WASHINGTON — President Trump marched into the White House in January with less government experience than any commander in chief in American history.
And it really, really showed.
He’s the guy who tallied the troubles of the nation and world in his GOP convention speech and baldly declared, “I alone can fix it.” But after watching the biggest chunks of his agenda halted by courts, Congress, and administrative fumbling, Trump and his team learned an obvious lesson in their first 100 days: They could use a little help.
In conversations with White House officials, Trump allies, and congressional staffers, there’s a consensus that the president and his top lieutenants are beginning to understand that they must learn to swim in the swamp before they can drain it. And they have to make some friends in Washington if they expect to cross anything off their agenda.
“It’s a brutal learning curve,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the influential Faith & Freedom Coalition and an Oval Office guest in the first 100 days. “You have to get everyone rolling in the same direction. When you do, that’s an unstoppable combination.”
Nobody is predicting Trump’s way of governing will get smooth anytime soon. Just smoother. They see the groundwork being laid for a recovery after what’s been widely seen as the worst opening months in modern history for a presidency.
And for Trump’s team that bodes better — if only modestly better — for overhauling the health care laws, passing some kind of tax reform bill, reforming the country’s immigration system, repairing roads and bridges, and handling foreign policy tests on the horizon, including additional provocations likely to keep coming from North Korea.
The fact that Trump even had these 100 days to govern came as a complete surprise, to the nation and to him. Trump hardly thought he would win in November, and his incendiary campaign was followed by a largely unproductive transition period, with a team that failed to put in place the basic elements needed to govern.
That’s partially because Trump hired a crop of outsiders and political people who had little or no experience in government. Also, Trump much preferred tough talk to policy details during the campaign, giving him no grounding and the public no hint of what, for example, his budget might look like, what taxes he would cut, and, critically, what exactly he wanted to replace Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act with.
Unlike the early days, weeks, and months, there are now processes at the White House for vetting policy ideas so multiple agencies get a chance to weigh in, and there’s a framework for hiring people into the administration so they can fill hundreds of still-vacant jobs.
And, critically, there’s been a realization that members of Congress need to be involved with formulating legislative ideas.
It’s winning some cautious praise from critics.
“The administration is doing a much better job of reaching out,” said Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican. “I don’t know whether that’s because they’re finally staffing up, or they realize that we’re partners, and if they want to get stuff done they need to do more with us,” said Collins, who has been critical of Trump in the past.
She credited Vice President Mike Pence for organizing small, bipartisan dinners at his official residence, including one that she recently attended, where she enjoyed having the chance for honest and private conversations.
Even Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and frequent Trump foil, says the administration is figuring out how to deal with him, at least on foreign policy: They put him on the phone with members of the national security team whom McCain knows and respects, sometimes several times a day.
“He surrounds himself with some pretty smart people,” said McCain, who added that he doesn’t talk to Trump much himself, and has little desire to.
“I’m not one of the ones he calls,” he said.
It’s a contrast with the administration’s early days, when Michael Flynn was in charge of the National Security Council. In February, when Flynn was dumped, McCain called the departure “a troubling indication of the dysfunction of the current national security apparatus.”
The new approach is showing signs of paying off for Trump: McCain spent time Thursday in the halls of the Senate trying to persuade Democrats to stop blocking Heather Wilson, a person who Trump picked two months ago to be Air Force secretary.
Nobody is saying that the 70-year-old billionaire president is changing his ways and becoming a conventional president.
Consider some highlights from the past week: His administration released a tax plan on a single sheet of paper that would add trillions to the national debt; leaked, then backed off a plan to blow up the NAFTA trade treaty; and clumsily bluffed in a weak bid to get funding out of Congress for his Mexican border wall.
“The Washington class, their heads are going to be exploding every two days, and I don’t think it’s going to change,” said one White House staff member.
Trump acknowledged that being the most powerful man in the world has been harder than he’d expected. “I loved my previous life,” the president said in an interview with Reuters last week. “I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”
The price for Trump’s education has been, as he might say, huge. Flynn is under investigation for taking money from foreign governments. Trump’s outrageous tweets included accusing Obama of a felony with no evidence, prompting weeks of news coverage as the White House fumbled about fruitlessly for evidence to back up the president’s charge. Then there’s a federal criminal investigation and two congressional probes into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
There are also hundreds of government vacancies that require Senate confirmation, a concern even to allies, who are expressing impatience.
“I’d like to see more names coming forward,” said Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican. “We need the names.”
The most important teachable moment for the administration came on Jan. 27, seven days in, when Trump issued the first version of his ban on visas for immigrants and refugees from several majority-Muslim countries. It caused mass confusion in the federal government and abroad and prompted huge demonstrations at airports around the country.
“There was so much we hadn’t thought of,” recalled one White House staffer, who wasn’t authorized to talk about the ban. “We were getting calls from embassies in all of these cities.”
The fallout prompted changes in the way ideas were funneled to the president, according to several people familiar with the workings of the West Wing.
Now, senior staff write memos about new ideas and seek input from one another, along with Cabinet secretaries.
In some cases, it’s worked. The administration recently announced another policy shift, banning most electronic devices on flights from eight predominantly Muslim countries. The topic was less dramatic than the immigration ban, but it was also handled internally, much differently, with advice and edits from various agencies, according to a White House staffer involved with both orders.
The result: some complaints, but no major problems.
White House officials and allies also point to the more recent rounds of talks on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act as evidence that Trump is becoming more effective.
During the first effort, in March, Trump gathered members of Congress into the Oval Office for photo ops and a much-publicized bowling trip. Trump initially demanded a vote, pegged to the seventh anniversary of Obama signing the bill into law. Members of Congress felt they were being seen but not heard by the president, according to several familiar with the process.
Now, members of Congress are meeting with the president one-on-one, without slick production and showboating. This is giving members space to offer the president their views without having to provide public comment on every part of the process.
And Trump’s team, which lacked legislative know-how, gained a far better understanding of how the various factions within the GOP conference work, or fail to work, with one another.
“He was much more sympathetic to the Freedom Caucus early on, but then got stung by them and is now much more wary of them,” said one Republican congressional staffer. “I doubt he knew what the Tuesday Group [an informal caucus of moderate Republicans] was before, but he has commented how he likes how reasonable they are.”
Trump’s first 100 days will pass without a second vote on health care, but by resisting the temptation of imposing yet another artificial deadline, conservative activists are more optimistic that they’ll pass something before long in the House.
Republican donors are beginning to understand that the opening comments from the White House really are just that: an opening, an early draft, often not well-framed, but ready to be shaped.
“On issue after issue, the first position turns out to be not correct, which is unlike anything that anyone has ever seen,” said one Republican operative. “You don’t get too worked up over the first thing because you know it will change.”Annie Linskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.