On Thursday night, with just over a week remaining before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Institute of Politics (IOP) brought four leading political journalists together to discuss the future of his administration.
The panel spoke of the potential effects of the President-elect’s unpredictable temperament, the transformation of the presidency into a sales position, and Trump’s quest for affirmation. The event was an installment of the IOP’s Speaker Series America in the Trump Era.
Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief from USA Today, moderated the panel. Page has covered over ten presidential campaigns, and will soon be covering her sixth administration. She was joined by Ashley Parker, White House reporter for The Washington Post, Jeremy Peters from The New York Times, and Ben Domenech, publisher and co-founder of The Federalist.
In response to Page’s queries about Mr. Trump’s temperament, Parker remarked that if President Barack Obama’s pick for Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, had been leaked, “he would probably be frustrated and angry—but he would not change his pick simply because the media had reported.” She claims that Trump, on the other hand, could quite likely change his pick “simply because…the element of surprise was gone.” Parker remembered her time covering the election and noted that journalists had to be wary of how often Trump would change his mind in a given day.
This fickleness, Domenech explained, could easily lead to a high turnover of cabinet appointees unlike any previous presidencies. “Trump isn’t necessarily going to be happy with what these people do once they are in these jobs. He loves nothing more than to fire people who he thinks…[are] doing badly,” he said. However, Domenech elaborated that “If he respects the person, he will listen to them.” Yet, Peters was reminded that the qualifications to earn the respect of the President-elect have already been fulfilled by the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On the matter of presidential responsibilities, Peters predicted that many traditional tasks would fall to Vice President-elect Mike Pence and the cabinet secretaries. He warned, however, that Republicans shouldn’t assume that they will be able to control Trump. By doing so, he claimed, they’d be making the same mistake the Democrats made when they did not take his candidacy seriously at the beginning.
The shift in the responsibilities of the president could actually be the best use of Trump, Parker said—it falls to him to sell the plans of his administration. This role allows Mr. Trump to do what he does best: sell. Domenech pointed out that that, although he was a “limousine liberal” for most of his life he was such a successful candidate because was able to establish a rapport with his supporters. Domenech said that Trump told supporters, “‘these elites, they don’t like me, they don’t like you either.’” Peters similarly stated that more so than a politician, Trump was “more accurately described as a salesman.”
The salesperson-like qualities of Trump work in tandem with his desire to win. Parker was sure that Trump was bothered by his loss of the popular vote because, “winning is the only ideology that Trump has…at his core, and it’s also the only thing he understands.” Parker mused that the obsession stems from insecurity. “He was this kid from Queens and always wanted to be part of money-Manhattan and even when he made all this money…the way he spent it was gauche and not the way the actual Manhattan rich people accepted it.” Peters recalled thinking, after his first interaction with Trump, “This guy wants immediate attention.”
Peters elaborated that Trump was “always eager to talk to reporters” and “one of the easiest people in New York to get on the phone.” But he was surprised when this one-on-one relationship with journalists continued into his candidacy. “He would call you after rallies!”—Peters said, to the other journalist’s nods of agreement. “It was this bizarre thing where he was both kind of seeking affirmation but trying to get inside your head…to try and shape the story.”