For nearly seventeen months now, I presumed that Donald Trump was playing an elaborate game of chicken with the American people.
Sure, Trump was running for president. But there’s no way it would last until Election Day. The moment another Republican embraced the border wall, or Trump tired of the candidates’ debates, or voters tired of Trump, he’d quit the race and return to business as usual: developing real estate and fostering his cult of personality.
But Trump kept going – through the primaries, then the general election, to a stunning Election Night upset that earns him a four-year stay in a white, albeit less ornate mansion that’s a short stroll from the fancier hotel he recently opened in the nation’s capital.
Now Donald Trump will be the nation’s 45th President.
Repeat, exhale . . . then say it again.
Donald Trump will be the nation’s 45th President.
The trick now: solving the Bill McKay question. That’s the fictional politician Robert Redford played in the 1972 movie “The Candidate,” which ends with the senator-elect asking: “What do we now?”.
Here are 10 suggestions for President-Elect Trump.
1. Seize the Moment. I was going to start this by suggesting Trump spend a week in Palm Beach seclusion for some much-needed R&R. That can wait until Thanksgiving and beyond, when it’s time for the big transition decisions that can be done behind the scenes.
If I were Trump, I’d travel back to the unlikeliest states that delivered for him on Election Day and hold large rallies – both to thank the voters and explain the greater mission ahead to change Washington’s culture. I’d add in a couple of rallies in states that didn’t vote for him, just to underscore that he wants to be a president for the entire people.
Trump should invite Hillary Clinton for a private lunch. He should also let it be known that he wants to sit down with President Obama and discuss an amicable transition.
2. Read Up on Andrew Jackson. This was only the second time in the history of the nation that an election was held at the end of three consecutive two-term presidencies.
In 1824, it was John Quincy Adams staving off a populist challenge from Andrew Jackson, the man who statue sits in Lafayette Park, across the street from the North Portico of the White House.
That race was bitter and ended with talk of a rigged system (a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and House Speaker Henry Clay). Four years later, Jackson rode the revolution into Washington, the tip of the spear of voter resentment against a political class that had dominated the first 50 years of the republic.
This could have been the scenario in 2020. Much to everyone’s surprise, the revolution came four years ahead of schedule, with the unlikeliest of generals leading the charge.
I don’t know if Trump is one for history, but someone in his world should introduce the man to Jackson and the roots of American populism. After all, it’s now Trump who gets to write the next chapter.
3. Time to Let Go. Assuming Trump is able to be a gracious winner (and his speech Wednesday night was a good start), it’s time to pivot out of campaign mode. He’s now tasked with acting as a statesman, not a showman treating presidential political like a reality TV show.
It’s time to bid adieu to “Crooked Hillary” and “Lying Ted” and the “corrupt media”.
For Trump to have any semblance of dignified leadership, he has to let go of the petty insults and juvenile denigrations that are simply unbecoming of a president.
That includes the dead-of-the-night tweeting. Yes, I’d let the incoming president hold on his Smartphone – so long as he limits it to crowd selfies.
4. Meet With GOP Thought Leaders. Can Trump work with a Republican Congress? Some members will be on board right away; for others, it will take time (hint: handing out presidential goodies has a way of healing wounds).
The more immediate concern for Trump would be getting Republican thought leaders on board – the commentary class whose support will come in handy when it’s time to rally the party behind a first-term agenda.
There’s nothing stopping Trump from holding a series of dinner salons with influential conservatives in New York (The Wall Street Journal editorial board, for example) and in the District of Columbia (Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, George Will, to name just a few).
Presidents tend to do this at the end of their presidency – courting historians in an attempt to spin their first draft of history. Trump needs the ideas merchants sooner than he may realize.
5. Put Someone in The West Wing Who’ll Challenge You. Throughout the saga that was the Trump campaign, there was always the question of adult supervision: an aide, a confidante who could tell Trump things he didn’t want to hear and convince him to moderate bad habits.
