When the last cycle of American elections began, no one had imagined that they would be different from their predecessors, in essence at least. This is not just because the United States is an entity governed by institutions; it is also because democratic traditions have become stronger than personalities and than the whims of political parties and fluctuations in the tides of public opinion. At this point in the cycle, which is to say 50 days after the new president assumed office, attention to the president normally fades and the countdown begins to the end of the first 100 days in office, at which point assessments begin. Generally, that interim is only interrupted by some intermittent skirmishes over the new president’s nominees for key offices.
Donald Trump was not an ordinary candidate, as we frequently observed in this column since the Democratic and Republican Party primaries. He is not going to be an ordinary president either, as he has already made extremely clear. This is apparent in his method or “style” of governing and in the substance of his policies. With respect to both form and content, Trump has already generated numerous anecdotes, mostly lurid and sensational.
Perhaps never before in American history has a newly elected president’s family moved into the White House not in order to be together with the president as a family, but rather to rule, as in the way of monarchies in which queens, princes and other members of the royal household play influential roles. During his campaign, Trump’s family members were not there just to give him moral support or even to issue statements or deliver speeches extolling his virtues, in television interviews or in the other media fanfare surrounding the campaigns. They also functioned as chief campaign advisors and strategists. They set priorities and nominated aides. All of them are now in the White House in the same capacities and with the same influence. This is not just about Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband, actually being appointed senior advisor to the president. It is about Trump’s wife and children continuing to play major roles in choosing presidential nominees for various offices. It is because they, together with Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, are Trump’s ideological and political “conscience”.
Such a presence has set new and unfamiliar conventions for the presidential family. Instead of heading to Camp David, the official presidential retreat, for a family weekend, they fly down en masse to Florida where Trump owns a sumptuous private beach resort, which means that his company will also include other business tycoons who share his fondness for golf and his love for meat. Melania, too, has her own rites and rituals. The Slovenia-born first lady prefers to avoid public gatherings where she might have to broadcast her foreign accent and would rather meet in closed gatherings with the wives of her husband’s businessmen chums. While previous presidents may have had their own private getaways, Camp David had always been the main one and when rest was combined with business they would bring along members of their administration, as opposed to almost exclusively wife, kids and in-laws-cum-advisors in the case of Trump.
So far, at least, gossip about Trump and the family is not at the centre of the anecdotes circulating in Washington these days. Rather, Trump’s relationship with Russia and President Vladimir Putin draws greater attention. This story began during the electoral campaign when Trump praised Putin and indicated that it would be possible to work with him on many issues. Subsequently, it came to light that there were many communications between the members of the Trump campaign and various circles on the Russian side, some diplomatic, others with Russian businessmen and yet others with Russian intelligence. The Russian connection has become quite irksome for the new Trump administration. It led to the dismissal of Trump’s first appointee as national security advisor barely before the ink on the appointment paper had dried, and it almost led to the dismissal of his attorney-general whom the Republicans had fought so hard to push through the congressional confirmation hearings.
What makes the “Russian story” so tantalising has less to do with what is already known than with what still remains unknown about Trump, his global business empire and its connections in Moscow, whether through fellow business tycoons or others. One is reminded here that, unlike previous presidents, Trump has never disclosed his income tax returns, which would have given the public some insight into how sprawling and diversified his business operations and financial interests are, which leaves the door open to considerable suspicion and speculation. Interestingly, the “Russian connection” seems to offer a huge window over a possible divide between the president and his senior staff, since Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis and his new National Security Advisor McMaster are all known to regard Russia has the US’ number one strategic adversary. As to whether this divide will broaden to reveal other differences between Trump and his staff, it is too soon to say, but it seems worth waiting for the new stories that are likely to emerge at any time.
Perhaps even more electrifying than the Trump dynasty story and the Russian connection is the tale of Trump versus the media. During his campaign, observers frequently remarked on how adept Trump was at using the media, whether personal media such as his Twitter account, on which he would post “tweets” until the crack of dawn, or the press. He was always available to journalists from all media outlets and from all shades of political opinion. Because of this, Trump probably had more free airtime on the major networks than any other candidate which, in turn, made his campaign one of the least expensive in the history of presidential campaigns. Now, however, the relationship between Trump and the press has taken a sharp turn in the other direction, towards seething animosity. Trump has attacked the press as “the enemy of the people” and referred to the news media as the real “opposition party” to his administration, as opposed to the Democratic Party. There are few if any parallels in US history to what is happening today between Trump and the American media. The hostility is so intense that he has banned representatives from the major TV networks from attending his press conferences and he has openly accused the media of lying and feeding the people “fake news”.
As the situation stands, especially with some networks such as CNN, it looks like the Trump versus the media story is far from over. In fact, it may be just beginning. Nevertheless, the opening scenes have shown that he has a knack for putting those he identifies as his enemies on the defensive. This applies not just to the media, but also to other powerful institutions such as the CIA, the FBI and even his own Republican Party and Congress. In short, Trump is a phenomenon and, moreover, one that has scored quite a few successes already. He has managed to secure Senate confirmations for all his nominees, even if his first appointee as national security advisor, Michael Flynn, had to resign. Also, in spite of the many contradictions surrounding his stance with respect to Russia, he is sustaining his momentum. Arab leaders who are planning to visit Washington should study that man carefully, psychologically and politically.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.