This week, what had been unimaginable before November 8 and unthinkable before January 20 finally became inescapable. What follows is a (necessarily) selective look at the first seven days of the Trump era.
Friday, January 20
Noon: the new President is sworn in before an average-sized crowd of a few hundred thousand. This somehow becomes a point of contention in subsequent days, and reportedly is the source of presidential temper tantrums on inauguration day. (File under “Pettiness.”)
That afternoon, Trump’s team emails the EPA to impose an immediate freeze on all grants and contracts. Clearly surprised by the blowback to this sweeping measure, new Administration officials hasten to clarify that they are only suspending the contracts—which amount to more than $4 billion annually (take a look here) and cover everything from air pollution, to water safety, to scientific research, to toxic waste cleanup—until they can determine which of them align with the Administration’s priorities. According to reports, they plan to have this little task wrapped up by the following Friday. Why, then, the drastic freeze, which invites agency-wide confusion and a surge of bad publicity? Because unlike previous Administrations, Trump’s transition team failed to finish their review before taking office—so they decide to simply hit the stop button and take care of it during their first week on the job. You know, during those slow early days of any new gig, when you’re just setting up your desk and figuring out where the coffee machine is. (File under “Emerging Patterns.”)
Saturday, January 21
It’s Trump’s first full day in the world’s most powerful job—an honor, yes, but also a solemn, weighty responsibility that has strained even presidents possessed of unusual vitality, integrity, and wisdom. With all this surely on his mind, Trump is naturally preoccupied with his inauguration crowd size. That afternoon, speaking at the CIA, he tells a room of intelligence officials that the media “are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth” and that they are “going to pay a big price.” Why was there so much applause during this speech, where the professionals in the crowd were “stunned and at times offended by the president’s tone”? Because the President brought a claque of 40 people to cheer him on. (File under “Pettiness” and “Warning Signs.”)
That evening, the White House press secretary angrily insists: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe.” It was not—period. The day recalls, except with less humor, a classic line from the Marx Brothers’ best film (a satire about a sleazy, idiotic con-artist who somehow becomes the strongman leader of a country): “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” (File under “Movies That Have Suddenly Been Recontextualized.”)
Sunday, January 22
Crowd size, continued: one of Trump’s closest advisers defends the White House’s version of events as “alternative facts” and then, just as disturbingly, dresses down a journalist by saying: “Your job is not to call things ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our President. That’s not your job.” (File under “Warning Signs” and “They’re Lying To You.”)
That same day, the same adviser announces that the White House, in addition to repealing the Affordable Care Act, is planning to convert Medicaid to block grants (breaking Trump’s promise: “I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” which is still up on his campaign website). Unless Republicans suddenly discover a passion for handing states large sums of money to spend on health care for the poor, switching to block grants will absolutely cut the program, giving states increased power to restrict enrollment and slash benefits. Several million low-income, older, and disabled Americans would lose access to health services, or even lose their coverage altogether. Meanwhile, after years of assuring us that a replacement plan is just around the corner, the GOP Congress still has no plan for health care after the ACA is repealed. The President called the Washington Post to announce that he’s got a plan, but nobody believes him, including his own nominee for HHS Secretary. A well-connected conservative reports that “After Trump’s Washington Post interview…the conservative health-care universe, including some people on Trump’s own team, quickly concluded that the separate administration plan he described was entirely a figment of Trump’s imagination.” (File under “They’re Lying To You” and “Emerging Patterns.”)
Monday, January 23
A pair of healthcare experts, writing in the Post, offer a “conservative estimate” that 44,000 people will die every year if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. That morning, Trump has his first official meeting with the Republican Congressional leaders who, just to reiterate, are this close to coming up with their own healthcare plan. (Honest!) No word on whether that morning’s Post report increases their sense of urgency. Trump reportedly uses the meeting to again claim that he actually won the popular vote because of “millions” of nonexistent illegal voters. (File under “Warning Signs.”)
