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Chat: The Biggest Surprises Of The Trump Presidency So Far

In this week’s politics chat, we look back on the first month of President Trump’s tenure and talk about what we were most surprised by. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

 

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome! Today’s topic: What’s been the most surprising thing about the Trump presidency in its first 30 days? This is pretty straightforward. Someone gives a nomination, we debate it, and then the next person goes, and so on. (I’d also be interested if readers have suggestions — tweet ’em to @538politics.)

To decide who goes first, pick a number between 1 and 10 — closest to the number I’m thinking of wins.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): 10.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): 5.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): 4.

micah: The number was 4. Harry was so close.

clare.malone: I go first?

micah: Yes.

clare.malone: Micah, you could be duping us about what the number is. But I’ll still go.

I think the most surprising thing about Trump’s presidency so far is the way he has continued to undermine democratic institutions, even though he won the presidency.

My thoughts on this point are twofold:

  1. His continued talk about votes illegally cast in the election.
  2. His tweets about the court system, which I think engaged in some dangerous rhetoric that perhaps I was naive in thinking wouldn’t happen once he was president.

harry: What’s interesting about this (and perhaps for many of these) is that we expected Trump to change. I don’t know why we think he’ll pivot, but he never does. I guess we thought he’d become more presidential?

natesilver: I’m surprised that people are so surprised. That’s my biggest surprise.

clare.malone: You guys are putting words in my mouth.

I never said that I expected for him to change — what I’m saying is that I don’t think I predicted that he would talk about, say, the court system in particular.

I think all the talk in recent weeks about how “some of us” knew to take him literally is too cute by half.

natesilver: Are you subtweeting me, Clare?

clare.malone: I’m doing it to your face, Nate, not subtweeting! A lot of reporters/people were taking seriously and literally what Trump was saying during the campaign, but I think I can still sit here and safely say that not many of us could have imagined the president of the United States subverting the court system.

harry: #subslack

natesilver: I don’t necessarily think there was any guarantee that Trump wasn’t going to pivot. But not pivoting was a distinct possibility.

And there are echoes of almost everything he’s done so far in the campaign.

micah: But I think Clare’s point is the particular way in which he’s not pivoted?

harry: The political science literature says candidates keep their promises.

natesilver: I don’t think that’s the right framework either, though, Harry.

harry: So basically you’re just disagreeing to disagree, Nathaniel?

clare.malone: I don’t think talking about the vote count being rigged was a campaign promise. It was something he DID during the campaign but wasn’t a thing he promised to continue, right?

harry: You’re taking me too literally and not seriously enough.

clare.malone: I’d prefer to stay on the narrow point here — I think it’s most instructive.

harry: My point was that candidates tend to follow through on what they say during the campaign. Promise or not. And Trump made a lot of noise about vote counting, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he keeps doing it.

clare.malone: Yeah, but I think this is different. That can’t be what that study says, right? It’s got to be more about policy than rhetoric. And what I’m talking about here is a specific kind of rhetoric that I think goes beyond “voter fraud,” a line that’s been floating through GOP candidate speeches for years.

micah: What specific kind of rhetoric?

clare.malone: Courts. Votes.

natesilver: I guess what I’m sort of trying to figure out is how far Trump will go to push boundaries, in terms of “acceptable” political conduct and discourse. Is he violating norms more than he did during the campaign? Less so? What’s the trajectory? Has there been any change from the first week of the presidency to the fourth one?

And I think it’s a pretty flat trajectory.

micah: Anti-institutional rhetoric.

clare.malone: Sure, you can look at it that way. In which case, throw in attacks on the press.

micah: I normally side with Clare in these chats, but I think I disagree here. The trajectory seems pretty flat to me too. It’s definitely shocking, but I’m not sure it’s surprising.

clare.malone: I’m fine to be the cheese standing alone.

micah: To be fair, it’s hard for me to remember whether I expected Trump to soften his rhetoric after winning.

harry: I actually tend to think Trump telegraphs himself fairly well.

micah: I remember finally signing onto the “Trump won’t change” line in August or September 2016.

harry: The one point where we thought Trump might change was after his victory speech. It was gracious.

micah: Harry, you were next closest. You’re up.

harry: I’m a bit surprised at the almost total lack of movement on reforming the Affordable Care Act.

micah: That was mine.

natesilver: Health care is one heck of a thing to take on. And maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the Affordable Care Act became more popular once it became under threat.

micah: Maybe it shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised.

clare.malone: I thought you guys weren’t surprised at anything!

micah: Nate apparently isn’t

harry: This is something the Republican Party has been screaming from the mountaintop for years. Trump campaigned on it. And what has happened? Aside from a budgetary measure passed in January, there’s really been nothing but infighting about different possible measures.

natesilver: I was surprised when Trump won the nomination, Clare!

