PENSACOLA, Fla. — Nearly a half an hour into his meandering speech at a stadium rally here this month, President Trump began schooling his audience on the finer points of gutting federal bureaucracy. And for a moment, he didn’t even sound like Trump.
“We have statutory requirements,” the president intoned, explaining a barrier he faces to shredding regulations. “You have to give a 90-day notice and another 90-day notice and you have a cooling-off period, then you have to give a 30-day notice before —” Trump continued, trailing off.
The master showman, perhaps sensing he was losing his 10,000-strong audience in the rule-making weeds, shifted gears. “They are all in the works,” Trump assured the throng, followers who love his disruptive ways. “And you will see a lot more cutting of regulation.”
The president has been learning on the job, oftentimes painfully, and he appears to have absorbed a few lessons during his rookie year — the limitations on his power potentially being the most difficult lesson of all. Trump was perhaps the least qualified person in modern times to become the head of the federal government; he’d never been in public service, or even completed a political campaign, before he won the highest office in the land.
The dictatorial powers the billionaire real estate magnate enjoyed as chief executive of the Trump Organization did not translate well to the Oval Office and Washington, where his every move was suddenly subjected to worldwide scrutiny.
At times he has even provided a commentary on his gradual enlightenment in the ways of government, as the White House has boiled in chaos around him. In February, as the Republican Party struggled to repeal the Obama-era health care law, Trump said that “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”
Many of the lessons are substantive and likely to play out in the early part of next year, especially if the White House undergoes more changes like the staff turnover that has occurred in year one.
Christopher Ruddy, a Trump confidant and the CEO of Newsmax Media, noted that Trump has had an uneven record on appointments to his Cabinet and high-level White House posts.
One top official who has “not gone so well” is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said Ruddy, noting that Trump was initially impressed that Tillerson rose through the ranks at Exxon-Mobil to become CEO.
“The president is getting a much better grasp of these positions, and the political appointees don’t necessarily need to have the skill set of a businessman,” Ruddy said. “I have found most businessmen have very poor political skills. Over time, I think he’s going to pick better and better appointees.”
The president has not, however, changed how he evaluates people once they’re on his team.
“If Trump has a process, it’s that the strong survive and the weak die,” said Ruddy. “He tends to try people out, and if they work out, he grows their responsibilities and magnifies them . . . if they are not successful, he diminishes them or removes them.”
It’s not just the president who’s been on a learning curve. Many of his top staffers and appointees also came into the upper echelons of government without any political experience.
Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser and former president of Goldman Sachs, said he’s sat through screaming matches in board rooms, has managed highly risky mergers, and has deposed CEOs.
‘I can call anybody now. I know every one of them very well.’— President Trump, referring to members of Congress
“Nothing compares to trying to get a tax deal done,” Cohn said last week at a breakfast with reporters in Washington. “This is hard. This is really hard. This is really difficult.”
The White House, for its part, has pushed back at the notion that Trump has learned from and adapted to his new position. “I don’t think it’s right that this town has changed Trump,” said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman. “Trump has changed this town.”
That’s most clear when considering Trump’s use of Twitter, which has not been curbed. The president’s tweets have frequently been used against him in court filings, including two rollbacks of edicts trying to limit immigration from majority-Muslim nations.
This is a lesson that it’s not clear Trump has learned. In late November, Trump retweeted incendiary and inaccurate anti-Islamic messages from a British hate group, prompting global outrage and further deteriorating the US relationship with the United Kingdom.
But in other areas he has bent to political realities that didn’t affect him in his previous roles. He’s learned that removing high-level aides isn’t always so easy — an at-times difficult lesson for the chief-executive-turned-entertainer whose motto as a reality TV star was “You’re fired.”
“He’s had to adopt to the ways of Washington; he’s had to deal with people he does not like and not fire people around him that he doesn’t like,” said Sam Nunberg, a Trump adviser from 2011 to 2015.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, is someone Trump has had to learn to endure, Nunberg added.
Previously, Trump had pilloried McConnell for failing to repeal the federal health care law enacted under President Barack Obama. But Trump is finding that flattery works better in Washington.
On Friday, during an Oval Office signing ceremony for the tax overhaul, Trump singled out McConnell first for thanks, saying he’s been “fantastic,” and recounting how the pair would talk on the phone at 2 or 3 a.m. to hash out details in the plan.
“We would speak whenever we had to speak,” Trump said. “But he worked so hard.”
It’s a lesson McConnell knows well. The previous day, McConnell had praised the president, saying he has had “a year of extraordinary accomplishment.”
Many of those close to Trump said that learning to deal with Congress was a massive hurdle for the president. Trump acknowledged this himself Friday as he signed the tax bill and reflected on his new relationships with members of Congress.
“When I came, I didn’t know too many,” said Trump, after thanking several of the lawmakers who were instrumental in passing the tax legislation. “The fact that I’ve become friends with so many of the names that I just read off, and so many of the senators, so many of the congressmen and women, I think that’s a huge factor. I can call anybody now. I know every one of them very well.”
And the president has also had to learn to endure some staff members he can’t fire for one reason or another. He has hinted that he might like to pitch some overboard, but they remain, in a sign that the president recognizes the political perils of excessive turnover in sensitive posts.
Nunberg pointed to H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, as a person he believes the president would like to jettison. But running through two national security advisers in one year isn’t a good look. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first pick for the job, lasted just 23 days and recently pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents.
The White House declined to comment on the president’s relationship with McMaster.
Firing McMaster would be nothing next to the difficulty Trump would face should he fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a onetime ally with whom he’s openly feuded. Or, even more potentially disastrous, should he put in motion the dismissal of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. The White House has denied repeatedly that Trump has any intention of firing Mueller.
It’s clear that Trump has steadied his White House since the early days, said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and a frequent visitor to the Trump West Wing.
Reed credited Trump for bringing on board retired Marine general John Kelly as chief of staff to professionalize the Trump White House. Before he was hired, staffers and outside guests at all levels milled about the West Wing with abandon.
“Kelly has done a good job instilling order,” Reed said. “Even the president would acknowledge there was a need for that.”
While much of official Washington, and the country, has been transfixed on the many uproars created by Trump’s behavior, his various agencies have cut many regulations, including rules on clean air and net neutrality.
As Trump grows accustomed to the ways of Washington, he could imperil his relationship with his core base of dissatisfied white voters who, figuratively, want him to burn Washington to the ground.
Not everyone in Trump’s orbit sees his ability to build relationships in Washington as a positive lesson learned. And there’s a fear among the nationalist wing of Trump’s coalition that the president is falling prey to the forces of convention in the capital.
“He’s much more moderate,” said Stephen K. Bannon, a former White House adviser now trying to lead an anti-establishment revolution, describing in a recent Vanity Fair profile how Trump has changed. “He’s an accommodationist.’’Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.