ED O’KEEFE: President Donald Trump delivers a rather dark assessment of the current state of America, blaming Washington’s political establishment. We examine the promises and policy shifts under the Trump administration tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) 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.
MR. O'KEEFE: Hundreds of thousands of people flood into Washington to witness the Inauguration of Donald J. Trump.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear –
MR. O'KEEFE: Newly sworn in, the president lays out his vision for America.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) Every decision – on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs – will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.
PROTESTERS: (From video.) Not my president!
MR. O'KEEFE: But his inaugural address also sparks controversy.
I’m Ed O’Keefe. Joining me around the table tonight, Dan Balz of The Washington Post, Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times, Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal, and Peter Baker of The New York Times. That’s next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
Once again, from Washington, Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post.
MR. O'KEEFE: Good evening.
The peaceful transfer of power and the pageantry of Inauguration Day is uniquely American. But President Donald Trump’s inaugural address was a rather grim vision of a country in trouble. It was a call to arms to Americans who feel ignored and victimized. The new president promised sweeping changes to improve the lives of average citizens while attacking political elites and vowing once again to “drain the swamp.”
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. (Cheers, applause.)
That all changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment. (Cheers, applause.) It belongs to you.
MR. O'KEEFE: Dan Balz, typically presidents talk about American exceptionalism and unifying the country, but President Bush – or – sorry – President Trump – (chuckles) – returned to sort of campaign themes that we had seen over the course of the last two years and really didn’t seem to try to use this as an inaugural address.
DAN BALZ: He threw – he threw – he threw tradition to the side. I think one of the questions I had going into the speech was, how much would it differ from the fairly dark speech he gave when he accepted the nomination back in Cleveland in the middle of the summer? And in fact it was equally so. It was – it was an extension of that, was remarkable in that way. We – I don’t think we’ve ever heard an inaugural address this dark, with less effort to kind of reach out to the people who didn’t support him and with – I mean, with a kind of a tone of anger about what has happened to this country and then again his desire to turn everything around.
But most remarkably was right in the opening, when he basically, with the entire power structure of Washington sitting behind him – ex-presidents, members of Congress – he eviscerated the establishment.
MR. O'KEEFE: Yeah. And at a time when there was at least three national polls out this week that showed that still a majority of the country does not hold him in high regard. He’s seen unfavorable – unfavorably by a majority of the country. Does that put more pressure on him, do you think, in the coming days, to really try to find a way to expand his base –
MR. BALZ: Well, Ed, I think if he felt pressure, he would have given some nod to that in today’s speech. I mean, he’s never going to have a larger audience to convey kind of the themes of a Trump administration. And I think the fact that he didn’t do it today is an indicator that he’s prepared to try to govern even with low approval ratings. He knows who his audience is. He’s going to continue to try to speak for them. And he’s going to push an agenda that may or may not, you know, be successful, but he’s going to try to stay true to the things that got him to the White House.
MR. O'KEEFE: Yeah.
Peter, first off, welcome back after a brief overseas assignment.
PETER BAKER: Thank you.
MR. O'KEEFE: And in that regard, he didn’t talk specifically today about health care or the border wall, but instead talked about the threat from other nations. And I’m curious if we’ve assessed at all yet what the – what the foreign reaction has been or what it might be in the coming days.
MR. BAKER: I think there’s a real trepidation out around the world, particularly in Europe, obviously, which sees a Trump presidency as something akin to the populist right-wing movements they’ve been seeing in their own countries that scare them, nationalist-type movements.
You know, in parts of the Middle East he’s viewed with, you know, wariness. Israel, though – he’s very popular, I have to say. I’ve just got back from Jerusalem. That’s certainly one place in the world that they see his arrival as a – as a good thing. He’s going to support them, finally, in their view, after eight years of Barack Obama, who they did not feel was supportive.
So you know, it’s a mixed bag, but right now I think the rest of the world’s looking and trying to figure out who this guy is, what does it mean, where does it take America.
MR. O'KEEFE: Yamiche, I know you were down on the Mall. Welcome. Welcome to the program. I know this is your first time with us, and we’re thrilled that you’re here.
