In the year since his election, Donald Trump has changed Washington more than Washington has changed him.
Not this time.
Instead, Trump continues to be the unpredictable bludgeon familiar from the 2016 campaign. He has forced Washington to adjust to him — accelerating the pace, raising the temperature and widening the fractures in both parties. In short: louder, faster, fiercer.
As much as any president in modern times, he has left a distinctive stamp on the capital that is likely to have repercussions after his tenure is over.
“Trump’s successors can draw lessons from his successful and lasting appeal to the white working class, his flamboyant verbal disparagement of establishment Washington, his attempt to diminish a hostile mainstream media and his strong use of executive powers,” says political scientist Steven Schier, co-author of The Trump Presidency: An Outsider in the Oval Office. “All this has converted the presidency into an engine of battle. Future presidents will no doubt fire up that engine for their own purposes.”
An alternate universe?Trump has intensified and magnified these trends. Partisanship has been hardening for decades, and President Obama expanded the use of executive action when he wasn’t able to push legislation through an opposition-led Congress. Trust in the news media and the government was eroding well before Trump began attacking those institutions on Twitter.
In an alternate universe in which Hillary Clinton managed to win the White House last year, it’s hard to imagine there would have been a ceasefire in the era of constant political combat.
That said, Trump’s disruptive impact on Washington has gone beyond what would have been imaginable in an administration led by Clinton or by any of Trump's rivals for the Republican nomination.
He has redefined the GOP in his image — no longer the party of free trade, global leadership and deficit reduction but of “America First” and cultural warfare. In a new book being published next week former president George W. Bush told author Mark Updegrove, “I’m worried that I will be the last Republican president.”
And Trump has attacked the mainstream media as “fake news” and “enemies of the American people,” casting the reporters who cover him as adversaries in a way that hasn’t been seen since Richard Nixon.
The elevated tension level is particularly remarkable at a time that the economy is strong, growing at a 3% annual rate last quarter as unemployment ticked down to 4.1% last month. There are challenges in North Korea and elsewhere but no full-fledged foreign-policy crisis. One party controls not only the White House but also the House and Senate, traditionally an emollient for action.
Yet for those who work in government and politics from both parties, Washington has been in what amounts to an uninterrupted and exhausting state of high alert since Election Day.
Trump mentioned Wednesday's one-year anniversary at a rally with U.S. troops in Japan on Sunday, taking credit for economic progress since that "very, very special day."
“There was a rhythm to Washington,” with times of controversy followed by periods of relative calm, recalls William Galston, who arrived in town 35 years ago to work on Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign. “Now it’s like sensory overload. … It’s like every six hours, a new front is opened on a constantly expanding war.”
The sense of uncertainty and peril has been fueled by investigations into allegations that members of Team Trump may have colluded with Russian meddling in the election, which the president denies. The first indictments and plea deal announced last week by special counsel Robert Mueller signaled the opening of a new and potentially explosive new chapter on that scandal.
Turbulence as a tacticFor Trump, turbulence is a tactic and disruption a selling point.
“I think the American people elected somebody who’s tough, who’s smart and who’s a fighter,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a vigorous defense of his leadership style. “And that’s Donald Trump.”
Indeed, President Trump is a lot like Candidate Trump: A combative puncher and counter-puncher who won’t or can’t back away from a fight or an insult. A master of social media who has deployed what amounts to a provocative personal broadcasting system. A critic of the establishment, even in his own party.
“I’ve never seen a man less changed by the customs and responsibilities of the presidency,” says Galson, a White House policy adviser for former president Bill Clinton who is now at the Brookings Institution.
Trump declines to accommodate to the standard practices of his modern predecessors, including his refusal to release his tax returns. In recent days, he blasted the actions of his own administration, calling the Army’s decision not to imprison Bowe Bergdahl for desertion “a complete and total disgrace” and saying he was “very unhappy” with the Justice Department for not pursuing investigations of Clinton.
This isn’t what the political experts, not to mention Trump’s predecessor, predicted.
“This office has a way of waking you up,” Obama told reporters at a news conference a few days after Trump’s election. “Reality has a way of asserting itself.”
By now, however, speculation that Trump is poised to “pivot” to more familiar ground in his politics or his persona has proven inaccurate so many times that the word has become more of a punchline than a prediction.
Even a disputed election that was settled by a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court was less unsettling.
“It was hard, but nothing like this,” says Sam Skinner, a former Cabinet member and White House chief of staff in the first Bush administration. What’s more, Trump officially filed papers to run for a second term on the day he was inaugurated to begin his first term.
That’s new, too.
“Trump’s out there doing campaign events now,” Skinner marveled. “Who would have heard of that?”