How Trump Became the Vacillator in Chief

Contradictions are rife in president’s first 100 days

President Donald Trump has oscillated between hard-line and more conciliatory positions over his first 100 days in office. (Composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
President Donald Trump has oscillated between hard-line and more conciliatory positions over his first 100 days in office. (Composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 1, 2017 at 5:05am

Donald Trump describes himself as “flexible.” A senior aide says the president does not flip-flop, but changes his mind because he is “not doctrinal” like previous occupants of the Oval Office.

It shows. And it drives Capitol Hill and the rest of official Washington crazy — unless you bill flummoxed clients by the hour.

As a candidate, Trump promised health insurance “for everybody.” As president, he embraced the initial House GOP health care overhaul bill that would’ve cost millions of Americans their coverage.

Candidate Trump promised a harder line on “currency manipulator” China. But President Trump won’t use that term and thinks the top dog in Beijing, Xi Jinping, is a “very special man.” As a candidate, the former reality television star called the Export-Import Bank “unnecessary.” As president, he discarded a campaign-trail pledge to terminate it. “It’s a very good thing,” Trump said.

The list goes on.

During Trump’s first 100 days, he moved from hard-liner in chief to vacillator in chief, which may be unsurprising given his vague, detail-free promises on the campaign trail. For a few days in mid-April, it was sometimes tough to keep track of all the shifting policy stances. The president’s critics noticed. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer  dubbed many of Trump’s campaign promises “broken” or “unfulfilled.” Other Democrats accused Trump of breaking his pledge to be a president for “forgotten” men and women.

Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, says Trump is “defined by the constant struggle between and fundamental contradiction of being both a fire-breathing absolutist and a non-ideological deal-maker.” An “exotic contradiction” between the two hangs over the still-green president, he says.

“We’re starting to see a pivot from campaigning to governing, from absolutist to deal-maker,” Grumet says. “What is unusual is the amplitude of the swing in the first 100 days.”

That amplitude is keeping Washington and the country on edge. For now, Trump’s base remains loyal. But some experts doubt that will last, and say the ability of the president to collaborate long-term with Congress is at stake without more White House stability. 

Others think Grumet’s exotic contradiction is all in the name of results — that Trump is just what a frozen Congress needs.

New presidents, regardless of party or ideology, typically move toward the center during the candidate-to-president transition and their first 100 days. They try to unite both the country and Washington, reaching across the aisle to garner goodwill with at least some of the opposition party. Little of that happened during Trump’s first 80 or so days.

The White House and Republicans used the seldom-before-employed Congressional Review Act to terminate 13 major Obama-era regulations, including a controversial one that was intended to help safeguard Internet privacy. Trump signed two hot-button executive orders temporarily banning nationals from a handful of majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. During the transition, he called Schumer — whom he will need to rally Democratic votes on infrastructure, spending and other bills — the party’s “head clown.”

Yet over several dizzying April days, Trump appeared to be following previous presidents to the political center amid reports that a faction inside the West Wing, led by his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, were seizing more power at the expense of a nationalist group led by former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon.

Trump endorsed the Export-Import Bank and named new members. He hurled Tomahawk missiles at a Bashar Assad government air base in Syria. He said NATO was “no longer obsolete.” He even signaled he might keep Janet Yellen on as chair of the Federal Reserve Board.

Then came Tuesday, April 18, and Trump’s speech to workers at a Snap-on Tools factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The nationalist firebrand was back.

Trump returned suddenly to his Bannon-fueled “America first” message after 12 days focused mostly on Syria and North Korea. Until then, he appeared to be drifting from the populist message that helped him win manufacturing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and others. After touring the plant, he was back at it, hailing “American workers” and threatening countries that “steal” their jobs. He told an audience at the Kenosha factory that his administration intended to do everything it could to ensure more and more goods are “stamped with those wonderful words: Made in the USA.” Trump extolled the “old days,” promising, as during his candidacy, that folks soon would see more days like those.