micah: Let’s please not go back to the election.

natesilver: To some extent, it was that period from mid-2015 to mid-2016 when we learned Everything Was Different. But it’s like people didn’t revise their priors enough.

clare.malone: Well, I think the ACA not being moved on has something to do with the Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination — his nomination meant that there was one campaign promise being fulfilled, and it took up a lot of air in the room and distracted people from a lack of substantive conversation around the ACA.

micah: Yeah, also all the controversies.

clare.malone: All of that makes people forget for a little bit what was promised on the stump, to return to promises.

natesilver: Here’s something I’m a little surprised by, which is somewhat related to the ACA stuff. I thought Trump would work with Republicans to pass some big tax cut by now. And that’s gotten stymied in part because they can’t pass a tax cut without screwing up their repeal and replace path on ACA.

micah: By now? We’re only a month in.

harry: It’s normal for it to take time for Congress to get its act together.

natesilver: I’m surprised that there isn’t really even any talk about one. Because tax cuts can be fairly popular — certainly more so than ACA repeal — and would do a lot to unite Trump and the Republicans in Congress.

harry: All the oxygen is being sucked out by Gorsuch and immigration.

clare.malone: Do we think this has to do with their legislative bandwidth being expended on nominee confirmations and that it’ll happen soon?

micah: Wait, let me broaden that question out, Clare. Do you all think that the lack of movement on the ACA is about Trump’s early stumbles/Cabinet confirmations taking longer than expected and that eventually Congress and the administration will get their act together? Or is the delay of repeal and replace more about the law becoming more popular, and when you actually get down to replacing it, you run into a lot of problems? In other words, is the delay so far more logistical? (Suggesting that it can be ironed out.) Or is it more political/substantive? (Suggesting that it might not happen.)

natesilver: On taxes, again, the issue as I understand it is that they have to do health care first, because of the reconciliation instructions that they used.

micah: That doesn’t answer the question.

natesilver: I think passing big, complex, detailed pieces of legislation requires a high degree of competency, and I’m not sure how much of that there is in the White House.

clare.malone: Well … what’s the replace option? I think we don’t really have a clear idea about it, right? And once they get to the point of telegraphing what the plan is, they’ll probably want to be clear that they want to keep the parts that people like (presumably).

harry: I think the delay is more policy-oriented. Look at the backlash against the Cassidy-Collins replace plan from conservative writers like Philip Klein. Klein called their plan “Obamacare Forever.” I don’t see how you can iron that out.

micah: Maybe it’s both competency and policy.

natesilver: Getting buy-in from conservative intellectuals is part of the White House’s job.

micah: OK, Nate, you’re next.

natesilver: Well, I already mentioned the lack of movement on tax policy. I need another one, I guess?

micah: You do.

harry: Nice try.

micah: Stand by for media criticism in 3… 2…

natesilver: I suppose I’m surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t be, by how much it still feels like the campaign, in terms of the frenzied pace of news coverage.

harry: KNEW IT.

natesilver: Nobody learned anything, I don’t think.

harry: Well what have you learned?

micah: Nate, the media is always frenzied, but I think there’s been a good deal of effort to focus on “what matters.”

natesilver: Oh, I totally disagree. I don’t think people realize how close they are to the subject.

clare.malone: Should we just post Nate’s 170-part series here?

natesilver: And so we’ve had a like 36-hour news cycle on fucking Milo Yiannopoulos. It’s amazing how distracted people get from day to day.

harry: At least it’s no longer the top story on Memeorandum.

micah: So, as of Tuesday afternoon, it’s hard to find that story on The New York Times site. It’s still on the Washington Post homepage, but one among many stories. [Editor’s note: As of Tuesday evening, actually, the Yiannopoulos story was leading the Post’s site and prominently featured at the Times. So, I was right for a couple of hours only.]

clare.malone:

micah: Sister citation!

Nate, your argument is basically that all of media covers lots of things.

natesilver: I have a long and complicated argument, as my 6,132-part mini-series attests to. But basically I think there’s a huge amount of groupthink and herd behavior in how Trump is covered. And a lot of confirmation bias for narratives that aren’t really backed up by all that much evidence. Those are my fundamental critiques.

micah: Oh, well, those are different critiques than what you originally said.

natesilver: Well, and that people get distracted.

micah: Distracted from what?!

natesilver: I’ll turn around the question like so: How often has the same story held the news cycle for more than 48 hours at a time? The Michael Flynn flap and the immigration executive order. Pretty much it, right? Maybe the Women’s Marches?

harry: Gorsuch got plenty of coverage — but, I mean, we’re a 24-hour news cycle nation. What do you expect? This isn’t PBS NewsHour here. (Love that show.)

clare.malone: OK, we could talk about loss of focus on the Russia story. I think that’s a good one.

micah: Isn’t Flynn part of the Russia story?

