President Donald Trump seems to be on a bit of a learning curve. Any new president is. Especially any new president with no previous experience as an elected representative, taking on one of the most powerful and most responsible and most complex and difficult jobs in the world.
Especially when he appears to have not expected to win until late in the campaign, and seems to have been terribly unprepared for what he was taking on.
That’s a couple of examples of Donald learning things that should be obvious to most people.
More in The education of Donald Trump
The 70-year-old leader of the free world sat behind his desk in the Oval Office last Friday afternoon, doing what he’s done for years: selling himself. His 100th day in office was approaching, and Trump was eager to reshape the hardening narrative of a White House veering off course.
So he took it upon himself to explain that his presidency was actually on track, inviting a pair of POLITICO reporters into the Oval Office for an impromptu meeting.
It was classic Trump: Confident, hyperbolic and insistent on asserting control.
But interviews with nearly two dozen aides, allies, and others close to the president paint a different picture – one of a White House on a collision course between Trump’s fixed habits and his growing realization that this job is harder than he imagined when he won the election on Nov. 8.
So far, Trump has led a White House gripped by paranoia and insecurity, paralyzed by internal jockeying for power.
As president, Trump has repeatedly reminded his audiences, both public and private, about his longshot electoral victory. That unexpected win gave him and his closest advisers the false sense that governing would be as easy to master as running a successful campaign turned out to be. It was a rookie mistake.
“I think he’s much more aware how complicated the world is,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who serves as an informal administration adviser.
No single day was more telling about the ambiguity of Trumpism than April 12. It was that day that Trump not-so-quietly reversed himself on at least four of his campaign promises. He canceled a federal hiring freeze imposed in his first week. He flipped on labeling China a currency manipulator. He endorsed the Export-Import bank that he had called to eliminate. He declared NATO relevant, after trashing it repeatedly on the campaign trail.
“I said it was obsolete,” Trump said. “It is no longer obsolete.”
Trump’s critics and supporters alike are equally flummoxed about what this president stands for.
Apart from trying to win ratings and praise Trump probably doesn’t know what he stands for either.
“I kind of pooh-poohed the experience stuff when I first got here,” one White House official said of these early months. “But this shit is hard.”
Not just Trump caught out by what work is involved.
As Trump is beginning to better understand the challenges—and the limits—of the presidency, his aides are understanding better how to manage perhaps the most improvisational and free-wheeling president in history. “If you’re an adviser to him, your job is to help him at the margins,” said one Trump confidante. “To talk him out of doing crazy things.”
Interviews with White House officials, friends of Trump, veterans of his campaign and lawmakers paint a picture of a White House that has been slow to adapt to the demands of the most powerful office on earth.
Advisers have tried to curtail Trump’s idle hours, hoping to prevent him from watching cable news or calling old friends and then tweeting about it. That only works during the workday, though—Trump’s evenings and weekends have remained largely his own.
“It’s not like the White House doesn’t have a plan to fill his time productively but at the end of the day he’s in charge of his schedule,” said one person close to the White House. “He does not like being managed.”
He doesn’t seem to like working particularly hard either.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has developed a ritual of sorts: Just before going onstage for his televised briefings, he usually walks down the hall to the Oval Office to ask Trump what he wants to hear on TV that day. Cable news only occasionally carried press briefings from Obama’s secretaries in the later years of his presidency, but Spicer’s almost-daily outings have become a regular, wall-to-wall fixture.
His sessions with Trump were described by people familiar with them as part pep talk and part talking-point seminar. In the early days, Trump criticized Spicer fiercely, prompting him to upgrade his delivery at the podium as well as his wardrobe of suits. Now, people close to the president say, Trump brags about Spicer’s ratings.
More interested in perceptions of popularity rather than credibility.
If the goal of most administrations has been to set the media agenda for the day, it’s often the reverse in Trump’s White House, where what the president hears on the cable morning gabfests on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN can redirect his attention, schedule and agenda. The three TVs in the chief-of-staff’s office sometimes dictate the 8 a.m. meeting – and are always turned on to cable news, West Wing officials say.
Since taking office, Trump has 16 times tagged Fox and Friends, the network’s morning show, in his tweets, and countless other times weighed in on whatever they were talking about on air. After Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings went on Morning Joe and asked the president to call him, Trump did. After Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher defended Trump in an early Saturday morning Fox News hit, Trump called him moments later, inviting him to an Oval Office meeting. And after news segments, Trump will sometimes call his own advisers to discuss what he saw.
The reality presidency.
“Trump is a guy of action. He likes to move,” said Chris Ruddy, a close friend. “He doesn’t necessarily worry about all the collateral damage or the consequences.”
Who doesn’t care about damage or consequences.
Trump may be learning and adjusting. But he is still Trump. On Saturday, he’ll celebrate his 100th day in office by boycotting the traditional White House Correspondents’ Dinner in favor of a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The rallies, which remind him of the campaign trail, often improve his mood, several people close to him say. “I will be holding a BIG rally in Pennsylvania,” he tweeted by way of announcement. “Look forward to it!”
Trump seems to be doing as many interviews as he can fit in to his not very busy schedule outside publicity seeking.
He has also just done one with Reuters: Exclusive: ‘If there’s a shutdown, there’s a shutdown,’ Trump says
President Donald Trump downplayed the severity of a potential government shutdown on Thursday, just two days shy of a deadline for Congress to reach a spending deal to avert temporary layoffs of federal workers.
“We’ll see what happens. If there’s a shutdown, there’s a shutdown,” Trump told Reuters in an interview, adding that Democrats would be to blame if the federal government was left unfunded.
Don’t worry, just blame someone else.
“Frankly, Saudi Arabia has not treated us fairly, because we are losing a tremendous amount of money in defending Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“Nobody’s going to mess with Saudi Arabia because we’re watching them,” Trump told a campaign rally in Wisconsin a year ago. “They’re not paying us a fair price. We’re losing our shirt.”
“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters in an Oval Office interview ahead of his 100th day in office on Saturday.
“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” he said.
Something else he is finding difficult.
President Donald Trump on Thursday reflected on his first 100 days in office with a wistful look at his life before the White House.
“I loved my previous life. I had so many things going,” Trump told Reuters in an interview. “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”
Trump seems to think he is there for the adoring accolades, to be praised and revered. And he will keep watching TV until he sees it happen, it seems.
It’s hard to see how he will last out four years.
It may not matter, the world may not get to last that long.