“Buy American and hire American,” he said. “You haven’t heard that in a long time.”

The nationalist theme continued later that week. Trump signed executive orders aimed at China and other countries that “dump” their steel products into the U.S. market at dramatically reduced prices, hurting an American steel industry that his Commerce Department says is only operating at around 70 percent.

The brief tack to the political center might have officially ended on April 20, when Trump attacked, of all countries, Canada. American dairy farmers had complained for months that Canada’s milk-pricing policies prevented them from fairly competing.

“We’re going to have to get to the negotiating table with Canada very, very quickly,” Trump said, morphing on a dime back into the “America first” president. “What happened to our dairy farmers in Wisconsin and New York State — we’re not going to let it happen.”

Trump had praised Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he visited the White House in mid-February. Oh, Canada? The retaliation came just two months later, with the U.S. slapping a 24 percent tariff on imports of Canadian lumber.

On the campaign trail, candidate Trump seemed to lambast China daily. At stops in the Deep South, the Rust Belt and beyond, Trump labeled China a “currency manipulator” that had stolen Americans’ jobs and continued to victimize Americans and their country’s economy and security. Now President Trump and his top White House aides are much cozier to Xi. Recently, Trump even described his one-time-campaign-trail-foil as a “terrific person” and someone he has “gotten to like and respect.” This stance puts Trump in a paradox relative to his days on the trail: He’s at odds with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man with whom he promised to improve relations, and closer to the world leader he threatened, Xi.

Similarly, candidate Trump roared from podiums across the country that the United States had wasted trillions of dollars on its decades of military operations in the Middle East, while gaining little in strategic or economic returns. But on the night of April 6 — less than 80 days into his presidency — Trump ordered Navy ships to fire nearly five dozen Tomahawk missiles, costing around $1.5 million apiece, at a Syrian air base.

Trump is simply “not doctrinal” about foreign policy issues, a senior administration official says. That means he could launch military strikes anywhere, at any moment, no matter what he said the previous day — or even that morning. It also begs the question: If not doctrinal, what is he?

The negotiator

For diplomat-in-chief Trump, it’s all personal.

In his business dealings, the “art of the deal” in many ways evolved from how he and would-be partners managed their personal relationships. That too seems the case in his relations with other world leaders. During his first meetings with foreign heads at the White House and his Florida resort, it became clear that American foreign policy, in part, would be driven by how dinner went with that night’s guest.

In February, minutes after meeting British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump lauded “the relationship that we’ve developed … just by being with each other.”

The personal, more than policy or philosophical difference, also is driving Trump’s emerging relationship with the Chinese president. So far, it appears surprisingly warm and highly functional. Trump credited their 24-hour April summit in Florida for the shift away from his campaign trail rhetoric on Xi.

Though the meeting spanned only parts of two days and included aides, the U.S. president said he and Xi had built a personal relationship because they “spent a lot of time together in Florida.”

The extent to which the commander in chief’s personal feelings will drive his national security decisions also is coming into sharper focus as his presidency continues beyond 100 days.

The president was appalled by images of dead children and infants killed by a sarin gas attack carried out by Assad’s government. More than deciding U.S. interests were at risk, the president seemed to act because he felt the world’s most powerful country could not stand for such brutality. In short, where former President Barack Obama’s red line leaned more on upholding international norms, Trump’s early decisions appear drawn from his own psyche and conscience.

Where Obama was viewed as too cautious and circumspect as commander in chief, Trump — despite being surrounded by a cadre of career generals — could be mostly a gut player.

“When you watch babies and children being gassed and suffer under barrel bombs, you are instantaneously moved to action,” Trump’s chief spokesman, Sean Spicer, said on April 10.

“I think this president has made it very clear that if those actions were to continue, further action will definitely be considered by the United States,” Spicer said.

It might not all be about personality and ego.

The willingness to quickly shift policy stances is driven by a president who has “made a point to focus on results,” says Tommy Binion, policy outreach director at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Take Schumer.

