On Monday, President-elect Donald Trump met with General David Petraeus in what was an intriguing development in this most entertaining period of presidential transition. It’s not that past presidents haven’t deliberated over their cabinets — Clinton’s transition in 1992 ‘hit the ground stumbling’, according to The New York Times. It’s not even that this president-elect is giving few clues as to the future direction of a Trump administration. What is intriguing is how Trump has contrived to make the transition a daily entertainment about who enters or leaves Trump Tower by which entrance or exit. It is, as others have noted, The Apprentice given an entirely political slant.
During this intensely media-savvy transition, the name Petraeus stands out on the list of candidates to become America’s next Secretary of State. Given the status that Trump had previously given to Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Patton in his campaign rallies, it’s no wonder that Petraeus is being considered for the top post. If there were such a thing as modern superstar of America’s military, Petraeus would be just that. Books have been written about the radical approach Petraeus took to the work of counter-insurgency and the implementing the so-called ‘surge’ in Iraq, as well as how he changed the nature of operations in Afghanistan. Along with Michael Flynn, Petraeus represents a new way of conducting war, heavily led by intelligence and innovative uses of technology. There was a time when Petraeus was spoken about as a future President and, after retiring from the military, he became head of the CIA, his trajectory always upwards until an affair with his biographer turned into an even bigger scandal about leaked national secrets.
Even if David Petraeus might be due a second chance, there would be an obvious hypocrisy about his appointment in a Trump administration. The crime for which he was convicted was greater than anything that made Hillary Clinton’s accusers go red in the nose. Yet Trump rarely allows details or even principles to stand in his way. Shamelessly ambivalent about some of the promises he made during his campaign, Trump is equally indifferent to protests when it comes to his appointments. He promised to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington DC but, thus far, the only thing he’s draining is Fox News’ supply of analysts, contributors and consultants, many of whom are Washington insiders. It seems that he really did mean it when he said that he got his information from ‘the shows’ since it looks like ‘the shows’ are about to take control of government departments.
One exception is Mitt Romney who met Trump for dinner on Tuesday evening. It’s still unclear where Trump’s favour will land or on what basis these decisions will be made. Rumours persist that Trump favours Romney so long as the latter apologies for the things he said during the campaign. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that ‘Mr. Trump believes that Mr. Romney, with his patrician bearing, looks the part of a top diplomat right out of “central casting” — the same phrase Mr. Trump used to describe Mike Pence before choosing him as his running mate.’ Hearing these reports, it’s hard not to believe that Trump is conducting politics in the way he conducted business and that America hasn’t voted for their next Commander in Chief. They have appointed their very first chief executive.
This is perhaps how Trump sees his role. We’ve already been told that he has skipped intelligence briefings, receiving his information from ‘a number of sources’ rather than US officials, with the slack being taken up by the hardworking Mike Pence. We have also learned that Trump’s family won’t be immediately moving with him to the White House. We might believe the reason has to do with his son Barron’s schooling but it might equally be that Trump himself doesn’t intend to spend much time in the capital.
So much is unclear but the secret service have started to look into ways of protecting Trump Tower from terrorist attack. A photograph appeared on the web, this week, which shows trucks filled with sand forming a protective cordon around the base of Trump Tower. (How they think they might protect the tower from attack from adjacent buildings and spots with a direct line of sight on Trump’s office is as yet unclear.) The Washington Post suggests that it is already costing America’s taxpayers a million dollars a day to protect the tower whilst New Yorkers are already worried about what a live-in president would do to their city. Presidents infrequently visit the UN in New York and their visits are rarely welcomed by residents. The security closes down the city. A President spending any time living on 5th Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, will bring untold disruption.
That Trump is looking to run the country in this way suggests that we should expect an orderly transition but an atypical presidency. Using Trump Tower to interview for cabinet posts is something Trump appears to have settled into effortlessly. The lingering question is whether America and its political elite will be able to settle for a man who expects to run a nation as he would his business. It’s a question second only to the one that asks if he’s willing to give up that business for the sake of the nation.
This morning, Trump announced (via Twitter, of course) that:
I will be holding a major news conference in New York City with my children on December 15 to discuss the fact that I will be leaving my …
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2016
great business in total in order to fully focus on running the country in order to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! While I am not mandated to ….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2016
Although it’s a welcome step towards transparency, it still doesn’t (as yet) amount to an adequate explanation as to how he will protect himself from accusations that he’s using the presidency to promote his brand. Talk of a blind trust and passing control of the Trump empire to his children will continue to ring hollow given how much Trump has defined himself by the properties he owns. Does he want to be president so much that he’d be willing to let them go? When he speaks about ‘legal documents […] being crafted which take me completely out of business operations’ that gives no idea how far Trump will be from his business interests. Having no hand in operations does not sound the same as relinquishing his business interests. It sounds, if anything, a practical matter of timetabling rather than stepping away from his business concerns.
It’s why questions about potential conflicts of interest are shaping the debate going into December. Diplomats from around the world are booking rooms in Trump’s new hotel at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue ahead of January’s Inauguration. This is the hotel you might remember from shortly before the election when it was apparently struggling to fill rooms because the name Trump has become so toxic. Becoming President is restoring lost value in the Trump brand. When meeting with members of UKIP, Trump apparently made comments about the wind farms off the coast of Aberdeenshire near one of his two Scottish golf courses. Again, it would be a conflict of interest if he’d been President at the time. It’s hard to believe that these are the last stories we’ll hear. This could well become the defining theme of a Trump presidency.
If the Republicans didn’t have control of Congress, one might even suspect that a Trump presidency would be a non-starter. Even as it stands, with Republicans controlling both the Senate and the House of Representatives, there are enough doubts over Trump’s business connections to make Betfred’s odds of 2/1 of Trump not lasting a year look less conservative than they first appear. In many respects, 15th December has become the most important date in our diaries. More important, even, than 20th January. We’ve never been here before with a President this singular and facing these problems. We really don’t know what to expect with America’s first chief-executive, not least how long his contract with the people will last.