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Trump And The Office Of The Presidency, One Year After The Election


When Donald Trump won the election a year ago, he promised to be a transformational president, to drain the swamp, shake up the establishment and do away with gridlock. He also predicted that being president would change him.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that's ever held this office. That I can tell you.

SIEGEL: Well, how has the presidency changed Trump, and how has Trump changed the presidency? Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Donald Trump is like a Rorschach test. He produces radically different reactions from different people. But on the question of whether the presidency has changed Trump, there is unanimous agreement.

H W BRANDS: To a surprising degree, the presidency has not changed Donald Trump.

LIASSON: H.W. Brands is a presidential historian whose biographies include Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

BRANDS: Previous candidates who get elected are almost always sobered by the office and the responsibilities that they take on. Donald Trump shows no evidence of that. He's the same Trump that he was when he was host of his reality TV show. He's the same Trump that he was when he was a candidate.

LIASSON: And that's exactly what his supporters wanted - a president who would channel their grievances against the elites just as he did in the campaign. But if the presidency hasn't changed Trump, Brands believes Trump has changed the presidency. The biggest transformation is the way Trump's America-first philosophy relates to the rest of the world.

BRANDS: The president of the United States from the 1940s until 2017 was considered the leader of the free world, probably the most powerful person in the world not simply in terms of America's military might but in terms of the moral authority of the president.

LIASSON: Like other historians, Brands says Donald Trump has largely abdicated that role.

BRANDS: He has spoken of abrogating America's obligations, at undermining America's alliances, at not really caring when other countries violate the human rights of their own people. So the president of the United States right now is no longer the leading figure in world affairs.

LIASSON: Back at home, Trump has changed the presidency as well mostly through his use of social media, says Douglas Brinkley, who's written books on Gerald Ford, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Every president complains about media bias, but no president, says Brinkley, has tried to de-legitimize the press the way Trump has.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Richard Nixon ate up a lot of clock trying to destroy the press. Trump now has a mechanism to do it 'cause he's not beholden in any way, shape or form to traditional media. So by going over them, it gives him an instant kind of power and credibility.

LIASSON: Through his Twitter account, says Brinkley, Trump sets the agenda and controls the narrative.

BRINKLEY: He wants the lead story to be Trump even if it's controversial. It allows him to be the dominant force in American politics.

LIASSON: Trump has used this dominance to change the traditional relationship between a president and his party. He quickly consolidated control over the GOP base, remaking the party in his own ethno-nationalist, populist image. That dominance has allowed him to contain the sometimes intense public criticism from members of his own party.

Every one of Trump's public critics, like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, share an important characteristic. They are no longer running for office. Barbara Perry is the director of the center for presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. She says Trump and his former political adviser Steve Bannon have created a new party line.

BARBARA PERRY: They have cowed the party regulars. They've cowed the party traditionalists. We have seen it already with the Jeff Flakes in the party who are having to step aside and actually step out of politics. And if that happens - if people who oppose him leave the party, that will be a success for him.

LIASSON: Trump has broken the mold in other ways. He often rejects the traditional role of the president as pastor in chief, consoling the nation in times of tragedy. Instead of seeing his role as a unifier, Trump has been divisive and partisan, blaming Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria and New York Senator Chuck Schumer after the recent terrorist attack in Manhattan. And he's ignored the traditional boundaries between the chief executive and the Justice Department, repeatedly calling on the FBI, an agency that's supposed to be independent, to go after his political enemies.

William Inboden, who teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, says that as the legislator in chief, Trump has also departed from past presidential tradition, subcontracting his agenda to his party leaders in Congress. Perhaps as a result of his indifference to the details of policy, says in Inboden, Trump has yet to sign into law a single piece of significant legislation.

WILLIAM INBODEN: We talked to Republicans in Congress, and they have two concerns. One, sometimes he's not giving them any directions. Other times, he's giving them five different directions simultaneously.

LIASSON: Historians have already begun to think about the post-Trump presidency. Inboden wonders whether the changes Trump has made to the office will outlive his tenure.

INBODEN: As we look at previous presidents who have weakened the authority of the presidency, Nixon did it through overreach and criminality. Carter weakened the presidency arguably through lack of competence. Bill Clinton weakened the president through some salacious behavior. But President Trump thus far seems to be weakening the presidency primarily through just neglect and indifference to the traditional roles of the presidency. And I do worry that whoever his successor is in four or eight years will inherit a diminished office.

LIASSON: Trump himself may not have been transformed by his time in the White House, but he has fulfilled his promise to bring big, disruptive change to Washington in the short term and maybe much longer. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.