Trump may have labeled him a “clown,” but after the president’s own House Republican caucus killed its first health care overhaul bill, Trump let it be known publicly he was entertaining talks with Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“To him, it’s that business side that always focuses on getting to a specific result,” Binion says. “In this town, you can have one dance partner on a certain issue. Teaming up with that person or group might make sense in one context, but in another, it might not. This president has a transactional mindset.”

Transaction or no, Christine Wormuth, Pentagon policy chief during Obama’s second term, says Trump’s early vacillations on foreign policy and national security reflect his lack of a solid position on the U.S. role in the world.

Based on his statements thus far, Wormuth says, “it feels like he has a vision in that he wants the United States to be strong and respected and to do well. But on the question of how to make that happen, he just doesn’t seem to have a strong view or a set philosophy, unlike previous presidents.”

House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer says the same. The White House’s mixed messages on policy issues are a result of Trump not having a “governing philosophy,” combined with staff who “have little experience” working with Congress, the Maryland lawmaker says.

Will it work?

Americans, like official Washington, are still taking stock of Trump’s go-with-your-gut oscillating approach. Not surprisingly, poll numbers show a mixed view of how Trump is running the country.

Overall, Trump’s approval rating has remained at historical lows. Gallup’s daily tracker poll showed the percentage of Americans who approved of his performance in the 30s for much of March — including what appeared as an all-time low for a new president: 35 percent on March 28. Those numbers improved slightly, hovering in the low 40s, but dipped back on April 14 to 39 percent.

Some political experts contend that a president’s disapproval ratings are more telling. If that’s right, it’s bad news for Trump. Since Jan. 28, roughly a week after he took office, at least half of Americans polled have held a negative view of his performance on all but two days — 49 percent on both March 10 and 11.

Trump’s ever-changing stances on policy, foreign affairs and West Wing allegiances are big reasons why Elaine Kamarck calls Trump’s first 100 days “the most amazing rollout of a president I’ve ever seen.”

Kamarck worked for President Bill Clinton for four years and is now with the left-leaning Brookings Institution. She chalks up Trump’s presidential victory to a nation “in a mood to stick it to all the experts who actually know things.” And she views many of the president’s early moves as ineffective, such as his executive-ordered bureaucratic reviews. “Stuff that just doesn’t make any sense,” Karmack says.

Binion, meanwhile, sees the president pursuing a “bold agenda.”

As a former House GOP leadership aide, Binion acknowledges that Trump’s policy views “seem to change often,” as does the list of individuals he is willing to partner with to score victories.

“It seems like it applies in the business world, but Washington? We’ll find out,” Binion says. “I don’t think we’ve had a president who has tried this kind of approach.”

Others say the jury is very much undecided on Trump’s coalition-by-issue approach. In a political environment where fickle big-money donors can withhold checks to punish any lawmaker who teams with the polarizing Trump on a pet issue, experts aren’t sure Trump’s transactional strategies translate. Kamarck dismissed the notion that Trump’s practice of insulting lawmakers one day, then trying to win their support the next, is a best practice he gleaned as a businessman.

“That’s not how you operate in the business world. You do business with people you trust,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you always agree with that person. But people don’t put their money in the hands of someone they don’t trust.”

Republicans like Binion and Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a House deputy whip, contend that Trump’s approach just might work, that it could be the elixir to Washington’s broken and dysfunctional legislation process.

“He’s a very hands-on president,” Cole says during a telephone interview. Trump met with about 140 House Republicans during their first try at passing a health care bill, he says.

“He talked to all sides and met with everyone he had to,” Cole says. “He brokered some compromises that made the bill better and brought us closer together. … He did everything he could.”

Cole faults a lack of unity among House Republicans, not the president, for failing to get the bill through.

Binion sees that very Washington dysfunction as a prime reason Trump’s unique approach might grease the skids.

“It might be the only workable solution because Congress is so much more polarized than it ever has been,” he says. “So maybe in this very divided era, people will be willing to work with each other in one context and be opposed to each other in another.”

