It was after midnight on Nov. 9, 2016, and Donald Trump was sitting at the kitchen table of his Trump Tower penthouse.
His win in the presidential race was so unexpected that his chief speechwriter, Stephen Miller, had only begun writing the victory remarks the president-elect would deliver to supporters gathered at the Hilton Midtown Hotel in the middle of the night.
Surrounded by a handful of campaign advisers, Trump started editing the speech by hand, striking some of the most belligerent lines, and inserting notes of unity. He read aloud softly to himself.
“Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division.” He paused. “To bind? To heal? Which is better?” he asked his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, who was hovering close by. It was the mirror image of the scene unfolding in Hillary Clinton’s hotel room, where the Democratic nominee had a victory speech ready to go, but no concession to deliver.
Trump had been glued to the television, watching what was supposed to be Clinton’s Javits Center victory party — and taking note of the shocked faces in the crowd. “I think he was aware of how unexpected this was,” said his longtime aide, Hope Hicks, now the White House communications director, explaining the un-Trumpian unity rallying cry. “He wanted to give a speech that would de-escalate everything and, while the whole world was watching, be a leader for all.”
Onstage, Trump would say: “To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time.”
It was a glimpse of a presidency that could have been.
Instead, in the year since that night, Trump has relished personal fights and nursed grudges; continued to vilify Clinton and defend his own legitimacy amid the expanding Russia probes; stirred racial tensions while measuring his success by the strength of his base; and taken more interest in throwing elbows on cultural issues than on the matters of policy that preoccupy Republican leaders in Congress.
The shock win also meant that the first six months of his tenure were hobbled by infighting among a band of government first-timers recruited to the White House on the basis of loyalty rather than merit.
Campaign-trail promises of a bipartisan, trillion-dollar infrastructure bill haven’t materialized in office. Republican lawmakers, who campaigned for seven years on promises to repeal Obamacare, failed even to pull together behind advancing a partial rollback before abandoning that effort in favor of another top priority: tax reform.
But Trump has nonetheless brought about an astonishing transformation of his party – and of American politics – over the last year.
His election marked the end of the conservative movement that controlled the GOP since Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and the rise of a nationalist-populist movement that is, for the time being, characterized by warring factions with different views on Trump himself as well as the issues of immigration, trade, and elitism that he has raised.
“Trump’s presidency could be the usual model in reverse,” said Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, a leading conservative policy journal. “The general pattern is a productive first year and then a steady decline toward exhaustion, incompetence, and scandal. Trump’s first year has felt like the eighth year of recent presidents, but the beginning was likely worse than the end.”
Trump was on an island even after he won the nomination.
He had run a skeletal campaign in part because few mainstream political operatives were willing to associate themselves with him. Most assumed Trump was headed for a historic loss and railed against him publicly – and thereby disqualified themselves for positions in the future administration, where the man at the top prized loyalty.
That solidified the ascent of Trump’s novice team in the White House, and in the federal government. Rather than bringing in bureaucrats with Washington experience, he brought family members and longtime characters from his old life in Trump Tower to the West Wing — Hicks, daughter Ivanka Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner, social media guru Dan Scavino, former ‘Apprentice’ star Omarosa Manigault and security chief Keith Schiller, familiar characters from his previous life.
The first six months of his administration were largely consumed by a war between the campaign loyalists —a group led by Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist who had for many years been waging war against GOP leadership—and the party establishment figures led by former Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who Trump hired as his first chief of staff.
Bannon brought on Breitbart acolytes, like Julia Hahn and Sebastian Gorka, who were dismissive of Washington norms as well as of a group they dubbed the ‘New York Democrats’—people like economic adviser Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs trader.
Priebus brought in his own team from the RNC, people like deputy Katie Walsh and press secretary Sean Spicer who had no deep relationship with the commander-in-chief. One senior administration official brought to the White House by Priebus, but who had not worked with him at the RNC, recalls Priebus pressing him to “like, give him a blood oath.”
The White House’s official line was that Trump entered office with access to an array of views – one of the things that helped get him elected in the first place. But the tension between the rival clans played out in personal turf wars that slowed down the real work of governing.
In early June, four months into the administration, senior White House aides went to war over whether a junior press aide, Michael Short, would fly to Bedminster, N.J., for the weekend with the president and his team. Short, a Priebus loyalist who followed his old boss from the RNC to the campaign to the White House communications department, was placed on the flight manifest by the communications team, according to two people involved in the trip. Spicer and Priebus wanted him there to solidify his relationships with other senior administration officials, a grooming exercise of sorts.