clare.malone: Until the Flynn reports, people hadn’t talked about the Russia stuff for two weeks, really.

natesilver: It’s adjacent to it, but the non-Flynn parts of the Russia story have fallen somewhat flat.

micah: OK, I’ll concede that. What have the three most important stories of the Trump presidency so far been? I’ll answer my own question …

clare.malone: Typical editor.

micah: It’s immigration order, Russia, protests. Those three things have gotten a ton of coverage.

harry: In no particular order: 1. Trump immigration executive order. 2. Gorsuch nomination. 3. Flynn resignation. (I’m doing specific things here involving Trump.)

micah: Attention lapsed on Russia for a bit, but otherwise I think the media has done a decent job … while also following the ACA stuff, the tax reform stuff.

OK, I want to stop talking about the media. My turn. (Notice how I made an argument and didn’t give people the chance to respond.)

natesilver: Micah Spicer-Cohen

harry: Commander Micah Spicer-Cohen

micah: My most surprising thing: that Bernhard Langer was at the center of a major political story. And I win.

natesilver: Oh come on.

harry: That’s trash.

micah: You want something more substantive?

natesilver: That’s not even like funny ironic; that’s just a cop-out.

micah: OK, real one …

That Democrats (elected officials) have been so disorganized/sloppy/crappy in their opposition to Trump so far.

harry: Interesting, because I’d argue that I’ve been surprised at the grassroots organizing that is so anti-Trump so early in the administration.

clare.malone: Yeah, but that’s grassroots.

micah: The grassroots has been out in force.

clare.malone: I think that’s an interesting one, Micah.

micah: Better than Langer?

natesilver: I thought the Democrats’ lack of a plan to deal with Gorsuch was surprisingly bad.

clare.malone: Democratic politicians appear to be looking to see in what direction their base goes. They don’t want to be seen as dictating top-down after such an embarrassing loss.

micah: They were bad on Gorsuch. They were all over the place on Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Like, why did Jeff Sessions skate through (relatively speaking)?

harry: Well, they got most of the caucus to vote against these nominees. I wouldn’t call it “skating through.”

micah: But it was pretty inevitable that Democrats would vote “no” en masse against Trump’s Cabinet picks.

natesilver: The fact is that Democrats don’t have very much power right now.

micah: It seemed to me like they made a much bigger push against Betsy DeVos than Sessions.

harry: Was it? We both know there’s been record opposition against Trump’s Cabinet picks.

clare.malone: We’ve talked about this offline, but it was interesting to me that Democrats didn’t push harder on Sessions and just followed the viral video outrage at DeVos. Sessions has more power.

Yeah, Micah ^^^

micah: Yes, Clare ^^^

natesilver: Maybe they made a bigger push against DeVos than Sessions because it was plausible that she could lose the confirmation vote?

clare.malone: Well, I also think that ground had been softened for them by how bad her confirmation hearing was. Also … I think there was some sexism.

I don’t want to get into it here, but I think people were really eager to paint her as a dummy. They pinned that rich, dumb lady narrative on her reaallll quick and with a certain gusto.

micah: Yes. Have Democrats really taken down a Trump nominee yet? Does Andrew Puzder count?

clare.malone: Yeah. OPRAH.

natesilver: Sure, Puzder counts.

micah: Hmmm… Didn’t Republicans take him down because he was too pro immigration on top of having a bunch of other problems, including Oprah?

natesilver: One interesting wrinkle here is that it takes 51 votes to scuttle a Cabinet nominee, and there are 48 Democrats.

clare.malone: #math

natesilver: #winning

micah: Anyway, even beyond the nominees. What’s the Democratic message been?

Anyone?

clare.malone: ummm

micah: Bueller?

clare.malone: “Trump bad”

harry: Anti-Trump.

micah: Right. That didn’t work during the campaign..

clare.malone: It’s … the same message Hillary Clinton had. Gulp.

harry: Yes, but it’s not the campaign anymore. Well, not that campaign anymore.

natesilver: “TRUMP BAD” is not a bad message for the midterms, necessarily

harry: Right. What was the Republican message in 2010? Mostly anti-Obama if I recall.

natesilver: Because in the midterms, you sort of don’t have to present an alternative in the way you do when you have your own presidential candidate. Especially when the other party controls Congress too. The argument (often explicit) is that you provide a check on the president’s power.

micah: Yeah, but Democrats don’t have the same built-in midterm advantages that Republicans have.

natesilver: Mostly false.

micah: I’m not sure a pure opposition message works for them. There are more GOP-leaning districts than Democratic-leaning districts. Democrats have to win Republican-leaning districts to win a majority in the House. Republicans need not win Democratic-leaning districts.