You were – you were out there today, talking to folks who not only support the new president but were deeply concerned about him taking office. What was the mood like?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The mood on – for Trump supporters was really – they were so celebratory. All the things that other people are – and that journalists are kind of casting as dark, the idea of America first idea, that there’s – he said factories that look like tombstones all across the country – people – all those lines really got his base and the people who support him to clap really loudly. People were still shouting, lock her up! So there was this real sense of just kind of reveling in this victory.
But for protesters – I started my morning at 6 a.m., and those protesters that were out there, they were trying to block people’s entrances into – to even getting into the ticketed events. And unlike other protests that I’ve covered, where it might be Ferguson or it might be Baltimore, and they’re – and they’re protesting a specific thing that happened, in this case they’re really protesting the entire government and every agency and every policy.
So people are really scared. And to go to your point, people are really wary of what’s to come.
MR. O'KEEFE: And Carol, the fact that more than 60 congressional Democrats did not attend today, all of them in the House – senators were there – you know, that could have a lasting impact, really, on his ability to unite the country but also his ability to win over Democrats at all, on any attempt at policy.
CAROL LEE: That’s right. And you know, I think if you look at some of the reaction from Democrats after his speech, they were saying that it was not a good way to start off, the way that he cast the state of the country. And he didn’t seem – there was no kind of unifying tone, although I will say in some of his other public remarks after that, he was conciliatory. And you know, he was saying – he praised Hillary Clinton in the luncheon and, you know, had acknowledged her, shook her hand. And he said, you know, whoever you are, Democrats, we’ll all work together. And that – but that was much more private.
But to your point, the president is now going to need Democrats to do certain things, particularly if he wants to replace the Affordable Care Act, which is at the top of his list, because he’ll need Democrats to help him in the Senate.
MR. O'KEEFE: And we know tonight he has issued some kind of executive order that touches on this and sort of tries to ease the burden of Obamacare – is that what the White House is saying?
MS. LEE: Right. It’s not clear exactly what that means, but it’s a direct – it directs the agencies to take steps to ease the burden as they transition from the Affordable Care Act to whatever winds up being – replacing it.
MR. O'KEEFE: There was also some changes in – I believe it was in environmental policy and housing policy, right?
MS. LEE: There was – there was a – there was also a directive from the chief of staff to put a freeze on regulations, which is not unusual. And there will be a number of things. But a lot of stuff that he said he would do on day one – they’re kind of saying, well, now Monday is day one, and they’ll do a lot of those major things. And then even some of those things – you know, like he said he’ll label China a currency manipulator on day one. Well, now he’s saying, well, I’ll talk to them first. And so we don’t – kind of don’t have a real crystal clear picture of what we’re going to see next week. But I think Monday is going to be the big day.
MR. O'KEEFE: Absolutely.
Many people thought the new president would deliver a message of unity after the bitter and brutal presidential campaign. Several of his aides had hinted that that would be the message. Instead President Trump focused on things like, as he said, “American carnage,” but also patriotism and national pride.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. Whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. O'KEEFE: President Trump talked about mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities. He went on to talk about gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential, and went back to the promises of being a law-and-order president, Dan. Now, as you said, it’s just – it’s worth dwelling on a little bit more, because it was such a unique inaugural address.
MR. BALZ: There were a couple of things, Ed, that I think were important, and that’s certainly one of them.
The portrait he painted of the country – “American carnage” is the phrase that I think this speech will be remembered for. And we’ve never heard anybody at the opening of a presidency – I mean, Ronald Reagan in 1981 was in some ways akin to the arrival of Donald Trump in this way: He came in with a promise that he was going to shake things up. The capital was kind of discombobulated by his victory. People weren’t sure what to expect. Democrats were obviously very nervous. He talked about a country in crisis, a country whose economy was in real trouble. But his target was the federal government. He promised to shrink the federal government.
Trump never took that theme. I mean, he didn’t take a traditional conservative Republican theme. He took a much more populist approach. And I think that is what’s striking about the way he wants to try to at least send a message, if not govern.
