Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE won the presidency with an unpredictable approach, and he is sticking with it as he prepares to move into the White House.
Washington’s favorite guessing game since Trump shocked the world by winning the Nov. 8 election has focused on the direction his administration will take.
No one other than the incoming president really knows the answer — and he’s been sending contradictory signals.
Word leaked out in the early hours of Wednesday that Trump would nominate South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) to be his ambassador to the United Nations. Haley endorsed Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHow a nice-guy South Dakota senator fell into a Trump storm Republicans threaten floor takeover if Democrats weaken filibuster Democrats must close the perception gap MORE (R-Fla.) during the GOP presidential primary earlier this year, and has been critical of Trump in the past.
The Haley announcement came less than 24 hours after Trump met with executives and editorial staff from the New York Times for an extensive interview.
In his remarks to the Times, he backed away from a campaign-trail pledge to pursue a prosecution of his election opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonA year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low The Memo: 2024 chatter reveals Democratic nervousness Second gentleman Emhoff acts as public link to White House MORE; expressed reservations about the waterboarding of suspected terrorists; and acknowledged that there was “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change.
Those hints of comparative moderation strike a stark contrast with a number of very conservative appointments Trump made right off the bat.
Trump nominated Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: For Trump endorsement: The more sordid, the better Those predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold MORE (R-Ala.) to be his attorney general, controversial former Breitbart News executive Steve Bannon to be his chief strategist and retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who has made a number of contentious remarks about radical Islam, to be national security advisor.
Somewhere in the middle, ideologically-speaking, was his announcement later on Wednesday that Betsy DeVos would be his nominee as Education Secretary.
DeVos is a vigorous supporter of charter schools and a foe of teachers’ unions but also an erstwhile Trump critic. Jeb Bush, who famously feuded with Trump and whose support for the Common Core educational standards won him criticism from conservatives, hailed her nomination.
Trump aides have painted the overall approach as one in which the president-elect is willing to look outside his circle of loyalists when making key appointments — but where he himself will be setting the tone and direction.
In a conference call with reporters several days ago, transition spokesman Jason Miller insisted that Trump was “not putting together meetings based on political affiliation or whether they supported him in the past.” Instead, Miller suggested, “If you have good ideas about making this country great, the president-elect wants to hear about them.”
But many of the appointments have caused consternation on the left, with many Democrats expressing concern about the Sessions nomination and others — including 10 senators — calling on Trump to rescind the appointment of Bannon.
“His appointments have not been a little right; they are very far right,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton. “To have appointed Bannon as your senior advisor, to have nominated Sessions as attorney general — these are kinda radical moves.”
Zelizer, who was speaking before the Haley nomination became public, alluded to the prospect of more mainstream choices, including persistent speculation that Trump could nominate 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney as his secretary of State. But that would not alter the president-elect’s overall strategy, Zelizer suggested, which was to cater first to his base.
“Every time he targets his most ardent supporters, he runs the risk of further alienating everyone else,” he said. “But, at least from what we have seen so far, he is willing to take that risk.”
Conservatives see things very differently. Greg Mueller, a GOP strategist and Trump supporter, insisted that the president-elect was simply taking “a very traditional conservative, business approach” to making his appointments, adding that he thought this was “fantastic.”
Mueller also asserted that it was false to assume that there would be a destructive tension between fervent conservatives such as Bannon and Sessions on one side, and more establishment figures such as Priebus and Haley on the other.
“Bannon and Priebus have legs in different worlds, which is important,” Mueller said. “Are they going to have some disagreements? Probably, and that’s a healthy thing.”
Stylistic elements of Trump’s approach are also in the spotlight. He got into a Twitter feud with the cast of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” last weekend, after a statement implicitly critical of the incoming administration was read from the stage with Vice President-elect Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePences' pet rabbit, Marlon Bundo, dies Pence says both Capitol riot and nixing filibuster are a 'power grab' McCarthy says he won't cooperate with 'illegitimate' Jan. 6 probe MORE in the audience.
The episode strongly suggested that Trump would not be giving up his rambunctious social media activity anytime soon.
Some Trump critics believe the president-elect sometimes ignites these online disputes to distract from other controversies — in the case of “Hamilton,” Trump had also just announced a $25 million settlement for a fraud suit brought against Trump University.
Other independent experts note that his prowess in managing social media, and to some extent traditional media, has paid dividends for him.
“Trump has again demonstrated that all he has to do is send out a tweet and the media will just go crazy — and it’s good for at least two news cycles,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications.
More broadly, Berkovitz added, one of Trump’s strongest cards is “a total understanding of what celebrity is, how do you capitalize on celebrity, how do you profit from celebrity. It’s ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ except now it’s ‘Celebrity President.’”
Zelizer, meanwhile, cautioned that apparent efforts on Team Trump’s part to get the combative president-elect to modify his behavior tend to be short-lived.
“There is no other Donald Trump,” he said. “People keep waiting for that. Even when it happens, for a week at most, the original Donald Trump emerges.”