January 22, 2017; Guardian
In his first weekend as president, Donald Trump has delighted his populist base and offended almost everyone else, from the bipartisan political establishment to the media. The weekend featured his inaugural address on Friday, a visit to CIA headquarters on Saturday, and the first press briefing by Sean Spicer, the new presidential press secretary. Each of these events provided fuel to stoke the fires of critics and supporters alike.
Trump’s inaugural address, running less than 1,500 words and delivered in just over 16 minutes, was short and strident. We quote extensively from the transcript to preserve context. It was unashamedly populist, contrasting both Democratic and Republican establishment Washington with the population as a whole:
Today, we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people. For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
The speech was also explicit and insistent on defining America’s foreign policy and negotiating stance:
We are assembled here today issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power, from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.
The speech was widely criticized for its dark portrayal of the condition of America’s cities, its military, its infrastructure, and its education system. One of the more curious lines most open to interpretation and redefinition in the address was, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.”
There was so much in the speech that the use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” in a pledge to implicitly reverse Obama administration policy to not even use the term, was barely mentioned in post-speech media analysis.
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones—and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
Trump said “The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.” Both his supporters and his critics are awaiting Trump’s first steps as president.
After an interfaith prayer service on Saturday morning, Trump made a visit to CIA Headquarters in nearby Langley, Virginia. Standing in front of the wall honoring the CIA employees killed in the line of duty, Trump appeared to hold a pseudo-campaign-rally that offended many people by its location as well as through some of what was actually said. The president said that allegations he was fighting with the intelligence community or held it in low regard were false, blaming allegedly poor media coverage. “I am with you 1,000 percent,” Trump said. He also openly speculated that most of the audience at the CIA had voted for him, but he wouldn’t put them on the spot by asking them. He even bragged on how often he has appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Trump repeated his inaugural pledge to “eradicate radical Islamic terrorism,” adding a chilling comment about Iraq and the Iraq war: “We should have kept the oil. Maybe we’ll have another chance.”
Former CIA Director John Brennan said he was “deeply saddened and angered” at Trump following the speech. House Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Adam Schiff (D-NY) issued a short statement, summarized by the Los Angeles Times:
“While standing in front of the stars representing CIA personnel who lost their lives in the service of their country—hallowed ground—Trump gave little more than a perfunctory acknowledgment of their service and sacrifice,” Rep. Adam Schiff said, adding that Trump “meandered through a variety of other topics unrelated to intelligence.”
“He will need to do more than use the agency memorial as a backdrop if he wants to earn the respect of the men and women who provide the best intelligence in the world,” Schiff added.
Trump seemed preoccupied with press reports of relatively low crowds attending his inauguration the previous day. A tweet from the National Park Service compared pictures taken from the top of the Washington Monument in 2009 at President Obama’s first inauguration with the same view at the same time on Friday, showing a far smaller audience. CIA staff listening to Trump were apparently uncomfortable when the president brought up the subject and blamed the media for underestimating the crowd size.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer threw down the gauntlet to the media Saturday evening in an angry press briefing that lasted five-and-a-half minutes and allowed no questions from reporters. The primary subject of the briefing was inaccurate or “false” press coverage of the inauguration day crowds and an erroneous social media report by a Time magazine correspondent that the bust of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. placed in the Oval Office by Barack Obama had been removed. The core message of the briefing was in the statement that “There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable. And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable, as well.”
The problem was that Spicer included several untrue or at least disputable comments in his briefing, from the size of the inaugural crowds as measured by subway ridership to the use of plastic tarps to protect the grass on the National Mall.
The inaugural speech, the CIA visit, and the first Trump White House press briefing have one thing in common. They each serve to confirm the impressions and opinions of those witnessing them that what’s in progress is the continuation of a presidential campaign rather than the beginning of a presidency. Trump is doubling down on his agenda and viewpoints rather than reaching out to adversaries and seeking common ground. Moreover, he has chosen to offend official Washington—Democratic, Republican, and media—during his first days in a city where he is the new kid in town.
Having run as a Republican, Trump appears to be signaling from the start that he will govern as an independent populist. To date, he has been successful beyond all political predictions by steering his own course and picking his own allies (and far more enemies). He is right about one thing, though; Washington is a company town, and the company is the federal government. It’s far more ideologically divided than in previous decades, but new threats from the White House may, almost unbelievably, cause D.C. establishment adversaries to become allies under the classic maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”—Michael Wyland