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Politics Podcast: The Transition Begins

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast crew uses new data to assess the conventional wisdom about the 2016 election and looks at President-elect Donald Trump’s first decisions during the transition.

Here is a portion of our conversation that has been lightly edited for clarity. It begins near the 30-minute mark:

Jody Avirgan (producer and podcast host): Let’s talk a little bit about the news of the last few days — what it says about Donald Trump, and what it indicates about how he’ll govern as president. In the things that Trump has said and the decisions he’s made during the past five days, we’ve seen two pretty distinct sides, as we’ve seen throughout the election. And as our editor, Micah Cohen, put it, it’s kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Trump. He appointed Reince Priebus, the head of the RNC, as his chief of staff, but at the same time, he named Steve Bannon of Breitbart News — which is a website that traffics in racial animus and conspiracy theory — as chief strategist. Trump also one day tweeted about the protests that are going on around the country, saying that they were paid protesters and that they were being stoked by the media, and then he tweeted the next morning — when, presumably, someone got in his ear — that the protestors had a right to be there and that he praised them. So, Clare, is this how it’s going to be? Which side of the two Trumps do we expect to prevail? Or is it just going to be back and forth between them for the foreseeable future?

Clare Malone (senior political writer): Well, to quote Whitman, I am large, I contain multitudes. Both, right? He’s a human being. His whole thing has been “Drain the Swamp.” Leslie Stahl pointed out in the “60 Minutes” interview that a lot of people on his transition team are lobbyists. Reince Priebus is a consummate insider. Steve Bannon is not. They’ve been given equal billing, I would say, if not Bannon getting top billing for the job…. The fact that he has appointed Bannon is worrisome. Bannon has said extreme things, has promoted extreme points of view, and that is a thing that should not be forgotten. But, you know, I don’t think any of us can really tell what kind of president Trump is going to be, which of those sides is going to win out.

Jody: Harry, it seems like there’s a power vacuum around Trump and people are trying to grab onto it, and then he is also someone who it seems really actually goes with the last thing someone told him. And so, I just don’t see this tension ever fully being resolved. There’s always going to be people who want to walk in, tell him something, get approval, walk out, and say, oh, the president wants X, and then be able to execute their agenda.

Harry Enten (senior political writer and analyst): Yeah. Trump does hold some views that some people [don’t] particularly like and find abhorrent, but it’s really the people he surrounds himself with. Trump likes to have his ego stroked, someone who can change his mind very easily it seems. Just look at his Twitter account. Reince Priebus is a “normal Republican.” Steve Bannon is almost certainly not. I don’t know what the heck is going to happen, to be honest with you, and I don’t know if there’s anyone who really does know. I will say, one quick thing, is that the appointment of Bannon should not come as a surprise insofar as that the position that Bannon held within the campaign, those types of positions usually — if you win — those people get appointed to bigger roles in the transition and once in the White House.

Clare: Who Trump appoints is going to be very interesting. Who is in the West Wing is going to be very interesting. The one thing that I’m also looking to see what happens is what the atmosphere in Washington with Republicans is, vis a vis the Trump Oval Office…. People like Mitt Romney tweeted out their congratulations for the president-elect after he was elected, wishing the best of luck, saying things like, we’re all in this together. Fair. Peaceful transfer of power is very important. Harry Reid, who is obviously on the other side of things, is the only person — granted, he’s a Democrat … called him a sexual predator in a statement and brought up the things that he said, [saying] Trump owes it to the American people to have this responsibility. I wonder — and we’ll be watching closely to see if any Republican says something like that. A Republican out of office, a Mitt Romney type, whoever. Listen, I’m not naive enough to think that Republicans don’t want to get their issues done. But I do think that it will be interesting to watch how Republicans within the party, who want to remain in the party, who believe in the party … will grapple with a lot of the moral gray areas that Trump has brought up. That is a big thing that I’m sort of wondering is how is that going to shake out? Or is it all going to become whitewashed and in the past?

Jody: Sounds like the conversations we were having in the primaries and through the election in asking when are Republicans going to stand up and put their foot down? Nate, can I switch gears a little bit to talk about press and the First Amendment and what seemed to be, in Trump’s first moves, continued attacks and paranoia about the press? He had that tweet about the protests. He had a tweet about the failing New York Times again. What are your thoughts with how a sitting president is going to behave towards a press?

Nate Silver (editor in chief): I’m worried, I’d say. Now … there are a wide range of outcomes here, and one could draw an optimistic case based on Trump’s wanting to keep his approval ratings high and not really having a lot of policy instincts either way, but I worry that everyone in the press — maybe including us — are going to double down on their previous habits and be convinced that the election validated their way of thinking and invalidated other people’s way of thinking. The Times sent a letter to its subscribers that was a little vague, if we’re being honest. Certainly the way that Bannon was described … [they] were reluctant to use words like anti-semitic or racist potentially, or whatever else. That to me suggests a lot of sameness in how the press will cover it … I worry that some national news outlets are too reluctant to be clear in their language and that when there are First Amendment threats that they’ll be too steeped in their habit of using obfuscating language to make those clear to readers. And conversely, that you will sometimes have a little bit of alarmism…. He’s going to do a lot of things that are different or outrageous. Providing clarity means speaking at a higher volume at a time when there’s really a threat. It also means trying to cut down on the noise when there are things that are just weird or different or him being provocative, but aren’t necessarily dangerous. So, I don’t know. I’m worried.

