The President’s Self-Imposed Bubble
POLITICO buries the lede in making the case for "Donald Trump's bubble presidency."
POLITICO‘s “Donald Trump’s bubble presidency” is quite bizarre.
I’m quite disposed to the headline thesis. Trump is obviously isolated in a way that no president since at least Richard Nixon has been. He’s definitely in a bubble. Yet, I find the piece aggravating.
When President Barack Obama felt he needed to show off his common touch, he’d go for cheeseburgers at Ray’s Hell Burger — where he treated the Russian president to an onion-jalapeño-and-mushroom-topped patty — or to Five Guys, where he ordered burgers for his staff in front of gawking lunchtime diners in May 2009.
President Donald Trump’s decision to stick to the restaurant inside his Pennsylvania Avenue property two blocks from the White House underscores his deep and growing isolation.
In his 14 months as president, Trump hasn’t yet followed his predecessors’ habit of dropping by local watering holes (even though he’s made no secret of his love for junk food) or public service events either at home or on the road. He hasn’t gone to a baseball game or stopped at a soup kitchen. On Saturday, he ventured out of the White House to attend the annual Gridiron Dinner, taking a baby step into Washington’s elite social scene. But his appearance at the white-tie event did little to bring him closer to ordinary Americans.
First off, I’m not sure disrupting the lunches of ordinary citizens with the massive presidential security detail while said detail keeps said citizens away from the VIP really does much to expose the president to life outside the White House. Second, while he may not have gone to baseball games, Trump famously went to the Super Bowl (massively inconveniencing the paying customers). Third, Trump rather routinely goes out to do campaign-style speeches. Why start with such banal and even easily-countered examples?
Outside Washington, Trump follows a careful routine of visiting factories or local law enforcement headquarters. When he stopped recently in Parkland, Florida, on his way to Mar-a-Lago, he took a smiling photo with a girl who had been shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a sharp contrast to images of Obama sitting in a small room with his head in his hands grieving with the parents of first-graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.
No, he doesn’t have anything like Barack Obama’s emotional IQ. (In fairness, neither does Hillary Clinton.) Indeed, I think it’s quite possible Trump is a sociopath, in the early stages of dementia, or both. He’s also a germaphobe, so hanging out with a bunch of strange school kids would be especially awkward for him. But, again, this isn’t evidence of a “bubble presidency.”
Trump promised the night of his victory to govern on behalf of “the forgotten men and women of our country.” Yet as president, he rarely comes into contact with regular people except in the structured setting of the White House or during tightly orchestrated events set up by staff, including a West Wing listening session last month with Stoneman Douglas families that featured some attendees who were critical of his proposals. His announcement last week of new tariffs, the timing of which surprised even some senior staffers, came at a table packed with industry executives rather than at a Rust Belt steel mill.
Well, okay. But he didn’t promise to go hang out with ordinary Joes, just to make policies that would benefit them. To Make America Great Again. I don’t think steel tariffs will do either of those things but he actually ran on exactly that type of mercantilism.
Trump has always been more of an executive-in-chief than a uniter-in-chief. He has persisted in the habits of a celebrity, positioning himself as someone whose lifestyle is just a bit out of reach. His mingling happens chiefly at his private clubs in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia, where he is not walled off by the Secret Service.
It’s another way that Trump has obliterated the norms of the presidency, according to interviews with more than 20 current and former White House officials, Trump friends and close advisers. Rather than trying to project an air of accessibility, Trump has unapologetically stuck to his insular White House life, avoiding and more or less eliminating the optics of the president appearing in public as a citizen.
There are all manner of norms Trump has broken that concern me. Most definitely including hanging out at clubs he owns while being reimbursed by the taxpayer. But continuing to be exactly the man he was before getting elected president? And what president in modern times has been anything close to “accessible”? We barricaded Pennsylvania Avenue during Bill Clinton’s presidency and have further isolated the president in the name of “security” ever since.
The approach keeps Trump in his comfort zone but makes it harder for him to do the work of being president — both when it comes to bridging divides on polarizing issues like immigration and selling highly partisan victories like his December tax reform legislation. And in recent weeks, Trump’s growing paranoia and profound frustration with his staff have further isolated him, according to aides, who describe the president as deeply unpredictable and increasingly unwilling to listen to many of his top advisers.
Finally, we’re getting to something that matters—and that is evidence of a bubble. Being isolated from top staffers—and the information flow crucial to presidential decision-making—is a huge problem. Yuuge. Not hanging out at Five Guys? Not so much.
“President Trump has never lived a governing life before the White House. When you lead an institution and you have to govern, you create a climate of invitation. You invite people to be part of the initiative rather than dictate,” said Andy Card, former chief of staff to President George W. Bush. “If you come from the background of running a private company without a challenging board of directors or shareholders, that is much different than having to build coalitions. That has been a challenge for him.”
That’s absolutely true. Then again, Barack Obama didn’t live “a governing life before the White House,” either. Many presidents haven’t.
Bush spent about six weeks visiting different states following one State of the Union to pump up support for his policy to-do list, like the No Child Left Behind Law and tax cuts, Card said. Obama similarly traveled to promote the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus plan, and was often photographed sitting down for one-on-one conversations with people he’d traveled to meet.
While several aides and outside advisers counseled Trump to embark on a similar post-State of the Union roadshow, he delivered just one speech outside the White House in the immediate aftermath of his address to Congress, appearing alongside workers at an Ohio manufacturing plant in early February.