Tuesday, January 24
The first leaks emerge of draft executive orders on immigration and Trump’s promised “Muslim ban.” It looks like the “Muslim ban” will actually target all would-be entrants from several Muslim-majority countries (rather than singling people out for religion)—an apparent attempt to effectively ban huge numbers of Muslims from entering the U.S. while avoiding the most obvious constitutional objections to such a plan. The draft plan is extraordinarily broad, and even the parts that don’t make the headlines are noxious (such as a provision that effectively prioritizes Christian religious refugees over Muslim ones). (File under “Emerging Patterns.”)
Wednesday, January 25
A draft executive order obtained by The New York Times shows that Trump is looking to reopen the CIA’s notorious “black site” secret prisons, which it opened in foreign countries in order to torture detainees. The order would also send new prisoners to Guantanamo Bay. It contains tellingly weak language on protections against torture, which Trump has said he would bring back, whether it works or not. (It doesn’t.) Trump has endorsed the use of methods which are recognized as forms of torture not to interrogate, but merely to punish, terrorism suspects. (File under “Cruelty.”)
On Twitter, Trump announces an upcoming investigation into “voter fraud.” It turns out he may be convinced of widespread voter fraud because of a racist anecdote he claims to have heard from a professional golfer, the details of which Trump has mangled, and which he keeps repeating to people as evidence.
Thursday, January 26
It’s hardly midday when news arrives of a cancelled visit with the president of Mexico. Reading about the cancelled meeting, I remember wistfully America’s time as a competent diplomatic actor. Then, as if on cue, news arrives that the entire senior management of the State Department has resigned en masse (or has possibly been fired): the Undersecretary for Management, the Assistant Secretary of State for Administration, the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, and the director of the Office of Foreign Missions. “It’s the single biggest simultaneous departure of institutional memory that anyone can remember, and that’s incredibly difficult to replicate,” a former official tells the Post.
Reporters start to notice that the language in Trump’s tweets mirrors exactly what has been said moments before on Fox News. It appears for all the world that the new President is just sitting around, watching TV and tweeting. The agony of knowing that Trump will be awake for hours to come, and that Fox’s primetime lineup isn’t even in makeup yet, makes for grim anticipation of what the rest of the day will bring. (File under “Emerging Patterns.”)
Lessons from the First Week
Omissions are not intended to suggest that the outrages left out of the foregoing are any less important than those that were included. There’s simply too much to cover in one piece of writing.
What emerges from this review, however, is that Trump is very much the President he promised to be. The core of his appeal was always a chauvinist ethnonationalism, and his campaign was always an exercise in inflating his remarkably insecure ego. The oath and the office have changed none of that. His actions are still driven by an intense need for fame and public acclamation, and he exhibits every tendency toward bloodlust and authoritarianism that he demonstrated again and again while running for the office.
There will undoubtedly be some observers surprised at the ways in which Trump hasn’t kept his word. He is now proposing to cut Medicaid when he promised he wouldn’t; his appointments make a mockery of “draining the swamp.” His much-discussed economic populism is turning out, in practice, to be remarkably compatible with the familiar upwardly-distributive priorities of Congressional Republicans. None of this should shock anybody, because policy was never central to the Trump campaign, and because Trump himself seems to have hardly any policy views whatsoever. Even his most famous “policy” ideas are really just gestures—build the wall! Ban Muslims from entering the country! “Bomb the shit” out of ISIS!—and none of those gestures have demonstrated, shall we say, an appreciation for detail. On taxes, regulation, education, and healthcare, he will be more than happy to accede to Republicans’ desire to direct money and political power toward the wealthy.
There is some small hope that the damage will be mitigated by the Trump administration’s staggering sloppiness: Politico reports that the flurry of executive orders issued this week were written and released so quickly, and with so little review or consultation with the relevant officials and agencies, that many could turn out to be “unworkable, unenforceable or even illegal.”
But of course, placing hope in Trump’s incompetence offers only partial comfort: Even under this administration, there are countless tasks we need the government to perform well. The incompetence that rescues us from the worst of Trump’s excesses could be the same incompetence that bungles the provision of key services or the performance of basic tasks of governance. This list covers only certain parts of the first week of this nightmarish presidency. There are over 200 more weeks until the next inauguration ceremony.