Trump’s year of anger, disruption and scandal
It was after midnight on Nov. 9, 2016, and Donald Trump was sitting at the kitchen table of his Trump Tower penthouse.
His win in the presidential race was so unexpected that his chief speechwriter, Stephen Miller, had only begun writing the victory remarks the president-elect would deliver to supporters gathered at the Hilton Midtown Hotel in the middle of the night.
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Surrounded by a handful of campaign advisers, Trump started editing the speech by hand, striking some of the most belligerent lines, and inserting notes of unity. He read aloud softly to himself.
“Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division.” He paused. “To bind? To heal? Which is better?” he asked his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, who was hovering close by. It was the mirror image of the scene unfolding in Hillary Clinton’s hotel room, where the Democratic nominee had a victory speech ready to go, but no concession to deliver.
Trump had been glued to the television, watching what was supposed to be Clinton’s Javits Center victory party — and taking note of the shocked faces in the crowd. “I think he was aware of how unexpected this was,” said his longtime aide, Hope Hicks, now the White House communications director, explaining the un-Trumpian unity rallying cry. “He wanted to give a speech that would de-escalate everything and, while the whole world was watching, be a leader for all.”
Onstage, Trump would say: “To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time.”
It was a glimpse of a presidency that could have been.
Instead, in the year since that night, Trump has relished personal fights and nursed grudges; continued to vilify Clinton and defend his own legitimacy amid the expanding Russia probes; stirred racial tensions while measuring his success by the strength of his base; and taken more interest in throwing elbows on cultural issues than on the matters of policy that preoccupy Republican leaders in Congress.
The shock win also meant that the first six months of his tenure were hobbled by infighting among a band of government first-timers recruited to the White House on the basis of loyalty rather than merit.
Campaign-trail promises of a bipartisan, trillion-dollar infrastructure bill haven’t materialized in office. Republican lawmakers, who campaigned for seven years on promises to repeal Obamacare, failed even to pull together behind advancing a partial rollback before abandoning that effort in favor of another top priority: tax reform.
But Trump has nonetheless brought about an astonishing transformation of his party – and of American politics – over the last year.
His election marked the end of the conservative movement that controlled the GOP since Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and the rise of a nationalist-populist movement that is, for the time being, characterized by warring factions with different views on Trump himself as well as the issues of immigration, trade, and elitism that he has raised.
“Trump’s presidency could be the usual model in reverse,” said Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, a leading conservative policy journal. “The general pattern is a productive first year and then a steady decline toward exhaustion, incompetence, and scandal. Trump’s first year has felt like the eighth year of recent presidents, but the beginning was likely worse than the end.”
Trump was on an island even after he won the nomination.
He had run a skeletal campaign in part because few mainstream political operatives were willing to associate themselves with him. Most assumed Trump was headed for a historic loss and railed against him publicly – and thereby disqualified themselves for positions in the future administration, where the man at the top prized loyalty.
That solidified the ascent of Trump’s novice team in the White House, and in the federal government. Rather than bringing in bureaucrats with Washington experience, he brought family members and longtime characters from his old life in Trump Tower to the West Wing — Hicks, daughter Ivanka Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner, social media guru Dan Scavino, former ‘Apprentice’ star Omarosa Manigault and security chief Keith Schiller, familiar characters from his previous life.
The first six months of his administration were largely consumed by a war between the campaign loyalists —a group led by Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist who had for many years been waging war against GOP leadership—and the party establishment figures led by former Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who Trump hired as his first chief of staff.
Bannon brought on Breitbart acolytes, like Julia Hahn and Sebastian Gorka, who were dismissive of Washington norms as well as of a group they dubbed the ‘New York Democrats’—people like economic adviser Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs trader.
Priebus brought in his own team from the RNC, people like deputy Katie Walsh and press secretary Sean Spicer who had no deep relationship with the commander-in-chief. One senior administration official brought to the White House by Priebus, but who had not worked with him at the RNC, recalls Priebus pressing him to “like, give him a blood oath.”
The White House’s official line was that Trump entered office with access to an array of views – one of the things that helped get him elected in the first place. But the tension between the rival clans played out in personal turf wars that slowed down the real work of governing.
In early June, four months into the administration, senior White House aides went to war over whether a junior press aide, Michael Short, would fly to Bedminster, N.J., for the weekend with the president and his team. Short, a Priebus loyalist who followed his old boss from the RNC to the campaign to the White House communications department, was placed on the flight manifest by the communications team, according to two people involved in the trip. Spicer and Priebus wanted him there to solidify his relationships with other senior administration officials, a grooming exercise of sorts.
But 45 minutes before Air Force One was set to take off from Andrews Air Force Base on June 9, Short’s name was abruptly removed from the manifest with no explanation. Short’s bags made the journey to Bedminster, while their owner had to buy all new toiletries rather than suffer a deodorant-less weekend in Washington – an outcome that his former RNC colleagues interpreted as an act of sabotage. (Short eventually resigned after Anthony Scaramucci stepped in briefly as communications director.)
Meanwhile, Kushner, who had advocated for Priebus to be chief of staff because of his relationships on the Hill, steadily lost faith in the weak chief and his team. Kushner viewed the White House communications team as a particular disaster, and laid the blame for that department’s dysfunction on Priebus. He also brought on his own communications aide and would not let Spicer handle media inquiries related to him or his wife.
Some thought that pinning all the blame on Priebus was unfair. In the lead-up to Trump’s first foreign trip last May, for example, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis were resistant to making the rounds on the Sunday shows. At one point, while Kushner was conducting a trip prep meeting in his office, Priebus interrupted to announce he had finally convinced Tillerson to appear on television that weekend, as a surrogate for the administration.
“Thanks, Reince, you did your job,” Kushner said to him. Some White House aides in the meeting were dismayed by the dismissive comment, given that Priebus’ job was neither communications director nor director of cabinet affairs. Others in the room said the comment was meant good-naturedly.
But the general middle school cafeteria behavior crippled the president’s legislative agenda. Throughout Trump’s first stab at an Obamacare repeal bill, senior aides on the Hill saw that there were different messages being pushed from the White House. Paul Teller, a special assistant to the president for legislative affairs, was sent to the Hill to work exclusively with members of the Freedom Caucus, encouraging them to hold out for a better deal.
Meanwhile, people like legislative affairs director Marc Short and Vice President Mike Pence would be trying to convince those same members to get on board with the bill backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan. “The White House was speaking with many different voices and each person was hearing only what they wanted to hear,” said one senior Republican familiar with the conversations. “If you were in the Freedom Caucus, you were under the impression you could hold out.”
By the time the House finally passed a health care bill in early May, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill had determined that the president’s involvement – and that of the White House more broadly – was more trouble than it was worth. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear to Trump that he was to play no role in ensuring the bill passed the Senate – that he should, in essence, leave it to the professionals.
The failure of the so-called professionals to pass that measure, on July 28, laid bare the ideological crack-up of the Republican party, which had campaigned for seven years on rolling back Obamacare, and underscored the inability of congressional leaders to deliver on their promises.
Throughout the debate on Capitol Hill, it became clear that Republican lawmakers were far less committed to rolling back President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement than they had claimed to be. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who had voted dozens of times as a House member to repeal Obamacare, explained her hesitation to back the Senate bill, telling reporters that she “didn’t come to D.C. to hurt people.” Trump’s election seemed to have revealed to lawmakers like Capito that their voters, even in deep red states like West Virginia, weren’t as enthusiastic about entitlement cuts as they had once thought.