How so?

natesilver: People are formulating lots of “Iron Laws Of The Midterms” based on how they worked in 2010 and 2014, when Obama was president. Democrats had a pretty sensational midterm the last time a Republican was president, in 2006.

harry: I’d say the one thing we learned from this past year was that we need to take into account larger samples when possible in terms of making inferences about how politics works.

micah: I didn’t propose any iron laws.

harry: It could be the case that the Democratic coalition — (i.e., young and non-white) — isn’t built for a midterm because those groups turn out at lower rates in off-years. You could also argue that Clinton doing better among voters with more education could lead to them having a strong turnout in a midterm election.

Look, Micah, if I don’t take what you say and create a straw man, how am I supposed to chat?

clare.malone: I can’t even remember what Micah’s original point here was.

natesilver: In Slack Chat, A Straw Man Argument.

I agree with Clare. What was your actual point, Micah?

micah: Democrats have a bad message.

clare.malone: Still.

natesilver: Again, I’d say mostly false.

micah: Or, an incoherent message.

Or, no unified message.

Or, no message beyond “Trump bad.”

Yeah, that last one.

natesilver: I think their message is … fine, I guess … as far as their prospects for 2018 go. It’s if they wanted to block specific things from happening, they haven’t been very effective at that. Like maybe they’d have had a 20 percent chance of stopping Gorsuch instead of a 10 percent chance if they’d been better organized.

micah: So you agree with me, Nate. They have a suboptimal message in terms of preventing policies they oppose.

natesilver: The goal of the opposition party is to win elections.

clare.malone: And just to be clear, we’re saying their message is “Trump bad”?

micah: That’s the most common message I’ve seen, Clare. And if they couldn’t get to 20 percent instead of 10 percent — that’s not a good message.

clare.malone: I mean, as an opposition party, I suppose it’s easiest to have a defensive message. Or a negative message, more precisely.

harry: Opposition parties are opposition.

micah: Yeah, the best countargument to my point — which none of you have made — is that it’s too early. Democrats need time to coalesce behind new leaders and a new message.

natesilver: If the Democratic base is riled up, maybe that means the message has been pretty successful?

micah: Eh, that’s too easy. Of course they’re riled up. The question is what comes of it.

natesilver: I expect — maybe naively — that Democratic messaging will be fairly good on the ACA.

clare.malone: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

natesilver: The attendance at these congressional town halls is certainly something.

harry: What do we know? We know that there’ve been high-profile Republicans who have decided not to run for higher office. We know that Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois is staying in the House rather than running for governor, despite being in a district that swung toward Trump. We know Democrats are having a fairly easy time recruiting for the Virginia elections coming up later this year. All that, to me, suggests that Democrats have been somewhat successful.

micah: We gotta wrap, but before we do — as another measure of how surprised we’ve been — let’s revisit “The ‘Most Powerful Political Players Of 2017’ Draft Extravaganza!!” As a reminder, in mid-December, we each drafted public officials who we thought would be the most powerful people in the Trump era.

natesilver: Oh no.

micah: Ready …

natesilver: I was hoping we’d run out of time.

clare.malone: omg I need to eat lunch.

micah: Here are the teams.

Micah’s:

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Mitch McConnell
  3. John Roberts
  4. Bernie Sanders
  5. Kellyanne Conway
  6. Heidi Heitkamp

Harry’s:

  1. Cory Booker
  2. Anthony Kennedy
  3. Tom Perez
  4. Jerry Brown
  5. Nancy Pelosi
  6. Reince Priebus

Nate’s:

  1. President Obama
  2. Paul Ryan
  3. Rex Tillerson
  4. Ivanka Trump
  5. Elizabeth Warren
  6. Steven Mnuchin

Clare’s:

  1. Mike Pence
  2. Jeff Sessions
  3. Steve Bannon
  4. John McCain
  5. Chuck Schumer
  6. Joe Manchin

natesilver: So, Clare’s is by far the best team. Harry’s is incredibly awful, but we knew it at the time. Micah, your team and mine have been busts, let’s face it.

micah: Yeah, Clare’s has definitely fared the best so far.

harry: The hell. Your team is trash, Nate.

natesilver: Cory Booker? Jerry Brown?

clare.malone: Cory Booker went to the airport. That was his moment.

micah: No one picked Puzder.

harry: At least I didn’t pick Obama. I don’t even know who that is. Ivanka Trump has been seeing her clothing line die.

natesilver: Obama was president for almost 20 days this year!

harry: And no one has heard from Steve Mnuchin in like 20 years.

micah: I still think my team is the best, by some distance, but Clare’s has closed the gap. Harry’s and Nate’s are waaaay behind.

harry: Clare’s is good.

clare.malone: I never doubted my team for a moment.

micah: Final thoughts?

natesilver: Ivanka and Jared Kushner quashed an anti-LGBT executive order, according to my sources Blavanka Blump and Mared Mushner.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s managing editor.

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