Even Trump’s Closest Advisers Aren’t Quite Sure How He’ll Govern

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A blank slate.Photo: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re one of the millions of Americans wrestling with the question of how Donald Trump will govern as president, consider this: His inner circle doesn’t know either. Since Tuesday’s stunning election result, I’ve spoken with Trump advisers and GOP officials in Washington about the state of Trump’s transition planning to get a sense of what kind of place the Trump White House will be. What they describe is a candidate who is still something of a mystery, even to them. “It is basically a blank slate that needs to be filled in,” one senior adviser says.

Since his election victory, Trump has privately told his advisers that he intends to govern as a “pragmatic” commander-in-chief. But what counts as pragmatic for a politician who has proposed deportation forces and using nuclear weapons in regional wars? Until he reinvented himself as a fiery nativist, Trump’s politics — to the degree he had any — tilted mainly Democratic. But the best indicator of President Trump’s current political thinking and governing ethos will be the people he chooses to surround himself with in the White House. “In any administration, personnel equals policy,” a top GOP strategist told me.

Advisers say the most closely scrutinized appointment will likely be Trump’s first: the White House chief of staff. The position carries immense power, serving as a president’s gatekeeper, enforcer, and constant consultant. As the New York Times reported, two of the leading contenders are Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon. The choices represent stark contrasts: Priebus would come to the job as a GOP insider closely aligned with fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan. Priebus is well-liked by the party’s donor class and is said to be backed by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. The choice of Bannon, meanwhile, would suggest Trump intends to deliver on his campaign’s populist, anti-Establishment message. “Bannon’s allies are worried Priebus would be too far left,” one Republican operative told me. Bannon has notably kept a low profile since helping Trump pull off the remarkable victory, suggesting he’s trying to not do anything to torpedo his chances of landing the position.

Another reason Trump’s governing style is hard to divine is because the anonymous leaks of potential cabinet appointments are ideologically all over the map. They include:

• Small-government conservatives: Kellyanne Conway (communications adviser or press secretary); Senator Bob Corker (secretary of State)

• Neoconservatives: John Bolton (secretary of State); Stephen Hadley (secretary of Defense)

• Alt-right populists: Senator Jeff Sessions (secretary of Defense); Sarah Palin (secretary of the Interior)

• Trumpian loyalists: Rudy Giuliani (attorney general or secretary of Defense); Newt Gingrich (secretary of State); and General Michael Flynn (secretary of Defense or national-security adviser)

Two Trump advisers told me the floating of trial balloons will have little effect on Trump’s decision-making process. “Anyone who knows Mr. Trump knows major staffing decisions will be made by him,” one senior adviser says. “No one who lobbies for appointments will be successful.”

Advisers to Trump tell me one criterion he places a high value on is loyalty. Since his victory, Trump has been emotional with his team who stood by him, sources said. “You got a set of nuts on ’ya! You stuck your neck out for me!” he told an adviser a few hours after the race was called, one source said.

While Trump is delighting in his campaign triumph — one adviser said he’s “on cloud nine” — it’s unclear how (or if) Trump will enjoy the actual job of governing. There’s a chance Trump could end up delegating the day-to-day running of the government to Vice-President Mike Pence. “I think he’ll play a major role in policy as no vice-president has played before,” a senior adviser said. Which means that a Pence-run administration could be one of the most right-wing in memory. “Dick Cheney was a government apparatchik,” the adviser said, explaining that Cheney leveraged his intricate understanding of the federal government to maximize his power. Pence, on the other hand, is committed to conservative ideas. “Mike Pence is a policy guru.”

Or Trump may decide not to listen to anyone. Tonight, after a day spent bridge-building with President Obama in Washington, Trump returned to form on Twitter. “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!”