Elections

History of all business and no government could complicate a Trump presidency

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Springfield, Ohio.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Springfield, Ohio. AP

It was a bold, headline-grabbing promise. Donald Trump vowed this week that immediately after his inauguration, he’d call Congress into special session to repeal Obamacare.

The only problem is that he wouldn’t be able to do that. When the new president is inaugurated on Jan. 20, Congress will already be 17 days into a new session. The president can call an extraordinary session only for a Congress that has left the Capitol for the year.

“A lot of people who have lived in Washington their entire lives don’t understand how Congress works,” said Tripp Baird, who served as floor assistant to Trent Lott when he was the Senate Republican leader. “I wouldn’t hold that against anyone.”

Perhaps. But Trump’s vow underscored a fundamental problem he would have as president. Nothing in his long experience as a businessman – the essential selling point of his campaign – compares to governing.

In business, he led companies run by his own family, operated by people he’d hired, and worked with stakeholders all aiming at the same thing, a profit. When he did work with a board of directors, he chafed, writing in his 1990 book, “Trump: Surviving at the Top,” that he “personally didn’t like answering to a board of directors.” In the White House, he’d face a Congress with its own agenda and base of power, a nation full of stakeholders with goals that often would compete with his and an operating system built to work on consensus, not autocratic rule.

It would be – according to those who’ve worked for him, studied him and worked the levers of power in Washington – a potentially jarring new environment that would test his skills as a CEO and negotiator.

For starters, Trump would take office as the least popular president in modern history, according to a battery of polls. Many Americans, including a large swath of his own Republican Party, think he’s not fit to hold office. He also has a fractious relationship with congressional leaders, chiefly House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Some Trump priorities might find support among Republicans, including his call to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. But he almost certainly would not have a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, making it difficult to land much legislation, including his signature campaign promise to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico.

“He’s kind of a party of one,” said Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and defense secretary who served as chief of staff for former President Bill Clinton. “And unfortunately for him, that party has a limited base of support in the Congress.”

Trump supporters point to his vice presidential choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a well-respected former member of Congress, as proof that Trump is serious about working with Congress.

But Trump and Pence are not always on the same script.

“Pence obviously has a better relationship with Congress, but if Trump keeps cutting him off at the pass every time, members won’t believe his vice president truly represents the president’s views,” Panetta said. “Trump plays his own game. That’s just got to change if they are going to be able to be a team.”

Trump could push some things without congressional approval. He pledges to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and withdraw from a proposed Asia-Pacific trade deal that Obama has championed. He’d also cancel most of Obama’s executive orders on immigration.

But Trump can only go so far without a willing Congress, meaning many of his initiatives, including his call for a massive tax cut aimed primarily at the wealthy, could stall.

“You can be as much of an outsider as you want to be, but if Congress is not buying into your agenda you are just not going to get much passed,” said Jonathan Felts, a former White House political director for President George W. Bush who’s now a partner in a Raleigh, North Carolina, public affairs firm.

Republican congressional leaders have already signaled they plan to assert their authority, regardless of who is in the White House.

“There is going to be leadership out of the congressional branch,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said recently.

“You are going to have congressional Republicans who are going to be pushing the country in a different direction than the Republican president,” Rubio, who is locked in a close re-election battle against a Democrat who has sought to tie him to Trump, told NBC.

Trump’s presidency would sorely test the Republican Party’s concept of a big tent, said William Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who’s now a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution, a think tank.

Trump challenged various Republican principles during the campaign, and the base that would get him to the White House would be unlikely to allow him to govern as a champion of the Republican line, Galston said.

“But his independence from the orthodoxies of both parties could be a double-edged sword,” he said. Trump would have “freedom of action, but it’s questionable he’d have the skills or discipline to work with others while going it alone.”

Winning the White House WOULD make Trump new friends. And Republican congressional leaders will want progress they can point to for the 2018 congressional elections, said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump supporter.

He noted that Trump has known likely Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York for years and would be able to forge a working relationship to secure some Democratic support. Schumer’s office declined to comment.

At the top of Trump’s “Contract for the American Voter” wish list: a hiring freeze for federal employees, the elimination of two federal regulations for every new one and a ban on lobbying.

As an outsider, a unique challenge for Trump may be filling his government with experienced hands. More than 50 Republican foreign policy aides, for example, signed a letter in August denouncing Trump’s candidacy.

Gingrich said Trump could look elsewhere.

“Appoint none of them,” he said. “Not a single one. He can find dozens of fresh new people without using any people who have failed us for the past 15 years. Their strategies have not worked.”

Trump himself has already said it’s “highly unlikely” he’d look to close ranks with Democrats by choosing any for his Cabinet.

“They’ve had their chance,” he told Reuters last week.

A go-it-alone approach would be a radical change for an American presidency, which is best run in a collaborative fashion, said Doug Elmets, a Republican political consultant based in Sacramento, California, who worked in the Reagan White House.

“Your success as a president is largely based not only on the people who surround you, but the Cabinet you create,” Elmets said. “Leadership skills mean, you don’t know everything so you surround yourself with great people to give advice.”

It’s debatable how much Trump would listen.

“He doesn’t really take advice. He listens to himself,” said Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization executive who spent 18 years working for Trump.

“He listened to me, he listened to the architects and his construction manager, but after a while he seemed only to be interested in having people tell him what he wanted to hear,” Res said. “He says on the campaign trail he knows more about ISIS than the generals do. He really does believe that.”

Trump has run his business and his campaign in a similar vein, with a small circle of influence: He dispatched 16 Republican presidential primary rivals with a smaller staff than most. Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party have five times as many paid staffers as Trump and the Republicans.

“He’s quite the micro-manager and not someone who hands off things all that readily,” said author Gwenda Blair, whose book “Trumps: Three Generations that Built an Empire” was recently republished.

Blair notes that Trump often talks about how he trusts his own instincts and doesn’t need experts: “That was his modus operandi in business. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”

Trump supporters say Trump would be a “transformational” figure who would change how the presidency operated, running it much like his sprawling corporate empire rather than a traditional government.

“In many ways, he’d be like a chief executive officer,” said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who has attended campaign strategy sessions with the GOP presidential nominee. “He’ll set goals that he wants and appoint the best people to achieve them. Most CEOs I know aren’t going to get involved in the day-to-day minutiae.”

The brash and blunt personality may recede, supporters suggest, replaced with the Trump they see in closed-door meetings: engaged, thoughtful and eager to hear the opinions of others.

“He’s an executive who knows how to pick people to fix problems,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., one of the first House of Representatives members to endorse Trump. “Why aren’t our problems fixed? Politicians just talk about what’s wrong; they don’t do anything about it.”

Trump has already released a list of potential Supreme Court appointees to allay conservative fears, Barletta said, demonstrating “an ability to get people to go along.”

Barletta argues that Trump will gain popularity among his skeptics by erasing regulations and creating jobs and he said that if House and Senate leaders couldn’t work with Trump, “there will be somebody else in their place. You’re seeing a new beginning in government.”

William Douglas contributed to this article.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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