MR. BAKER: I thought that was really interesting, because he – the fact it was not really a Republican speech, right? He talked about protectionism. He talked about, you know, buying American and hiring American and the ravages of global trade and open immigration. And so it was a mix. And I think, in effect, you perceive Donald Trump as in some ways the first independent president we’ve had really in our history since maybe the early days of the republic.
Yes, he’s a Republican. He is – and he will work with Republicans to some extent. But he’s operated sort of against both parties, and today’s speech was a cri de coeur against the whole bipartisan system. And if he follows that as a governing doctrine, it means he’s going to be operating in a very different way than any president we’ve seen in our lifetime.
MR. O’KEEFE: You snatched my question. So the follow-up to that, I guess, to all of you is, how then do Republicans, who run Congress, who are not fans of the new president, what – I mean, they are now; they say they are and that they support him, but we know they weren’t – and Democrats, who are still reeling from the results of the election, how do they adjust? What do we – what do we think they start doing, especially come Monday, when we don’t know what happens?
MS. LEE: Well, it’s an interesting question, because the Republicans – let’s just take the Republicans in themselves – that Donald Trump is also just operating in Washington in a different way, meaning he’s not going to Mitch McConnell to have a conversation about what they’re going to do in the Senate; McConnell’s turning around and he’s talking to various senators, and you know, he doesn’t know who – what – he’s picking up the phone and calling Rand Paul. And so there’s all these different ways in which the – this president is unpredictable for a – you know, they have what they wanted – you have control of the House, control of the Senate, and control of the White House – and yet they don’t know how he’s going to navigate that.
And you know, one other thing that you have – or they’ve learned in the last week or so is Donald Trump will out your conversations in public. And you’ve seen him do that in a number of these events that he’s been at in Washington. And you know, so there’s that too.
And so I – it’s not really clear to me exactly how they work with him or how they get things done.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, I’m thinking about the fact that Donald Trump feels like a negotiator, and he’s really the guy with – The Art of the Deal guy. And I think that one of the things that he wants people to feel like is that he wants to take credit for things that are going well. So I think one of the things that Republicans might learn to do is to not openly criticize him, at least at the beginning of his – of his presidency, and to really try to work with him to pass, I think, traditional Republican policies, because I think that if you start getting Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell openly criticizing him or even hinting that there might be some dysfunction, I feel like I’ve seen him kind of eviscerate people. And I think that that’s going to be a really a problem.
And I want to also just add really quickly I covered Bernie Sanders during the campaign. And while I was listening to the inaugural address, I thought, if Bernie had been elected, some of those lines would have been in Bernie’s speech. And that to me feels like why I agree with you. This idea that he is probably one of the first independent presidents, because you think about trade, you think about factories, even when he was talking about race – of course there are people that really have real problems on whether or not he actually believes some of the things that he says, because when we talk about how he painted the portrait of inner cities, some of that was stereotypically how he described the inner cities and African-Americans. So who he thinks lives in those places is also interesting to me. But I think that that’s how Republicans will probably –
MR. BALZ: You know, in watching the speech, I kept wondering, what must the Republican leadership be thinking as he’s going through this agenda and this set of priorities? Because they have to be concerned that they’ve got somebody who they can’t control. On the other hand, they could look up there next to him and see Vice President Pence, who they are very comfortable with, who is a – you know, is a conventional conservative Republican who has ties to those folks. So the question is, can Pence and the leadership get together on enough things, Trump goes partly in his direction, and they have a happy marriage? Or is there real friction, and how quickly that happens?
MR. BAKER: It was striking to listen to Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, rhapsodize over Mike Pence at the Statuary Hall lunch after the ceremony. You could almost hear in his praise for the vice president a sort of plea like, this is my guy, you know, we’re going to be locked in tight, and we’ll see what happens with the guy sitting in the Oval Office.
MS. LEE: But I think the question with that is how much – is it Pence? Is he going to be the one that Trump listens to the most? I just don’t think we know the answer to that yet, but certainly Republicans are hoping.
