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Donald Trump masters the art of the unexpected

Robert B. Zoellick
 

By Robert Zoellick

(Financial Times) – As Donald Trump’s inauguration approaches, people around the world are struggling to understand the inhabitants of the newest Trump Tower, the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC.

To comprehend the novel scene, they should view Mr Trump as an independent, not as a Republican. Other celebrity billionaires have tried to compete with America’s political party duopoly; Mr Trump succeeded by taking over the Republican nomination. As an independent, he is not bound by party ideologies or past positions. He has nominated a number of Democrats and cross-party financial contributors to top posts. His leadership will depend on preserving the bond, by tweet and in person, with his army of supporters.

Mr Trump will break presidential practice by speaking freely without worrying about subsequent reversals. Watch his actions. Such a style fits the image of Mr Trump the dealmaker, who is always negotiating — staking out audacious positions, adjusting and even disclaiming as necessary, intuiting and feeling for advantage, and then trumpeting any result as a win. His bargaining includes use of social media, insults, threats and disruptive behaviour to set the stage. This conduct may seem shocking to foreigners who have relied on US pronouncements as (usually) sources of clear direction. The here and now will override strategy.

Mr Trump welcomes celebrity attention. His cabinet choices have favoured men with stars on their shoulders, billionaires and chief executives. One hopes these people will have the fortitude to speak directly, inform and even disagree with the president in private. While Mr Trump demands loyalty, even fawning lieutenants are expendable — just ask Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie.

With freewheeling leadership, uncertainty about the enduring guidance of presidential statements and less ideological coherence than in previous cabinets, the processes by which decisions are reached will be vital.

The government machinery will expect the policy assembly line to run through the offices of Michael Flynn of the National Security Council and Gary Cohn of the National Economic Council, ironically both Democrats. Mr Flynn’s successes have not included process management; Mr Cohn has excellent relationship and market skills, but this will be his first government post. If regular processes falter, the White House will look to chief of staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Steve Bannon and counsellor Kellyanne Conway — or to the Trump family.

Setting priorities with Congress is critical for any administration. Serving under Ronald Reagan, White House chief of staff James Baker had the authority to focus first on tax cuts, to the dismay of secretary of state Alexander Haig, who wanted to threaten Cuba. Mr Trump’s Congressional to-do list is staggering in scope — a Supreme Court nomination, Senate confirmations of appointments, a new budget early in the year, tax reform, infrastructure, repeal and replacement of Obamacare, banking and energy. And that is before any contentious international issues, such as investigations into Russian cyber manipulation.

Mr Trump may rely on two experienced and effective Congressional leaders, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, to run the course for him, in co-ordination with vice-president Mike Pence. But differences will arise. Congress’s pace will be frustrating. Presidential tweets may spur — or shatter — voting coalitions.

As an independent who conquered the Republican party, Mr Trump recognises that he must look to his family for lasting loyalty. His son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka will be the real powers behind the throne. Both expand Mr Trump’s network and perspectives, but their taste for settling scores reflects the code of big city real estate developers. The media will investigate financial conflicts, which are unlikely to matter to Trump supporters — until something goes wrong.

Finally, Mr Trump has demonstrated mastery of the art of the unconventional. From his campaign through to the “Celebrity Apprentice” interviews of his cabinet — and of course, his dismissive treatment of the White House press corps — he has overturned conventional expectations again and again. Therefore, I caution international observers to discount my analysis, which is based on past experience. Prepare for uncertainty to shadow the new Trump Tower.

The writer is a former president of the World Bank, US trade representative and deputy secretary of state.

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