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What Really Matters From Trump’s First 3 Weeks?

In this week’s politics chat, we try to separate the important, lasting storylines from the first three weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency from the more trivial, ephemeral ones. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

 

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Hey, friends.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): We have fewer friends than usual since Clare is “traveling” for “work.”

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): For the record, Clare is traveling for work. (No scare quotes necessary.) Nate, do you want to set up this chat since it was your idea and I don’t really get it?

natesilver: You said it was a good idea and you didn’t know what the idea was?

micah: I like the idea, but intro-ing it involves setting up the main questions and narrowing the conversation.

natesilver: Well, the big question is what matters so far from the first three-ish weeks of the Trump administration and what doesn’t. Which storylines are going to have staying power and shape the country and the presidency? And which are just shiny objects?

micah: Separating the signal from the noise, if you will. #book-plug

natesilver: Human beings have to make plans and strategize for the future. As the pace of our lives becomes faster and faster, we have to do so more often and more quickly. But are our predictions any good? Is there hope for improvement? How can we separate … the Signal from the Noise?

(That’s actually lifted from my book jacket.)

micah: OK, so let’s tackle that first question first: What storylines from the first three weeks of the Trump administration will have staying power/really matter long term?

We each get one “signal” nomination and one “noise” nomination. Harry, you get the first signal nomination.

harry: Well. I think there are many different stories. It’s been a busy few weeks. I’d argue that Trump’s inability to communicate well with Congress is a big one. I think that’s a signal.

micah: What do you mean by “inability to communicate well”?

harry: There clearly was no communication with Congress when it came to some of his executive orders. Congressional Republicans were taken aback. And since you need Congress to pass bills, it seems to me to be a problem.

natesilver: That’s definitely one of the 7,102 most important storylines so far. I’d rank it right ahead of Trump’s bathrobe.

micah: Hmmm … I’d be more willing to label that #signal if you widened it to include a lack of consultation with everyone outside a small group in the White House. Basically, is the White House’s policy process broken?

harry: What I’m arguing is: Yes, Trump has signed some stuff, but what seems to be the problem here is that Trump has shown no ability to use the system.

micah: So, I’d vote for “Trump’s isolated, ad hoc decision-making process” as being one of the real storylines of the first few weeks that could have a lasting impact. Although, the administration could easily get better at this.

harry: He is acting like he did during the campaign and relying on a small group of people with little outside help. That (i) leads to policy that clearly hasn’t been run through the ringer and (ii) makes congressional Republicans mad.

micah: Nate, you’re not buying even that broader storyline?

natesilver: I’m not sure what to think of it because those stories are based so heavily on anonymous sourcing. And it’s like there are so many things going on in plain sight.

micah: OK, Nate with nomination No. 2 …

natesilver: I think this tweet sort of sums it up:

micah: Tweeting? That’s your storyline?

natesilver: No, not the tweeting. Oh god no. NO!

micah: Trolling Nate is fun.

natesilver: I picked that tweet because there are actually THREE storylines in one here. It’s like neopolitan (sp?) ice cream.

harry: Side note: I got that type of ice cream this weekend and had it with cool whip. Please continue though.

natesilver: The three storylines:

  1. Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees itself has a pretty substantive policy impact.
  2. Trump is prepared to battle — or undermine — the judicial branch if he isn’t getting his way.
  3. Trump is tipping his hand as to a strategy if/when “something happens,” e.g. a terrorist attack, and is very likely to exploit it to expand his powers.

micah: Hmmm. I generally buy all that, but you’re ascribing an awful lot of meaning to a Trump tweet. I’m not sure that much deliberation went into that tweet.

natesilver: It’s not the tweet, Micah. It’s just that the tweet encapsulates some of the most important things going on so far.

micah: Has the administration gone to battle with the judicial branch? There were scattered reports of Customs and Border Protection officials disregarding court orders, but Homeland Security complying with a federal judge’s ruling halting the travel ban. Vice President Mike Pence said the right things about the judge’s ruling.

harry: Right.

micah: Basically, my question is how much evidence is there outside of Twitter for storylines No. 2 and No. 3?

natesilver: I’m more thinking ahead a couple of steps. It seems very likely to me that an actual or apparent terrorist attack will become the focal point for how Trump’s presidency develops. And that he’ll use it as a pretext to go to battle with the judicial branch.

It might be true that there’s more smoke than fire right now. However, he’s only been on the job for three weeks, and Trump has a pretty good track record of following through on his promises/threats when he gets the chance.

micah: OK, I get it. But there is a chance that turns out to be noise. We don’t know it’s signal as of yet.

harry: Man, Micah brought his big boy pants today.

harry: Trump has gone after a judge before. I don’t know if that means we should take him more or less seriously.

micah: No, that’s true. That suggests we should take him more seriously now.

natesilver: I mean, the probability of an actual or thwarted terrorist attack in the U.S. or in some NATO country over the next year or so has to be quite high. I’m not talking about something on a 9/11 or a Paris scale or anything like that, but something scary enough for Trump to use it as a cudgel to try to expand his powers.

micah: OK, my turn.