MR. O’KEEFE: I was – I was struck because if you look at the staff that’s being put together, a lot of that has the touches of Reince Priebus, the new chief of staff, who comes – of course was chairman of the Republican National Committee. A lot of the folks being brought in are longtime GOP operatives who have experience here in Washington. And yet, that speech clearly had touches of Steven Bannon, his new senior advisor; Stephen Miller, his domestic policy advisor; and virtually none of the sort of mainstream Republican messaging that Reince Priebus and the RNC and the broader Republican Party has been embracing over the course of the last few years. I mean, it was a stunning juxtaposition.
MR. BALZ: I mean, this was very much a Bannon-esque vision that he laid out. And I guess part of the question is, how did he reassure his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who’s part of the Republican establishment, the things – I’m going to give this speech, but things are going to be all right and we’re going to be able to work harmoniously, and I trust you. And so, I mean, what he set out today is so far from where Reince Priebus has been all his life, except for a – you know, a couple of touches in it, that as we watch this White House begin to operate, the potential for conflict and power centers and internal battling seems to me enormous.
MS. LEE: Not only because of that, but because you have some very senior people around the president with not real clear portfolios. And that is where you get into danger zone when you’re in the White House. It’s all about proximity. It’s all about who has the president’s ear – who’s where, who’s doing what. And when you have people running around without being in clear lanes, it can create a sort of chaos. That said, that’s something that Trump seems to thrive in. So maybe, you know, he wants it this way.
MR. O’KEEFE: And yet, you know, they take over the West Wing tonight through the weekend, but most of the government still has not been filled in. Tonight James Mattis was confirmed as the defense secretary, John Kelly as the homeland security secretary. We hear Mike Pompeo, the Kansas congressman, will become CIA director likely by the end of Monday. But hundreds, if not – well, thousands of jobs remain unfilled, which is typical at the start, and yet dozens of the top ones are still vacant.
MR. BAKER: No, that’s exactly right. And the president – the new president asked 50 or so holdovers from the Obama administration to stick around, basically, particularly security agency officials – Brett McGurk, who’s running the – or helping to run the ISIS war; Tom Shannon, the undersecretary of state. They wanted to make sure there was some continuity of government because they don’t have their team in place yet.
What was really interesting, too, about this is, as you mentioned, two Cabinet secretaries were confirmed today, but you saw today that there’s not going to be a grace period. You know, new presidents tend to get a little bit of a grace period. And in this case you didn’t get one from him to his opposition or from the opposition to him. Right from the start, you know, you’re hearing scratchiness and tension. The Democrats on the Hill today were wearing buttons, “protect health care,” meaning President Obama’s health care program. Senator Schumer gave a speech before President – sorry, Senator Schumer gave a speech before President Trump’s speech – we’re going to get this right.
MR. O’KEEFE: It’s going to take a few days. (Laughter.)
MR. BAKER: That was, you know, pretty in his face a little bit, saying – warning and setting down red lines. So we’re off to the races right from the very start.
MS. LEE: There were also a couple of those people that he held onto – you know, Brett McGurk in particular, but also Adam Szubin, who is the Treasury official who the Republicans held up for a long time and, you know, is deep into President Obama’s Iran deal. And so you can see how either really desperate they are or just really don’t understand they really need to get up to speed on this thing to keep folks like that.
MS. ALCINDOR: And what you said about the idea of not having a grace period, I was talking to one protester who’s undocumented at 6:00 in the morning and they said we don’t – there’s no time for a grace period, I want him to know from day one that we are not going to be attacked, that this is our stance. And that, to me, struck me because these young people were out there saying this is what I want you – I want it to be very clear that I’m going to the thorn in your side and you should be thinking about me. And the idea that they were really blocking the entrance of the inauguration, these are not protesters that were going to go off into a park and maybe be seen on Twitter somewhere. These were people that were in the faces of Trump supporters and were making them very uncomfortable.