Clare: Well, I think one, I want to bring up what Sean Hannity said — Sean Hannity, close friend of Trump, said that maybe Trump should consider not credentialing major newspapers like The New York Times….

Jody: Yeah, he also mentioned, I think, CNN and a few other places.

Clare: Yeah. All Americans should be alarmed by that. Listen, people make fun of the White House beat a little bit because I think there’s a little bit of a reputation for like, oh, you go to press conferences all day. You’re a stenographer. I mean, no. It’s a beat. It’s important to have a beat reporter in the White House if only to keep those people on their toes. I think a lot of journalists would say that the Obama White House was not super great about transparency with journalists. The advent of social media and things like that meant they could work around us a lot, but the free press is incredibly important and you know, subscribe to a newspaper if you don’t already.

But I will say, to Nate’s point of how people are going to cover it, will the language become normalized? … I think there will be a lot of thought into how the things that Trump does, how they phrase them. Are they unprecedented? How do you weight the language? Because you want to convey to readers, if you’re reading a newspaper, this is a thing that’s not normal as far as historical precedent, but I also think that they don’t want to piss off their sources and access, which is why I think you should be reading newspapers but you should also be reading [magazines]. They’re often full of analysis. You should read the National Review. You should read lefty publications. The onus is on us, the media, and maybe we should be better about how journalism actually gets done. We’re the only profession where you don’t have to — I’ve said this before — you don’t have to stand before the bar, you don’t have to take a medical exam. It’s all on our honor. Maybe we should be more transparent about how —

Jody: I think I took a medical exam. That was voluntary.

Clare: Maybe we should be more transparent with you about how journalism happens. Questions about what’s on the record, what’s off the record — that’s fair. It’s confusing. But I will also say the onus is on the citizenry. I’ll say this again. You need to read. You need to read newspapers. You need to read sources on the right and the left. The onus is on you, too. It takes two to tango.

Jody: Yeah, I think that’s so important to point out. I know Harry, you and I have talked a little bit about this, that we saw how isolated different parts of our country are, but it is on both sides to actively reach out. Both sides are isolating themselves, and this notion, the storyline that’s developing that the East Coast is isolating itself from the middle of the country, well, the middle of the country is retreating, as well. And we need to both reach out and find ways to do that….

Jody: Harry, we have to wrap up. Any thoughts on that or any thoughts on like how we grapple with the normalization and how we deal with a not normal political environment?

Harry: Now, I think there are a few things. No. 1, I do think Donald Trump is not a usual candidate, and he’s not going to be a usual president. I think that people should act accordingly and not try to normalize things that shouldn’t try to be normalized. That said, I think that there’s also — I heard many of the same things, you know, we have disconnect between the heartland and the coasts — I heard the same things in 2004, and you know, then people seemed to forget about that in 2006, 2008, so on and so forth. We have to be careful not to think that we are more divided than we were five years ago. We were a very divided country five years ago. It’s just, perhaps for those who live in the cities and on the coast, the country’s leadership better reflected who we know, and now that’s not the case. And in two years, it could be that things change, and then in four years, it could be that things really change. But again, I think the thing that we have to keep an eye on is the attitudes that are spoken about by the leaders, not so much the party and the sort of division [within] our electorate, which to me is, although perhaps larger than it was five, 10 years ago, is not that much larger.

Nate: I went to the FDR presidential museum or presidential library and home in Hyde Park, New York, yesterday, and man, just think about how much happened under his presidency between 1933 and 1945. It feels like we are living through such a period right now. I don’t think we’re at the beginning of the period, by the way. I think it probably started in 2007 with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, or you could trace it to Sept. 11, frankly. You know, it’s a lot of weighty stuff to deal with. I hope that we can provide some perspective. I think it’s easy to zoom too far in and miss the forest for the trees and kind of, my own personal thoughts when Trump won started zooming way forward to two years ahead and four years ahead and eight years ahead, and the electoral impact of all of that. I think very little can be taken for granted. One thing I found interesting is that if you look at betting markets —

Jody: Always back to betting markets.

Nate: Always back to betting markets — actually have Democrats favored to win to the 2020 election.

Jody: Can we just say no, no mention of betting markets? Can we give it like, what? Like five, six months? Eight months? No?

Nate: But the point is that, that’s saying this is unusual, because usually you’d expect a first-term incumbent to be a favorite to be re-elected. I’m just saying, I think taking a longer view here would be helpful. I personally plan to start reading more history and not just have my nose so down in contemporary politics. I think out of all the things in terms of the lack of perspective people had and why they were so shocked, including us, by Trump, you know, taking a broader view of world politics and different eras of American politics — I mean, that’s my only thought, really, is think bigly.

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The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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