When the most unpopular and least prepared president-elect in modern history took the oath of office on January 20, most of Washington, like most of the country and the world, had little idea of the turbulence and disruption that he intended to bring to the job. Nonetheless those who’d watched him closely over the past year and a half were aware that he was manifestly unfit for a job that’s beyond the capacities of most people.
Anyone who was still expecting a heretofore hidden inner statesman to emerge from the bombastic, crude, talkative candidate was harboring illusions. After the election, we had new evidence that Donald Trump wasn’t up to the position; during the transition that reality crept out of the cracks in the defensive wall thrown around him by protective advisers. An article in the New York Post on January 15 said that Trump was showing far more interest in trivialities about the inauguration planning than in preparing to govern. Tom Barrack, chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, told the Post, “He’s into every detail of everything. I beg him all the time to go back to running the free world and let me focus on setting the tables.”
Trump took office with only two cabinet officers ready to serve. (Barack Obama had nine.) And he came to the job with few political connections: mainstream Republicans had essentially shunned his campaign. But Vice President Mike Pence, a very conservative and well-liked former House member particularly close to the also highly conservative House Speaker Paul Ryan, had won Trump’s confidence by not appearing to be out for himself. So did Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator who was the first in that body to endorse Trump and stayed close to him throughout the campaign. Sessions, whom Trump rewarded with the position of attorney general, has not fully revised his rural Alabama–rooted attitudes on race and has been a firm opponent of immigration. Pence and Sessions were mainly responsible for the selection of the most ideological cabinet in memory.
When he’s outside his few fixed views, Trump is a curiously malleable figure. His lack of knowledge about policy and his paucity of political connections force him to rely on the advice of others, which makes all the more critical the nature of the people he’s chosen to have around him. Not many foresaw the extent of the power that Steve Bannon, Trump’s intellectual guru and chief strategist, would exercise in the White House. Bannon is an alt-right white nationalist who as senior counselor now occupies an office a few steps from the president’s. He seemed to have his finger in everything, and Trump compounded this by placing Bannon on the National Security Council Principals Committee, of which a political adviser has never been a full-time member. (The New York Times reported that Trump was angry that he wasn’t “fully briefed” on the executive order establishing…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.