tiresome diatribes inevitably convey the distinct impression of a captain who cannot control his crew.
It seems increasingly unlikely that, in the end, Trump will select Romney, and despite Romney’s stature, it is not clear that Trump would be wise to do so. Nor is it clear that Romney would be wise to accept the position if offered. The job of Secretary of State is difficult enough without the Secretary having to spend a major portion of his or her time fending off attacks from within the administration that he or she serves.
Amid the serious business of appointments came the feckless effort of Jill Stein to seek recounts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Such recounts stand no perceptible chance of changing the election and, perhaps, might best be explained by a feeling of guilt on Stein’s part that her own candidacy took votes away from Clinton. The Clinton campaign did not call for a recount but after it was initiated by Stein in Wisconsin, said that they would “participate.” The best course for the President-Elect would have been to ignore the recount demands entirely or to dismiss them with a brief but dignified statement. That, of course, was not in the Trump playbook. In consequence, the modest announcement by the Clinton campaign was sufficient unhinge the President-Elect (whose threshold of unhingement is notoriously low). Characteristically, Trump took to Twitter to attack Clinton but then made the extraordinary, and utterly groundless, claim that:
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.
What possible benefit Trump perceived in that reckless falsehood is hard to imagine. The effort to get Trump ready to actually be president clearly has quite a way to go.
The remaining sub-plot of the Trumpian soap opera involves the growing concern over the inherent conflict in the head of the Trump business empire occupying the White House, and there have been increasing calls for Trump to take major steps to eliminate or reduce the conflict. In his New York Times interview Trump maintained, correctly, that he is exempt from the terms of conflict of interest statutes. Some critics however, have pointed to the provision of the Constitution that bars the President from accepting “emoluments” from foreign governments, a bar that may be germane to relations between Trump’s overseas holdings and foreign governments. Nevertheless, Trump’s problems are probably more political than legal.
Some of the attempts to describe the seriousness of Trump’s conflict have seemed clearly over the top, as in the case of Paul Krugman, who speculated that “someplace like Vladimir Putin’s Russia can easily funnel vast sums to the man at the top in return for, say, the withdrawal of security guarantees for the Baltic States.” Nevertheless, more sober, and even sympathetic, observers have seen the need for a structural solution. The Wall Street Journal’s answer was tor Trump to liquidate his holdings:
Mr. Trump’s best option is to liquidate his stake in the company. Richard Painter and Norman Eisen, ethics lawyers for George W. Bush and President Obama, respectively, have laid out a plan, which involves a leveraged buyout or an initial public offering. Mr. Trump could put the cash proceeds in a true blind trust. The Trump children can keep the assets in their name, and he can transfer more to them as long as he pays a hefty gift tax. Finally, Mr. Trump should stipulate that he and his children will have no communication about family business matters.
A somewhat different solution was offered by The Economist:
The best solution is for Mr Trump to follow precedent and put his assets at arm’s length. The business should also be transparent to Congress and the public. Three steps are required. First, the firm must aggregate its legal entities under one holding company and publish consolidated accounts that capture its entire scope of activity. Second, an independent board of directors must be appointed, and it must appoint an external chief executive. Lastly, this board must be given a mandate that allows it to sell, but not buy, assets; and that requires it to distribute all profits as dividends and to refrain from new foreign investments. The effect would be to turn the Trump Organisation into a mature portfolio of domestic property assets which generate rental payments for the Trumps.
So far at least, it appears unlikely that Trump will agree to anything of the sort, and that is unfortunate. It is not necessary to imagine all the ways that that Trump and his family might reap financial benefit from his presidency, or to assume, ala Krugman, that he will make foreign policy decisions based on considerations of personal gain. Rather it is necessary only to recognize that, if no real solution is found, his administration will suffer from an ongoing taint and he will suffer the serious distraction of having to respond continually to well-founded criticisms from the media and political adversaries.