Binion calculates that voters will reward Trump and whoever on Capitol Hill might opt to work with him on any given issue: “I think Americans are results-oriented and are tired of partisan bickering.”

Kamarck disagrees. Her bottom line on the first 100 days of the Trump presidency: “It’s all amateur hour.”

She observed up close a green Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, grow into the job. Kamarck recalled how they entered office prepared and had “a really good feel” even for policy areas on which they would not have described themselves as experts. Liberals from Kamarck to Pelosi seem to clamor for the Dubya Days.

“Even George W. Bush, especially on education policy, had a clear idea of what he thought about it and what he wanted to achieve,” Kamarck says.

Obama famously stayed up into the wee hours of each night in the White House’s Treaty Room reading wonky materials prepared by his staff. Clinton also worked late.

“Even George W. would take work upstairs to read in the residence after he left the West Wing,” Kamarck says. “But this president doesn’t read briefing books. This guy came into office with nothing in terms of policy ideas under his belt,” she says.

“What you see is the effect of nominating and electing someone who has never done anything remotely like this before. Conservatives didn’t have to elect someone who didn’t know what he is doing,” she says.  “And the ironic — and sad — thing is, it’s the conservatives who would be most disappointed if his presidency does not go well.”

Many are standing by Trump despite the turbulent start, which has included an apparent discarding — for now — of some of the top promises he made to conservative voters. Since his core supporters and many Republicans formed a personal and emotional attachment to his brash, no-B.S. campaign, it’s no wonder they support the go-with-your-gut style on forging relationships and Tomahawk missile strikes.

Trump’s core base of conservative supporters has become decidedly isolationist. They, and Rust Belt Democrats in former manufacturing centers who voted for Obama twice but also for Trump, were attracted by his promises to disentangle America from more costly Middle East military operations, while “rebuilding” the United States and reviving faded industries. He made the promise again during his first address to a joint session of Congress in late February: “America has spent approximately $6 trillion in the Middle East — all the while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this $6 trillion, we could have rebuilt our country twice, and maybe even three times if we had people who had the ability to negotiate.”

Such promises are what make his early moves in the Middle East so eyebrow-raising. He signed off on increased numbers of American military trainers in the region and attacked another sovereign country. For now, his core supporters seem willing to tolerate the commander in chief’s early departure from his campaign promises. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted April 17-20, after Trump’s run of policy reversals, found 94 percent of Trump voters surveyed held a favorable view of his first 100 days. Among Republicans polled, 84 percent had a positive view of his performance.

At first glance, his foreign policy moves appear out of step with his isolationist base.

But a deeper dive into the Post-ABC poll suggests otherwise: Eighty percent of Republicans polled believe his saber-rattling approach toward North Korea is “about right.” Any president’s temperament and judgment are major facets of how they conduct themselves on the global stage and make complicated decisions on everything from trade deals to counterterrorism operations to building coalitions and so on. When asked whether Trump “has the kind of personality and temperament it takes to serve effectively as president, or not,” 78 percent of Republicans said he did.

Trump’s approach is unique. There is no doubt he has stirred up the swamp he vowed to drain on behalf of working-class Americans. But Grumet, of the Bipartisan Policy Center, agrees with Trump that judging a new chief executive after just three months in office is rather silly — even if it’s become part of the American political fabric.

Cole says the president’s style and approach are still evolving. Both are “always works in progress” for any new chief, he says. As Trump rounds the bend of his 100th day in office, Cole believes it is simply too soon to say “whether or not his approach will work.” Though the president lacks a signature legislative victory, Cole says, “his style will actually play well” on Capitol Hill. That’s because Trump is not hesitant to pick up the phone and call members out of the blue who are working on issues he deems important — just as he has Cole.

“And that includes Democrats,” Cole says. “President Trump is not an ideological Republican.”

The only thing clear about the 101st day and beyond is no one knows what might happen next — including the president himself.

Welcome to the Trump era, where the policy winds shift more often than during a spring day in the Washington swamp.