Something is happening in the final days of 2017. People are noticing that Donald Trump has gotten a lot done in his tumultuous first year in the White House. If in, say, 2014, a Republican, of either the conservative or moderate variety, predicted that in 2017 a newly elected GOP president and Congress would —
1) Cut corporate and individual taxes.
2) Repeal the Obamacare individual mandate.
3) Appoint a highly respected conservative to the Supreme Court.
4) Appoint a one-year record number of judges to the circuit courts.
5) Get rid of reams of unnecessary regulations.
6) Destroy ISIS.
7) Approve pipeline projects and new oil drilling.
— then a lot of Republicans would probably have cheered. Loudly.
No need to go through the litany of complaints against the president or the succession of hair-on-fire, Twitter-fueled controversies that have marked the wildest first year ever in presidential politics. Or the special counsel investigation into the Trump-Russia affair that some Democrats (and some NeverTrump Republicans) hope will result in Trump’s removal from office. Despite it all, Trump has racked up a solid record of first-year accomplishment.
It would not be a great surprise if much of Trump’s second year consisted of reminding 2018 midterm voters of how much he did in his first year. Maybe that will be enough to keep Republicans in control of House and Senate, although the historical averages alone — presidents tend to lose a lot of congressional seats in their first midterm — argue against it.
And Trump’s second-year agenda is unclear. There has been talk about an infrastructure bill. About welfare reform. But it seems likely that what Trump does in his next year will be anchored in his unilateral executive authority, just like his first year.
Perhaps the critical factor in whether Trump can succeed from a policy standpoint next year is whether he is able to attract high-quality people to his administration.
On many, many occasions during the campaign, candidate Trump promised he would hire only the “best people” if he were to win the White House.
The recent, noisy departure of Omarosa Manigault-Newman showed that was not true. So did the brief tenure of Anthony Scaramucci. And Sebastian Gorka. And others. In the Trump White House, there have been White House staff who had no business being White House staff.
Of course, the president has hired many first-rate people, too, in the White House and across the administration: John Kelly, Mike Pompeo, James Mattis, Neomi Rao, H.R. McMaster, Nikki Haley, Marc Short and more. The question now, with the coming, inevitable departures from his administration, is whether the president can convince the best people, or even just really good people, to work for him.
The first thing a potential high-ranking Trump hire has to consider is the sheer difficulty of working for Donald Trump. Throughout the campaign and in the White House, Trump’s instincts have been remarkably consistent with those of many Republicans (and some independents) across the nation. But working in the atmosphere that he has created, and thrives in, can be a trial. What Trump needs in the second year are people who can endure that trial and focus on the president’s political instincts.
“He needs people more aligned with him,” noted one Republican lawmaker in a text exchange recently. “Not toadies -- Pompeo and McMaster disagreed with him on Afghanistan and persuaded him -- but people more in general alignment with his instincts. His key cabinet members and White House advisors need to channel his instincts in a constructive fashion for the country, helping him achieve his goals.”
“There are so many top-notch people on the sidelines,” noted another GOP lawmaker.
A significant part of the problem is this: In the supercharged atmosphere of Washington, a prospective Trump aide (and his or her spouse) can face intense professional and social disapprobation from being associated with the president.
“They definitely can,” said yet another Republican lawmaker. “I think there needs to be 1) more assurance that Trump and the administration have their backs (I’m thinking of the ‘mean’ tweet from Trump about the House Obamacare repeal bill), and 2) more assurance that the Senate will get them through the approval process. Russ Vought (nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget) is still waiting for his confirmation vote, and the same with Tom Garrett for Ex-Im Bank.”
If, as expected, some on the Trump team head for the exits in the new year, the problem will become more serious.
Personnel isn’t sexy. And the key person in Trump’s policy successes is Trump himself. But the president will need the actual “best people” if he is to make his second year as consequential as his first.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.