But 45 minutes before Air Force One was set to take off from Andrews Air Force Base on June 9, Short’s name was abruptly removed from the manifest with no explanation. Short’s bags made the journey to Bedminster, while their owner had to buy all new toiletries rather than suffer a deodorant-less weekend in Washington – an outcome that his former RNC colleagues interpreted as an act of sabotage. (Short eventually resigned after Anthony Scaramucci stepped in briefly as communications director.)
Meanwhile, Kushner, who had advocated for Priebus to be chief of staff because of his relationships on the Hill, steadily lost faith in the weak chief and his team. Kushner viewed the White House communications team as a particular disaster, and laid the blame for that department’s dysfunction on Priebus. He also brought on his own communications aide and would not let Spicer handle media inquiries related to him or his wife.
Some thought that pinning all the blame on Priebus was unfair. In the lead-up to Trump’s first foreign trip last May, for example, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis were resistant to making the rounds on the Sunday shows. At one point, while Kushner was conducting a trip prep meeting in his office, Priebus interrupted to announce he had finally convinced Tillerson to appear on television that weekend, as a surrogate for the administration.
“Thanks, Reince, you did your job,” Kushner said to him. Some White House aides in the meeting were dismayed by the dismissive comment, given that Priebus’ job was neither communications director nor director of cabinet affairs. Others in the room said the comment was meant good-naturedly.
But the general middle school cafeteria behavior crippled the president’s legislative agenda. Throughout Trump’s first stab at an Obamacare repeal bill, senior aides on the Hill saw that there were different messages being pushed from the White House. Paul Teller, a special assistant to the president for legislative affairs, was sent to the Hill to work exclusively with members of the Freedom Caucus, encouraging them to hold out for a better deal.
Meanwhile, people like legislative affairs director Marc Short and Vice President Mike Pence would be trying to convince those same members to get on board with the bill backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan. “The White House was speaking with many different voices and each person was hearing only what they wanted to hear,” said one senior Republican familiar with the conversations. “If you were in the Freedom Caucus, you were under the impression you could hold out.”
By the time the House finally passed a health care bill in early May, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill had determined that the president’s involvement – and that of the White House more broadly – was more trouble than it was worth. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear to Trump that he was to play no role in ensuring the bill passed the Senate – that he should, in essence, leave it to the professionals.
The failure of the so-called professionals to pass that measure, on July 28, laid bare the ideological crack-up of the Republican party, which had campaigned for seven years on rolling back Obamacare, and underscored the inability of congressional leaders to deliver on their promises.
Throughout the debate on Capitol Hill, it became clear that Republican lawmakers were far less committed to rolling back President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement than they had claimed to be. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who had voted dozens of times as a House member to repeal Obamacare, explained her hesitation to back the Senate bill, telling reporters that she “didn’t come to D.C. to hurt people.” Trump’s election seemed to have revealed to lawmakers like Capito that their voters, even in deep red states like West Virginia, weren’t as enthusiastic about entitlement cuts as they had once thought.
And though Trump himself had not played a constructive role in securing the passage of the legislation – memorably calling the House bill “mean” and leaning on the Senate to amend it – the failure of congressional Republicans was a vindication for him in one regard. The fecklessness of the country’s political leaders had been one of his central campaign themes, and the demise of the health care bill, by a one-vote margin, threw it into stark relief.
It was something he wasted no time pointing out to the public, blasting McConnell on Twitter repeatedly throughout the month of August. “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!” he tweeted on Aug. 10.
It was another dispute that put the divisions in the party on display – and gave voice to the grievances of the voters who lifted him to office.
“Do you think you’re being properly staffed?”
John Kelly, then Secretary of Homeland Security, posed the blunt question to the president after attending a scattered meeting at the White House, months before he would eventually join the West Wing team.
Trump didn’t respond to him in the moment. But the question lingered in his mind. In June the president revived the conversation – “Remember when you asked me if I was being well-served?” Trump asked him – and told Kelly he needed his help.
The arrival of a four-star Marine general in the White House last July, replacing Priebus, was greeted with high hopes both internally and externally. Many were looking for Trump to make a course correction, and Kelly embodied that change.
“He’s always respected the military structure,” said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “He wanted more order, and he knew someone with Kelly’s background and operations style would be someone who would bring more structure.”
That meant an immediate shedding both of people and of personnel, once Kelly agreed to take the job. The changes came quickly, with Kelly making it clear that the people in the building and in meetings would be there because they were there to serve the country, not themselves, and not even simply the president.
