When Barack Obama was starting the first of his two terms as the nation’s president, he said that he hoped to be the kind of transformational president that Ronald Reagan had been. The remark was intended less as a compliment of Reagan’s accomplishments as it was a recognition that, for better or worse, Reagan had transformed the way the country viewed the conservative political ideology that Reagan represented.
Whether Obama, after two full terms in office, was successful in transforming America might be debatable. (As I have previously noted, he certainly transformed the way the country views healthcare as a right.) But what is not debatable, even after only six months in office, is the extent to which Donald Trump has transformed the American presidency. Let’s just consider the short list of what will never be the same after the Trump reign (no matter how much longer that reign may last).
Tax returns – They may never be released by a presidential candidate (let alone a sitting president) again, but even if they are, all future presidents will be able to point to Trump’s refusal to release his (and the fact that he got away with it) as precedent for not having to release theirs. They won’t even have to offer a reason, since Trump never did. All they will need to say is something like, “Donald Trump was elected after he refused to release his tax returns. The electorate clearly didn’t care, and neither did Congress, which never forced the issue.”
Blind trust for financial assets – No future president is ever going to have to put his or her holdings in a blind trust, as all presidents before Trump had done. Never mind the emoluments clause (Article 1, Section 9, sub-section 8 of the Constitution), Trump has openly defied the well-established tradition, if not requirement, that all presidents and major executive department office holders have recognized regarding their financial assets.
The point that has escaped Trump is that to continue to have any visible interest (or, worse, control) over personal financial assets is to give the appearance of potential conflicts of interest in decisions made on behalf of the country. But henceforth, presidents will no longer need to place their financial interests in a blind trust. All they will need to do is say that that they have turned over the management of those interests to their sons or daughters (as Trump has done – and, amazingly, has gotten away with!).
Tweeting – It is quaint to look back at the alleged battles Obama had with his aides over the use of his BlackBerry. In the end, he gave up his use of it, conceding thereby that his continued messaging on it might constitute a security risk. Donald Trump has blown by that concern. From now on, social media of any kind will be fertile ground for a president. They will always be able to cite the Trump precedent to shoo away any concerns about national security breaches or off-message messaging. Come to think of it, even using a personal server for government e-mails (à la Hillary Clinton) may be a passé concern in the future.
Respect for the role of the media – Presidents are never happy with the media coverage they get, but Trump has moved the line significantly. Now, merely saying the media are biased is a trivial complaint. Instead, the new normal will be to claim that any coverage of current events that runs counter to the president’s wishes or policy direction is “fake news.” A related new-normal will be the acceptance of formerly disregarded publications like Breitbart News and the National Enquirer as fonts of real reporting. Future presidents will now be able to claim that any story reported anywhere is either the “truth” or “fake news” depending solely on whether it supports or denigrates the president.
Ignorance – Ronald Reagan was admittedly not detail-oriented. George W. Bush was said to dislike extended policy papers and substance-heavy briefings. Other presidents have eschewed policy details for broad visions. But Donald Trump is perhaps the first president who frequently seems not to know what he is talking about and not to care that he doesn’t. And so, the new-normal that he is setting may be that a president can be truly ignorant about things as fundamental as what the Constitution says or how the government operates or what the protocols are in international affairs. If ignorance is truly bliss, the new normal for the presidency will be truly blissful.
Dysfunctional government – Trump has made a functional government seem like an irrelevant concern. Fully six months into his presidency, he still has not even nominated individuals for well over half of the top administrative and agency positions that require Senate approval. Significant positions are unfilled at all 15 cabinet-level agencies, including the second-ranking positions at Commerce, Treasury, Agriculture, Energy, Education, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Interior, and Veterans Affairs. And among his cabinet heads, Trump has several who are previously avowed opponents of the very existence of the agency (notably Rick Perry at Energy and Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as Education’s Betsy DeVos, who reportedly had never set foot in a public school when she was appointed and Health and Human Services’ Tom Price, who regularly sought significantly reduced budget allocations to the department as a member of Congress), and at least one (Ben Carson at HUD) who acknowledged before his appointment that he was not qualified to be a cabinet director.
Family members in the inner circle of advisors – Yes, Bill Clinton gave Hillary a meaningful role in his first administration (leading the attempt to pass a universal healthcare bill), and, earlier, John F. Kennedy appointed his brother, Bobby, as the Attorney General, but in Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the current president has placed far more responsibility than those two predecessors combined. Jared Kushner, in particular, although having no prior government experience, has a portfolio that is so large that he seemingly is the de facto secretary of State and Chief of Staff at the same time (not to mention a half dozen other duties he has been assigned).
In addition to the seven new-norms for the U.S. presidency that I’ve just listed, let’s add these five (just to make it an even dozen): Lying incessantly and unabashedly; cozying up to adversaries (Russia’s Putin, North Korea’s Kim, the Philippines’ Duterte) while insulting long-time allies (Germany’s Merkel, Australia’s Turnbull, Mexico’s Nieto); insulting his own intelligence agencies; running for re-election as early as four months into his first term; and constantly heaping praise on himself, even when honoring law enforcement officers and giving medals to military personnel.
And so, Donald Trump has already been transformational. Not, admittedly, in a positive way, but he has most definitely transformed the nature of the American presidency. Whether his influence can extend beyond the negative changes he has already brought about will be the test of the remainder of his time in office.