Let us posit the following characteristics of the incoming President. He is mean spirited; he doesn’t know very much about any of the issues he will have to address; his own words and actions will be uncoordinated and arbitrary, subject only to his own whimsy; he will only reluctantly listen to his advisors but will, hopefully, accede to their greater knowledge and judgment. How will his administration, his political allies and adversaries, both foreign and domestic, cope with these facts, given that they want the administration to act rationally if for no other reason than it will serve their interests for it to do so? What are the compensating mechanisms which will settle in so the Trump Administration is not as out of whack as it might be?
We have already seen one thing. Trump doesn’t follow State Department guidelines in making contacts with foreign leaders. Not an altogether bad thing given that carefully crafted nudgings of partners and enemies does not always bear fruit. But the answer to a mercurial style will be that foreign friends and adversaries will deal only with the people in the Administration they regard as responsible: the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense. So China will not be shaken by Trump’s call to Taiwan, unless it thinks it can make some use of it. Theresa May will not be insulted by his cavalier treatment of her and the “special relationship”. Netanyahu will know who to go to to get what he wants. The fact that Trump considered such a wide array of figures for Secretary of State might well mean that he is as confused as his opponents think he is, not that he is wisely sifting through alternatives to find a personality that matches up with his own, whether as compensation for his own tendencies or as a spokesman for his own tendencies. Jon Huntsman was Ambassador to China at a time when Trump believed China was ripping us off on trade. He is part of the problem. But never mind. The campaign was the campaign and this is now. Trump always had a soft spot for Petraeus, and that might have been enough to get him the job, although Petraeus might have said something untoward in their interview, or not been sufficiently pro-Russian, and so the search got expanded. Never mind. Whatever his reasons, Tillerson is one of Trump’s most consequential appointments because the new Secretary of State will be the person who will be relied on by friend and foe to provide the definitive American foreign policy
A second compensating mechanism is the ever slowly grinding mechanisms of Capitol Hill. The Republican Congress has not been able to come up with a plan to replace Obamacare ever since it first vowed, years ago, to repeal it. They are not likely to do much better now that they have a President who will sign a repeal bill. They are so used to being obstructionist that they don’t know how to be anything else. So the latest soundings are that they will repeal but that Obamacare will remain in force for two or three years until they craft a substitute, which may be never.
Even Republican legislators may be distressed at the ways Trump has already gone against past procedures and customs of the Presidency and so may launch investigations into emoluments and hacking, the first because such obvious self-interest on the part of a President casts doubt on the credibility of the entire Administration, and the second because all those people who were so staunchly anti-Soviet and anti-Russian have not been completely shaken from their convictions by Trump’s election. It is in their bones. The Democrats are right to hang back on this and let the Republicans take the lead, although it is understandable and fitting for John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary’s campaign, to hang back from saying Trump’s election was legitimate and unclouded. There might be some future advantage in having the provenance of this election remain obscure-- should, for example, Trump have to deal with an impeachment trial should he be revealed to be a Manchurian Candidate, though this time a knowing one rather than a brainwashed victim of the Russians. We still don’t know how much Trump owes to Russian banks or how much he has deposited there. His whitewash of Putin’s involvement in hacking suggests that something is going on that he does not want to disclose. The confirmation hearings for the Secretary of State are therefore of considerable moment. They will reveal where RexTillerson stands on Russia and that will either soothe feathers or raise hackles.
Another constraint on the Trump Presidency is that a press liberated by the lack of press conferences can say what it likes, can feel free to speculate on Trump’s motives. They already feel free to call him out on his overt lies, such as his claim that he had a landslide victory or that there were millions of illegal votes cast. Since Trump lies all the time about all manner of things, even when there is easily available evidence that what he says is not true, the press and the Congress and even his Cabinet will disregard what the president says, invoking a thought used in his defense, which is that people shouldn’t take him literally, which means at his word. It is not too big a step for a Cabinet officer therefore to disregard what the President says, especially because Trump will not be well briefed or concerned about the implementation of his policies so long as he can say they are his policies, which might simply mean that he lies about whether any particular thing is his policy or not. That is why so many of his erstwhile critics were lining up to take plum positions in his Cabinet, sure that they would run foreign policy as they cared to if they got into office.
That is the bright picture, of a President Trump whorecedes into the background as the “responsible” people take over the government. It is also possible that Trump will insist on doing some of the crack pot things he says he wants to do, like deporting millions of people and picking a fight with China while giving way to Putin on any number of things. And then it will be interesting to see what his Cabinet and the Congress do. There is no telling what is going to happen. We are in uncharted waters in that we have never before had a President so unfamiliar with the office or so disinclined to learn about it. During his “thank you” rallies, he just repeated the campaign slogans that had got him elected. So much for those, including Obama, who say, perhaps as a form of wishful thinking, that Trump will grow into the office because most Presidents do. We will see, but expect nothing, however difficult it is to believe that the incoming President is no more than he seems.