Names were removed from the White House security list, meaning that insiders like former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former deputy campaign manager David Bossie, could no longer come and go as they pleased, without making an appointment.
Aides whom Kelly considered disruptive were pushed out. Chief strategist Steve Bannon left the White House in August. Trump’s longest-serving and closest aide, Keith Schiller, left the administration, in part, associates said, because he clashed with Kelly. With Schiller left the personal cell phone that many longtime Trump allies called to reach the boss. Kushner and Ivanka Trump agreed to report to Kelly, not directly to Trump, and their influence and presence in meetings became more limited.
But the new order hasn’t been without its downsides for a former executive who liked to run his family business with an open door.
“Kelly is a tremendous guy in command and control,” said one longtime Trump confidant. “But it’s not how this president likes to live. He curates by having different points of view around. He wants an open door. He wants to be the final arbiter of everything.”
Under Kelly, this person said, Trump has grown isolated from his past life. “I think he’s been humbled,” the friend said. “But he has no friends left in his own administration. He trusted Jared, but Jared’s in a box, fighting his own battles. He had Keith, he had Corey every now and then. Now he’s alone.”
And from the outside, it’s not clear that so much has changed, in terms of the president’s rhetoric or behavior. Kelly has been explicit that he doesn’t see his job as controlling the president, or his Twitter feed. As one Republican operative put it, “maybe he should add that to his to-do list.”
Trump’s election was a symptom, not a cause, of the tumult within the Republican Party that began almost a decade before his rise to the Oval Office.
The financial crisis in 2008 appeared to discredit the GOP’s free-market ethos and the slow, painful recovery only deepened the backlash against two endless-seeming wars in the Middle East. Trump rejected much of the conservative dogma that Republican presidential candidates before him had espoused: He praised nationalized healthcare, opposed entitlement reform, and took a brickbat to the concept of American global leadership.
The disruptive forces unleashed by his election are evident across the country. In Alabama, a Republican special election primary had candidates facing off over who would do more to flout the party’s leadership and channel Trump’s iconoclastic views in Washington. For some incumbents, criticizing the Trump has been career suicide: Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the author of an anti-Trump manifesto, announced his retirement when it became clear his only path to reelection involved embracing Trump’s views on immigration and trade. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who has been an outspoken Trump critic, did the same; he was likely to face a primary from a populist challenger. A Corker spokesman disputed that characterization, saying Corker remains popular in his state, and the senator had maintained publicly that he would consider leaving after his second term.
“The party is unrecognizable to a party that existed 5, 10 years ago,” said Dan Senor, who served as a foreign policy adviser to the Romney-Ryan campaign. Trump, he added, “is a vessel for that change.”
His victory was so unexpected, however, that the rigid ideological discipline that has typically characterized parties in power has been sorely lacking. Internal divisions weren’t resolved before or during the election—and have remained on constant display throughout the first year of the Trump presidency, often stoked by the president himself.
“We wake up and check his Twitter feed and we can feel exactly what the president is thinking,” said Thomas Binion, director of congressional and executive branch relations at the Heritage Foundation. “That’s brand new to American politics. We haven’t had access to a president’s mindset and emotions.”
What his supporters bill as refreshing candor, his critics deride as a preoccupation with his own popularity that overshadows an ability to focus on the real legacy-building actions. “He sees things only through the framework of his reputation, not of America,” said Ambassador James Jeffrey, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush.
That pose has done little to widen Trump’s coalition of voters over the past year. Between his job approval high of 42 percent on Feb. 7, and the low of 33 percent on Aug. 2, there has been little movement in how voters view their president.
“Over the entire year, the difference between the high and low job approval is nine points,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University poll. “The public’s view of him seems to be relatively consistent and stable. The problem for Trump is it has stabilized at a relatively low level.”
It’s something that hasn’t been lost on Trump. “He’s trending down again and that’s disappointing for him,” said Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a longtime friend of the president’s. “When you look at the poll numbers, it’s upsetting because you realize the stock market is the highest it’s ever been, the country’s in relative peace, we have the lowest unemployment in modern times. That he’s getting record lows is a message to him that he should think about adjusting course on his approaches to things.”
But while the Trump of a year ago talked about healing, it’s not clear that an adjustment in approach — perhaps to the classic mold of uniter he foreshadowed on election night — is possible or even necessary in his eyes now.
“Republican voters, even if they don’t like Trump, they don’t appreciate seeing their leaders attacking him,” said Alex Conant, who served as Marco Rubio’s communications director during the 2016 campaign. “Trump’s the leader of the party. Republican voters want to give him a shot.”
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