Kellyanne Conway came closest to achieving disciplinary influence over Trump. At best, she’ll divide her time between Washington and her home in northern New Jersey.
This is a job for the new chief of staff. Who has the stature to pull this off? New Gingrich? Rudy Giuliani? Would either be willing to be the West Wing’s bad cop, confronting Trump when they think he’s wrong on policy, strategy or execution?
This is a time when it pays to have wise counsel from a long-time Washington insider. We’ll see if Trump lets anyone of that ilk inside the tent.
6. Build a Cabinet of Insiders and Outsiders. Are we in store for talk of another “Team Of Rivals” approach to building a presidential cabinet (in reality, the gang Barack Obama assembled wasn’t all that Lincoln-esque).
Trump could import some rivals from the GOP primaries – Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee tuned out to be loyal surrogates. And there’s the deep bench on Republicans in Congress and in running states nationwide. What Trump does about Chris Christie – leading the transition effort, perhaps coveting the Attorney General slot, but tainted by last week’s “Bridgegate” convictions – will be interesting to watch.
A reminder for Trump: in addition to promising to drain the Washington, D.C. swamp, he began the campaign vowing to bring a business sensibility to the federal government. If he doesn’t sprinkle his cabinet with secretaries possessing a private sector, outsiders’ perspective, then the president-elect has broken his first pledge.
7. Reboot Press Relations. If you think the Chief of Staff will have it tough, try being the new White House Secretary.
Most new administrations get a period of grace before the press starts turning the screws. Not Trump – certainly not after months of demonizing his press entourage.
Just as stressful for the press secretary will be dealing with the new president when there’s bad press – that’s not an if, but a when. We know Trump can be overly sensitive to negative coverage. If he’s smart, he resists the urge to storm into the Briefing Room and tell the press corps what’s on his mind.
8. Deliver a Humble Inaugural. It took Ronald Reagan 2,427 words to deliver a moving inaugural in 1981. JFK did his in 1,366 words. Abraham Lincoln, in 1865, was even terser: a mere 700 words.
For Trump, this first big speech is more than the opening act of his presidency. It’s about making a good first impression with a skeptical public. He foes that by demonstrating the enormity of the vow he will have just taken.
Trump has an advantage here: a bench of talented speechwriters from the past three Republican presidencies who may be willing to help with the historical (my Hoover Institution colleague Peter Robinson, author of Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech, would be a good place to start).
Trump should task a team to study how past presidents approached their first address, pair it with some solid polling and focus groups, and keep the rhetoric to a minimum and the style muted. If so, Trump just might get off to a good start.
9. Strike Fast with the Stroke of a Pen. For all the talk of what he can pull off with a Republican Congress, consider what Trump can do on his own, thanks to the use of executive orders.
Here is a list of 13 things Trump could do in his first day on the job:
Cancelling the Paris climate accord, scrapping energy regulations, approving the Keystone pipeline, reversing coal leasing moratoriums on federal lands.
And maybe the biggest blow of all: he could kill the Iran nuclear deal.
10. Offer a Pragmatic Agenda. Those three consecutive two-term presidencies were marked by consistency and comity, the final stretch of the run dubbed the “Era of Good Feelings”.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama almost didn’t get that second term because they bit off more than they could chew once they took office. For each, a big reach on health care reform would have devastating consequences I midterm elections.
Trump doesn’t lack for bold, provocative ideas – most notably, building that wall along the southern border. But can he do that, tax reform, and set a new course on defense spending and national security, not to mention repealing and replacing ObamaCare? Of course not.
So where should Trump start? I’d choose tax reform. There’s arguably more bipartisan consensus on that than anything else he’s proposed. And the promise of new revenue will help justify any extra dough Trump wants to spend on a Pentagon buildup or an infrastructure blueprint.
Can Trump succeed at all of the above? It helps that the media will usher him into office with brutally low expectations. If he gets to work, takes the job seriously and begins to make headway in a horribly divided town, that bar has nowhere to go but up.