Two weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump has thrown Washington into a state of anxious uncertainty.
Policy pronouncements sprout up from the White House in rapid succession.
Some have far-reaching implications, most notably Trump’s temporary refugee and immigration ban, but others disappear without explanation, including planned executive actions on cybersecurity and the president’s demand for an investigation into unsubstantiated voter fraud.
The day’s agenda can quickly be overtaken by presidential tweets, which often start flashing on smartphones just as the nation’s capital is waking up.
“The last two weeks feel like six months,” said Representative Thomas Massie, a Republican from the state of Kentucky.
Indeed, the effect on Washington – as well as the network of lobbyists, businesses and other interest groups that orbit the political power centers – has been dizzying, beyond the normal commotion that typically accompanies a White House transition. One official compared it to walking through a sandstorm, grasping for a moment of clarity.
For Trump, a frenetic pace of activity and seemingly haphazard style is as much a part of his political brand as his signature promise to build a border wall. In business and as a candidate, he used controlled chaos to keep his rivals off balance and appears to be taking a similar approach to governing.
At times, Trump’s style has tripped up his own White House.
After an early morning tweet calling for an investigation into voter fraud, Trump’s advisers announced that the president planned to sign an order to begin an inquiry. An Oval Office event was scheduled and members of the media were assembled. But the signing was abruptly scrapped and the investigation appears to have been shelved.
The president’s advisers have taken some steps in recent days to try to alleviate some of the anxiety gripping Washington, including coordinating more closely with Republican lawmakers ahead of the signing of executive orders and giving more deference to the agencies putting in the refugee ban.
But uncertainty still remains the capital’s prevailing mood. Just on Saturday, the departments of State and Homeland Security said they were stopping enforcement of the travel ban after a federal judge put the order on hold. The White House promised a prompt legal appeal.
Republicans who back Trump’s calls for overhauling President Barack Obama’s health care law are eager for guidance from the White House on what Trump will require in a replacement package. The insurance industry is becoming more alarmed by the day. Insurers start designing and pricing their offerings for 2018 early in the spring and there’s still no word on tens of billions of dollars in the law’s subsidies for consumers’ premiums and out-of-pocket costs.
“We need predictability, and we need predictability for long periods of time in order to price, and price effectively,” Marilyn Tavenner, head of America’s Health Insurance Plans told a Senate committee this past week.
Some businesses are on edge, too. Amid fierce customer opposition to Trump’s immigration order, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick dropped out of a White House business council. Other executives fear theirs could be the next company to wind up in Trump’s crosshairs for a high-cost government contract or overseas factory move.
“There’s dread in corporate America to wake up every morning and see what the latest tweet is,” said Tony Podesta, a prominent Washington lobbyist.
Civil servants at a loss
At government agencies, many of which are waiting for Cabinet secretaries to be confirmed, career employees and holdovers from the Obama administration are sorting through executive orders that landed on their desks with little notice, compared with the lengthy interagency discussions that usually precede major policy announcements.
The rollout of travel ban was so helter-skelter that a Justice Department lawyer defending the order in court Friday didn’t know how many visa-holders have been affected. The lawyer told a judge that 100,000 visa-holders have had their visa cancelled, while the State Department later clarified that it was actually fewer than 60,000 people. With the ban on hold, the State Department said Saturday it reserved the visa revocation.
Trump aides blame any early instability in government agencies on the backlog of Cabinet nominees waiting for confirmation votes in the Senate. The president has just five Cabinet nominees confirmed, far less than Obama at this point in his tenure.
But Representative Charlie Dent, a Republican from Pennsylvania and a longtime Trump skeptic, said the White House appears intent on “trying to check boxes” and speed through campaign promises as quickly as possible, even when ideas aren’t fully formed.
“They’re accelerating that when perhaps they ought to move more deliberately,” Dent said.
For some organizations that oppose Trump’s early actions, the chaos has been a boon.
Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he hired 30 new employees following the election, including three new immigration lawyers since Trump signed the refugee ban. He said the organization has raised more than $24 million in that same one-week stretch.
“People are motivated to take action,” Romero said.
Washington veterans say it’s likely Trump will settle into a more regular rhythm over time. But they say that’s still unlikely to resemble anything Washington has seen before.
“He doesn’t have the sensitives, the hesitations, or the diplomacy of a politician,” said Ari Fleischer, press secretary to president George W. Bush. “He was CEO of a privately held corporation who knows how to drive organizations forward to big, new and different objectives and figure out the details later.”