I don’t know that this constitutes a “bubble” but it’s certainly a waste of the office. And, while I think he’s terrible at giving speeches, he clearly manages to connect with tens of millions of people.
Unlike other presidents, Trump was famous for decades in private life before entering political life. Aside from attending events, he was rarely seen out in New York except at haunts like the 21 Club, preferring to stay at Trump Tower and order in from its grill restaurant.
Yes, he’s an introvert. But that’s who he was when he was running for president. We don’t tend to become new people in our 70s.
As president, Trump has traveled often: A POLITICO analysis of Trump’s domestic trips in his first year shows that he’s kept par with Obama. As of mid-February, Trump had taken 44 domestic trips, excluding jaunts to his own properties and stops in the greater Washington area, while Obama took 43 trips during the equivalent period after taking office.
But, following a habit established during the campaign, when Trump would often take late-night flights back to New York rather than stay overnight out in the country, the president has stayed only once overnight domestically at a place he doesn’t own or operate — at an Omni resort in Phoenix, after holding a rally there.
So? Connect the dots here. Did Obama make connections that helped him govern during these overnight stays? Or was he just more of a morning person than Trump? What impact does this habit have on Trump’s ability to govern?
And he has largely avoided visits to key blue states that supported Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. Over the past 13 months, he has visited just seven states he didn’t carry in the election, four of which (Virginia, New Jersey, Hawaii and New York) are home to properties he or his family owns and another, Maryland, that is close to the White House and is a must-visit state for all presidents because both Joint Base Andrews and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center are located there. Obama visited six states he didn’t win in the 2008 election during the same period.
So, that seems noteworthy. Mostly, though, it strikes me that it means Trump is already in campaign mode.
Trump’s White House is only now planning a trip to California, the most populous state in the country and one that accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s economy — a seeming must-stop for a president obsessed with his economic legacy, as well as his legitimacy as an elected leader.
I think this more damning. It’s one thing to write off California from a campaign, given how badly he lost. But I suspect part of it is Trump’s peevishness—screw California, they didn’t vote for me.
Advisers largely have urged him to avoid visiting blue states because they consider it a waste of time, according to one former campaign official and two close White House advisers.
“I’ve told the president to stay away from California. It’s a hostile place for an American to go,” said one former campaign official. “All you have are elected officials that will just try to upstage you, and it doesn’t serve the public good to get into silly little fights with local politicians.”
Now that’s evidence of a bubble.
With the constant pressure of the Russia investigations and the roller coaster of chaos in the West Wing, Trump has also come to view his presidency as something closer to a four-year-long cage match than an exercise in governing. Many of his close aides have adopted and reinforced that attitude as well.
“There is a lot of staff from the campaign that still holds grudges against members of Congress, because they feel like the lawmakers did not support Trump enough during the campaign,” said one former White House official. That’s led staffers, in some cases, to nix or advocate against trips to certain congressional districts as punishment — further reinforcing Trump’s bubble mentality.
Finally, a million (give or take) paragraphs into the story we get to the meat of it:
The Trump administration also lacks a big-picture thinker in a high-level position to move the White House beyond its daily battles and to help staffers think strategically about the best way to approach the midterms, notch legislative wins or map out agenda items, according to current and former White House officials.
“They don’t have a Karl Rove or Barry Jackson, who can say, ‘Hey, you just pitched these ideas. Here’s how we can make them happen,'” said one former White House official, referring to two top George W. Bush advisers. “It is one thing to the next, and White House staffers all have their own fiefdoms.”
Instead, the president relies on personal friends and longtime allies for a line to the outside world, according to people close to him. Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, recently took a meeting in the Oval Office, while the president lately has resumed phone conversations with Anthony Scaramucci, the ex-White House communications director who lasted just 11 days, close White House advisers say.
Trump keeps in touch by telephone with a couple of dozen friends and allies who — almost to the person — reinforce the worldview he imbibes from watching Fox News and other cable TV shows. That includes boosters like Fox host Jeanine Pirro, to whom Trump granted an interview last month.
Multiple recipients of Trump’s phone calls describe being immediately bombarded with questions about everything from gun control to his recent speeches. While Trump rarely gives a clear indication about what he’s thinking, the regular surveys of his friends and allies often deeply influence him, according to friends.
The president also keeps tabs on life outside the White House by spending several hours each day watching cable news channels like Fox, MSNBC and CNN. Valets bring him several newspapers early in the morning at his residence, including The New York Times, New York Post, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, and he’s installed a massive flat-screen TV in the dining room just off the Oval Office, said one close adviser to the White House.
He also keeps tabs on what his base is thinking via Twitter, where he still occasionally engages directly with strangers and retweets messages from seemingly random supporters.
Close advisers to the White House argue that Trump is merely redefining the institution of the presidency for the digital age by connecting with constituents via social media, rather than in person.
“He sees Twitter as his own TV network, and it’s bigger than any network out there,” said a former campaign official. “Through Twitter, he is communicating to his followers and speaking as a ‘we.’ It is the nuance of the language that people do not get. It’s not just to communicate but to motivate them.”
None of that is new news, of course. But it’s definitely a picture of a president in a bubble. The kind of bubble that matters: one that isolates him from the massive information advantage that sitting atop the executive branch provides any normal president. Rather than getting the best information from the talented staffs at Defense, State, the Intelligence Community, Treasury, etc. he’s relying on Fox & Friends and various yahoos he plays golf with. That’s a huge problem
Where he takes his meals? Not so much.