The Real Concerns of the Trump Transition
A Presidential transition can be a disconcerting stretch of time, even in quieter days than these. The transition to the Presidency of Donald J. Trump has at its center a man who has never served in public office, has spoken disdainfully of constitutional norms, and was either too faithful a reader of the polls or too superstitious to do much about getting ready to govern. His first decisive move was to discard Governor Chris Christie, of New Jersey, who had been assigned to direct his transition. Even to speak of the transition in the singular is, in a way, misleading, given that there are many changes occurring at once: the handover of institutions from one set of hands to another; a businessman becoming President; an electorate witnessing a season of bitter campaigning give way to a period of governance.
The main concern at this point is not that the government will plunge into chaos the day after Trump takes the oath of office but how Trump and his team will use the institutions they inherit. His early nominations, such as that of Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, for Attorney General, did nothing to allay that fear. Putting Sessions in the Department of Justice would give the job of protecting voting rights to a man who has, throughout his career, been more inclined to undermine them.
Other nominations, like that of Governor Nikki Haley, of South Carolina, to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, might signal a transition to a Presidency that includes more traditional Republican aspects—or not. The Senate Democrats have to quickly recover from the shock of the election and move on to taking an active role in the confirmation process. (Trump will also be the first President in recent memory to be choosing a Supreme Court Justice at the same time that he names his cabinet.) The goal should not be blind obstructionism of the kind that would push away a nominee like Haley; rather, it should be to communicate, if only for the record, that lines must be drawn, and that Sessions, who was unconfirmable as a federal judge in 1986, crosses them. That message can be conveyed even by a minority; and the Democrats are, after all, a party that is said to be trying to find its voice.
In terms of Trump’s own transition to office, there are indications that the arc of his character is more like a loop. His attacks on everyone from the NBC News reporter assigned to cover him to the cast of “Hamilton” are a repeat of his campaign behavior. He seems unwilling to view the Presidency as an office, which has defined limits, instead of as a new way to express his personal desires, which have none. This is reflected, too, in his supposed gestures of moderation. His waning interest in locking up Hillary Clinton, which he expressed in an interview with the Times last week (“I don’t want to hurt the Clintons. I really don’t”), reveals a view of prosecution as something that a President can decide to unleash or withhold arbitrarily. In the same interview, Trump spoke in vague terms about keeping an “open mind” on international climate-change accords, but he also expressed a distrust of climate scientists, echoing the conspiracy-minded attitude of his campaign.
Trump also seems unwilling to engage seriously in the project of moving from the private sector to the public. The possible conflicts of interest posed by his many businesses, which operate in countries from Turkey to Argentina, can play out in farcical ways, such as when he complained to Nigel Farage, the acting leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, about the wind farms that mar the view from his golf course in Scotland. But the conflicts potentially involve politicians with more real power than Farage and interests that are more damaging to the United States. It would be difficult to manage them even if Trump were willing to give it a good-faith try, which, so far, has not been the case. “Prior to the election it was well known that I have interests in properties all over the world. Only the crooked media makes this a big deal!” he tweeted last week.
He had said that he would hand the management of his business interests over to his adult children, but they are now advisers to the transition. He claims that, if critics had their way, “I would never, ever see my daughter Ivanka again.” But there has to be distance: if it is not between him and his children, then between his children and the business. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has argued that the best option is for Trump to liquidate his holdings and put the cash in a blind trust. That may not be legally required, since federal conflict-of-interest laws don’t fully apply to the President, though the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause should. It is up to members of both parties and the public to instead make a comprehensive reorganization of his financial holdings a political necessity.
More important than all these concerns is the way that a Trump Presidency might change our common conception of what it means to be American. In addition to naming Sessions, Trump has chosen a chief strategist who has retailed alt-right rhetoric, a national-security adviser who tweeted out a video presenting reasons to fear Islam, and a C.I.A. director who has called for the execution of Edward Snowden. And this is in a time of relative peace. Where Trump’s instinct for blame and diversion would take him and the country during an emergency—a terrorist attack, for example—is an unpleasant question to contemplate. This is why many people voted for Clinton rather than for Trump. But he won, so what do they do now?
Trump has a shot at being the century’s worst President, but Americans are not in the worst position they have ever been in from which to confront him. We’ve been more economically desperate; we’ve been, in terms of the breadth of the franchise, less free. In the Trump Presidency, as in all Administrations, there will be political fights that define the course of events. There are constitutional tools available, but only if people in both parties, inside and outside of government, are willing to use them—to sustain a sense of non-Trump possibility. This includes not accepting bigotry as a normal part of the national conversation. There is also something to be said for not moving away entirely from the mind-set of the campaign, with its imperatives to both reach out and to challenge, with its skepticism and its sense that there are always options. Some transitions should never be made. ♦