For Trump, a year of reinventing presidency

For Trump, a year of reinventing presidency

For Trump, a year of reinventing presidency

When US President Donald Trump meets with aides to discuss policy or prepare for a speech, he may ask about the pros and cons of a new proposal. He may enquire about its possible effect. He may explore the best way to frame his case. But there is one thing he almost never does. "He very seldom asks how other presidents did this," said John F Kelly, the White House chief of staff.

Trump is the 45th president of the United States, but he has spent much of his first year in office defying the conventions and norms established by the previous 44, and transforming the presidency in ways that were once unimaginable.

Under Trump, it has become a blunt instrument to advance personal, policy and political goals. He has revolutionised the way presidents deal with the world beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, dispensing with the carefully modulated messaging of past chief executives in favour of no-holds-barred, crystal-breaking, us-against-them, damn-the-consequences blasts borne out of gut and grievance.

He has kept a business on the side; attacked the FBI, CIA and other institutions he oversees; threatened to use his power against rivals; and waged war against members of his own party and even his own cabinet. He fired the man investigating his campaign and has not ruled out firing the one who took over. He has appealed to base instincts on race, religion and gender as no president has in generations. And he has rattled the nuclear sabre more bombastically than it has been since the days of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The presidency has served as a vehicle for Trump to construct and promote his own narrative, one with crackling verve but riddled with inaccuracies, distortions and outright lies, according to fact checkers. Rather than a force for unity or a calming voice in turbulent times, the presidency now is another weapon in a permanent campaign of divisiveness. Democrats and many establishment Republicans worry that Trump has squandered the moral authority of the office.

"We're seeing the presidency completely and utterly transformed in a way I don't think we've seen since before the Civil War," said Jeffrey Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and the author of When the World Seemed New about President George H W Bush. "Trump is arguing that we need to take care of my enemies. I really can't think of any precedent."

What worries insiders has electrified many on the outside. Trump has cast aside the mythology of a magisterial presidency removed from the people in favour of a reality-show accessibility that strikes a chord in parts of the country alienated by the establishment.

That indifference to the way things have always been done has energised Trump's core supporters, who cheer his efforts to destroy political correctness, take on smug elites and smash a self-interested system that, in their view, has shafted everyday Americans.

"The norms and conventions are exactly what he ran against and, in his view, are why we're in the fix we're in," Kelly said in an interview. "He doesn't intentionally make decisions that are opposite, say, of what a previous president would make. He's got a view of what's better for America."

In upending the traditional dynamics of governance, Trump has made himself the most dominant figure in American life even as polls show that he is also the most unpopular first-year president in modern history. He is testing the proposition that a president can still effectively remake the country without securing or even seeking a broader mandate.

"You've got someone who is defining the presidency very differently," said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian. "Trump is essentially saying, 'I'm not going to operate just within the boundaries that the founders might have expected or people might have expected for 200 years. I'm going to operate within the boundaries of what is strictly legal, and I'm going to push those boundaries if I can.'"

Not just push. Trump has shattered boundaries, at least those his predecessors observed. "Everyone else seemed to play within a certain box," said William Daley, who served two presidents, first as a cabinet secretary under Bill Clinton and then as White House chief of staff under Barack Obama. "But this one is totally outside the box."

In recent times, most presidents have sought to expand the power of their office, and Trump has continued that trend. Just as Obama, frustrated by the opposition in Congress, made ambitious use of his executive power, only to be reined in at times by the courts, Trump has turned to his presidential pen to enact sweeping policies.

But he has bristled at the restraints imposed on the presidency as few have, lashing out at judges, lawmakers, investigators and journalists who anger him and expressing frustration that he is not supposed to use the FBI as he sees fit. His sense of government is not based on coalition building or a balancing act between equal branches. It is one where he deems what is necessary and the system should fall in line.

Refreshing departure

Even in small ways, Trump has broken presidential protocol. Presidents generally do not talk about daily gyrations of the stock markets or tout corporate expansion plans, seeing it as inappropriate. But Trump eagerly trumpets market increases, making them a substitute metric for success given his anaemic poll numbers, and claims credit for corporate decisions with the gusto of a mayor or governor, whether related to his policies or not. To supporters, his willingness to say anything and take on anyone comes across as refreshing.

"One thing he's done to the Oval Office and our political culture as a whole is brought a lot more authenticity than people have been used to from politicians," said Andy Surabian, a senior
adviser to the Great America Alliance, a Trump-aligned group. "Whatever you think of him from an ideological point of view, I think for the first time in my lifetime, you have someone in the Oval Office who doesn't seem plastic." "You hear all the time he's not presidential," he added. "But I say to myself, 'That's why he won.'"

Other presidents have experimented with how they communicated to the public and were criticised for diminishing the dignity of the office, only to have their innovations become standard fare for their successors. Franklin Roosevelt instituted fireside chats on the radio. Dwight Eisenhower inaugurated news conferences on television. John F Kennedy allowed the briefings to be aired live instead of taped and edited.

Those presidents, however, did not use their platforms as weapons as Trump has. And they presided over serious, if sometimes unwieldy, policymaking structures designed to inform their decisions. Trump's decisions, announced over Twitter, often seem like spur-of-the-moment reactions to something he has seen on television.

With repeated attacks on "so-called" judges, the "fake news" media, the "laughingstock" justice system, Congress and agencies of his own government, critics say Trump has degraded the credibility of major institutions.

"One way he's changed the institution is that most presidents see themselves as trustees of the democracy," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama. "And while every president is irritated by the limitations of democracy on them, they all grudgingly accept it. He has not. He has waged war on the institutions of democracy from the beginning, and I think in a very corrosive way."