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Trump’s whirlwind week in the White House

In The Art of the Deal, Donald Trump described hyperbole as an “innocent form of exaggeration” that was a “very effective form of promotion”. In an interview with ABC News on Wednesday, the US president stretched this definition to the limit with his claim that he would make relations with Mexico “better than ever”, despite his demand that the country pays billions of dollars for a border wall.

Less than 24 hours later, Mr Trump watched his first foreign policy controversy unfold after Enrique Peña Nieto, the Mexican president, angrily cancelled a visit to Washington. To Mr Trump’s supporters, the escalating spat was another example of his negotiating genius but to critics it was further proof that he was acting like a rogue on the global stage.

“Americans are as baffled by the first days of the Trump presidency as the rest of the world,” said David Gergen, a political adviser to former presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. “The good news for his supporters is he has not changed. But that is the bad news for his detractors, who hoped he would become more presidential and more rational.”

It has become clear that Mr Trump has no intention of changing his behaviour or the populist agenda he laid out on the campaign trail. “I can be the most presidential person ever . . . but I may not be able to do the job nearly as well if I do that,” he told ABC.

Despite unveiling a flurry of policies ìn his first week in office, most of the attention focused on Mr Trump’s behaviour. The man who was preoccupied with his TV ratings as host of The Apprentice spent much of the week obsessing over different metrics, from the size of his inauguration crowd to his loss in the popular vote. This quest for affirmation has pushed Mr Trump and his staff beyond the bounds of fact, sparking criticism that the new president was debasing his office and harming US credibility.

On his first full day in office, Mr Trump used a speech at the CIA to lambast journalists for reporting — accurately — that Barack Obama had a far bigger attendance for his 2009 inauguration than Mr Trump did on January 20. In a pique, he ordered Sean Spicer, his spokesman, to berate them. In an angry performance Mr Spicer repeated Mr Trump’s false claims about the size of the crowd.

Press secretary Sean Spicer berates journalists for disputing the size of the crowd at Mr Trump’s inauguration © Reuters

Escalating the issue further, Mr Trump pressured the head of the National Park Service to find photographs to prove that the media were lying, according to the Washington Post. He also ordered an investigation into voter fraud, which he blamed for his losing the popular vote despite any evidence.

Kellyanne Conway, a presidential adviser, entered the fray on Sunday and denied that Mr Spicer had lied in his defence of Mr Trump. He had used “alternative facts”, she said, a phrase that went viral and sparked images of her as a doll named “Propaganda Barbie”. Her comment helped catapult Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s novel about a dystopian world where the regime engages in “doublespeak”, to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.

Trump’s team – White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway with chief strategist Steve Bannon © Reuters

As the sideshows played on, Mr Trump was busy notching up “wins” for his voters. Using his executive powers, he withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, began moves to repeal Obamacare, resurrected the Keystone XL oil pipeline and started the process to build the border wall.

He summoned US chief executives, including Elon Musk of Tesla and Mark Fields of Ford, to the White House for meetings where he stressed his administration would punish companies that moved production overseas and imported their goods back to the US.

Investors applauded, sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average past the 20,000 mark for the first time on Wednesday. But his policies have also courted concern.

“There are very significant geopolitical implications from a retreat from international engagement and an embrace of protectionism,” said Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.

Despite the fanfare, some of his actions were more symbolic than substantive. Many of these policies will face a challenge in Congress.

While the TPP move seemed dramatic, it was a deal that had effectively collapsed. His order to back the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines — and to demand that the pipes are made in the US — has been pitched as a way of generating jobs. But the demand for the pipelines has diminished because of the US shale revolution, and the effect on employment is disputed.

Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics said forcing Keystone XL to use US steel would probably violate World Trade Organisation rules. In that sense, he said, it sent a clear signal about Mr Trump’s disregard for many of the international norms that have governed America as the pillar of the liberal economic order.

© AFP

Amid the flurry of activity, some campaign promises did not materialise. His vow to brand China a currency manipulator has yet to be enacted, for example, perhaps because Beijing has been trying to prop up its currency. He has still to explain how he will fund his much-heralded $1tn infrastructure blitz.

Critically, Mr Trump’s views on questions such as corporate tax reform remain unclear. On Thursday, Mr Spicer appeared to endorse plans from congressional Republicans for a major overhaul of corporation tax that would penalise imports and exempt exports. The move was pitched as a way to force Mexico to pay for the border wall, but the White House later backtracked.

Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina senator and one of few Republican Trump critics, tweeted that “any policy proposal which drives up costs of Corona, tequila or margaritas is a big-time bad idea. Mucho Sad”.

While some critics hope Congress will act as a brake on Mr Trump, others worry that most of the Republican party has become so intoxicated with power that pro-trade politicians such as Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, are willing to ignore the fact that Mr Trump is tearing up decades of party orthodoxy.

“Most of the Republicans have sold out their values for political power,” said Edward Alden, a trade expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The last time the US rejected a negotiated treaty on trade was 1950. The last time you had a president running on an openly protectionist platform was Herbert Hoover.”

Beyond the realm of economics, Mr Trump shocked US allies — including UK Prime Minister Theresa May who visited Mr Trump on Friday — by suggesting that he might allow torture, including waterboarding, for interrogations. The White House obfuscated when pressed about a leaked memo that talked about the use of “black sites” — the secret CIA prisons used during the George W Bush administration.

Mr Trump speaks at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia © Getty

James Stavridis, Nato’s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, described the first week as a “bumpy start” because of the spat with Mexico and “fairly confrontational” White House comments which suggested that the US try to block China from accessing islands in the South China Sea.

Fans and critics of Mr Trump are arriving at the same conclusion. “What you have seen in the first week is that he intends to pursue what he talked about doing. He is creating turbulence and secondary effects, but it is early days,” said Mr Stavridis.

Mr Gergen, however, says Mr Trump is damaging the US’s reputation. “It is causing a deeper sense of distress that this could become dangerous. You misjudge the Chinese on Taiwan or those islands and guns could be blazing.”

Laura Schisler, a Trump voter from Pittsburgh, said she was “very pleased and not surprised” that Mr Trump was issuing so many executive orders. “He stated these promises over and over again, and his supporters believed him and voted for him. Now he is delivering,” said Mrs Schisler.

Mr Trump’s first weekend in power was marked by Women’s Marches in US cities. This one was in Boston © Getty

Stephen Bannon, former head of Breitbart News turned White House aide, pointed to the disconnect between elites and many voters to explain why the media — which he said should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while” — was shocked at Mr Trump’s actions. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country,” he told the New York Times.

Some experts say Mr Trump will boost the economy, particularly if he pushes through infrastructure spending. Others worry that the bullying treatment he gave Mexico would backfire with powers such as China. His penchant to sow confusion — such as saying in a single interview that Nato was “very important” and “obsolete” — has left diplomats scratching their heads, while domestic critics worry about the damage he could do to the country’s image.

“Ronald Reagan certainly brought a new spirit of government, but Reagan was willing to respect certain norms of behaviour,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University.

“The current president seems unwilling and uninterested to respect the bipartisan norms of presidential action. If this week is a harbinger of the future the entire globe is going to get a case of ADD [attention deficit disorder].”

Via FT