MR. O’KEEFE: You know, you covered Sanders. You covered the Clinton campaign a bit. I’m struck by the fact that eight years ago tonight opposition Republicans got together at the Capital Grille downtown and started plotting how they defeat President Obama. Tonight, as far as we can tell, there isn’t necessarily as much of that organized plotting going on amid Democrats, who I think are still trying to figure things out. Sanders has a coalition of supporters that are remaining active to some extent, but he’s not necessarily leading the charge on the Hill. I mean, what do Democrats do going forward?
MS. ALCINDOR: The Democrats I’m talking to sound somewhat confused and also are trying to figure out how to pick their battles. And part of that is going to be what Donald Trump does first. So right now we’ve seen that he’s carried out his promise to attack – to attack the Affordable Care Act on day one, so now they have a very clear target. But when I saw in a lot of those confirmation hearings and I saw Elizabeth Warren running from one confirmation hearing to another, asking for a second round, but by the time they got to her she was already off grilling another appointee or another nominee. So Democrats really have to look at this field and say where are we going to go and how are we going to deploy. And also they – even though Bernie Sanders is someone who’s a voice for the party, I don’t think they really have a clear – a clear leader. I mean, you look at Al Franken, you look at Elizabeth Warren, these are big voices, but in terms of who people are looking to next – I mean, who’s going to bridge the gap between the Bernie Sanders people and the Clinton people – I don’t think that person’s really emerged yet.
MR. BALZ: Go ahead.
MR. BAKER: If there’s not a dinner tonight of Democrats akin to the one eight years ago, it’s mainly because they’re just not organized. I don’t mean to say they’re confused, but it’s not through lack of desire, right? They’re going to be no more deferential to this new president than the Republicans were to President Obama. In President Obama’s case, it was – it was – they successfully, at least, conveyed to many voters that this was Republican obstructionism, they don’t want to work with us. The question is whether President Trump will be able to do the same thing. Will Democrats who stand up to him and oppose him from day one be seen as obstructionists against a president who is trying to get things done, or will they be seen as a principled opposition? That’s always been one of the tensions of the Obama era, and I think it’s going to continue now.
MR. BALZ: But I think that one of the obstacles to President Trump is that the election went in both directions: he lost the popular vote, he won the electoral vote. He doesn’t come in with, seemingly, a mandate, and he doesn’t come in with the kind of goodwill that President Obama arrived in terms of the country as a whole. And just the public response to the Trump victory and the Trump transition and now the Trump presidency has been much more negative. So he’s got some limits and some boundaries on what he’s going to be able to do. He can’t – he can’t simply rail at them and expect that that’s going to turn the tide.
MS. LEE: And yet, he set the expectations really high today. I mean, he literally said “I will never let you down.” I don’t – that’s not even possible, and it’s just not – it’s not something – President Obama never said that. A president just doesn’t say that because there will be times when they let you down. (Chuckles.) But, you know, he was in typical Trump style, and he just said that very definitive “I will never let you down.” And unfortunately his supporters are going to be in for some disappointment.
MR. O’KEEFE: As we wrap up, I wanted, Carol, to ask you, because you covered the Obama presidency from start to finish, is it too soon to start assessing his legacy, do you think?
MS. LEE: No.
MR. O’KEEFE: Have they started thinking about it?
MS. LEE: Well, I think President Obama – I won’t – he probably started thinking about it early on when he came into office, what his legacy would look like. No, we’ve all written a number of legacy stories. There’s, you know, different stories to tell. There’s a legacy on race relations. There’s a legacy on foreign policy. People will pick apart Syria for decades, I think, and stack that up against what the president’s doctrine was. There’s a number of things that you can – I don’t think it’s too soon to look at his legacy.
MR. O’KEEFE: We’ll continue to talk about that, I’m confident, for the years to come. He is tonight in Palm Springs, California, likely hits the links starting tomorrow morning. (Laughter.)
Thanks, guys. That was a great conversation, and it will continue online on the Washington Week Extra, where we will take a closer look at President Trump’s Cabinet picks. You can find the Extra at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek Friday night after 10 p.m. and all weekend long. And while you’re online, test your knowledge of inauguration history on a special edition of the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
For now, I’m Ed O’Keefe. Thanks for watching, and have a great weekend.