Signal nomination: The main check on Trump will be the courts, not Congress.

harry: I agree 100 percent on this based on what’s going on right now.

natesilver: I agree 99.9999999 percent. Don’t get overconfident, Harry.

harry: I’m sorry.

natesilver: But, yeah, Republicans in Congress have near-unanimously sided with Trump on every vote so far.

micah: OK, so if you look at our Trump Score tracker, even Republican senators and representatives from purple states and districts have supported the Trump position pretty uniformly. There are 17 Republican senators from states Trump either lost or won by less than 10 percentage points. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine (which Trump lost by 3 percentage points) has supported the Trump position about 82 percent of the time. The other 16 have supported Trump 100 percent of the time:

trump_score_0208

The dynamic in the House is similar.

natesilver: There really aren’t many signs of resistance at all. Cory Gardner and Dean Heller are from states Hillary Clinton won, and they’ve voted with Trump 100 percent of the time so far. Rep. David Valadao is from a California district that Clinton won by 16 points, and he’s voted with Trump 100 percent of the time.

Some rhetoric on the Sunday morning shows. But a lot of talk and very little action.

harry: Agree entirely with that. It’s actually record-breaking how much they’ve agreed with him so far. (More on that later on FiveThirtyEight.com.)

micah: Right. There’s still a chance that changes, depending on what Trump does. And there’s certainly been popular resistance to Trump. The Women’s Marches were one of the biggest demonstrations in U.S. history (perhaps the biggest). Trump’s immigration order also sparked protests. But those public demonstrations haven’t yet been enough to get Republican elected officials to break ranks. From the primary to the general election to the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency, all signs point to Republicans backing Trump. That goes for voters and elected officials, btw.

natesilver: A good heuristic for “Is Trump’s presidency in crisis?” is that it isn’t until Republicans in Congress begin to offer substantive resistance to him. So far that HASN’T happened. Which is why I’m suspicious of those “Trump in disarray” narratives that have become popular with the kids these days.

harry: Congress is merely reflective of voters right now.

micah: Drop some data on us, Harry.

harry: Take a look at the most recent national Quinnipiac poll: Trump has an 88 percent approval rating among Republicans.

Now if you want a sense for what it looks like when a presidency is really in trouble, look how Republicans in Congress were acting in 2007 and 2008. In 2007, the average House Republican voted with Bush 75 percent of the time, as calculated by Congressional Quarterly. In 2008, 68 percent of the time. Right now, we’re at 98 percent!

natesilver: I do just wanna point out that the electoral incentives to support Trump so uniformly are not clear for guys like Gardner and Valadao. The general election risk probably outweighs the threat of a primary challenge for them. So their 100 percent support seems to reflect something else — an effective job of whipping by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, or a fear of being targeted by Trump for standing out from the crowd, or both.

harry: Or maybe they just agree on what he’s presented so far?

micah: I mean, yeah, Congress has mostly voted on confirmations and typical GOP policy stuff so far.

natesilver: That’s fair enough.

micah: OK, Nate, give us your nomination for biggest “noise” storyline so far.

natesilver: Maybe this is too easy, but I think most storylines involving Trump and the media are noise.

micah: Wait — spell that out a little more. There’s one version of that argument I agree with. There’s one I 100 percent do not agree with.

natesilver: I’m referring to parochial stuff like who gets called on at press briefings and so forth. There’s probably a little too much obsession with Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway too.

harry: The fact that Spicer has become such a big talking point that he became a segment on “Saturday Night Live”?

natesilver: I certainly think the Trump administration’s communication and media strategy is important, and sort of fascinating, to study. And there are a lot of questions the media ought to be asking itself about how to cover the White House. But I don’t think the personalities matter very much and a lot of it is just gossip.

micah: I agree that the “who get’s called on” stuff or “where the press room is” in the White House is noise. And I agree that there’s too much reliance on Spicer, Conway, etc. But I think it’s good that the press is starting to question whether having Conway or Spicer on TV is good journalism.

natesilver: We could have a whole chat about good and bad things in how the media has covered Trump so far. As I said before, I’m pretty concerned about the reliance on anonymous sourcing, which seems worse than ever. And people have made some errors in rushing into stories before confirming facts and details. On the other hand, there’s been a big surge of interest in journalism. And some of the niceties breaking down — such as in not having Conway on TV quite as much — are long overdue.

But something like the “White House rattled by McCarthy’s spoof of Spicer” storyline feels to me like a case where there’s probably a small grain of truth, but it’s also been exaggerated by a potent mix of liberal/media wish fulfillment and anonymous sourcing.

harry: That’s merely a continuation of the long-standing meme of “John Oliver CRUSHES [insert name here].”

Now perhaps with Trump, it’s something more. He appeared to respond to an “SNL” skit, on Twitter. But I tend not to think that influences policy at all.

micah: Harry, your noise nomination please.

harry: Here’s mine: The idea that the Trump presidency has been a disaster. I think that’s noise. Some people see how he’s had problems after signing the executive orders and think Trump has lost. But the fact is that (i) all of Trump’s Cabinet nominees who have come up for a vote have been approved; (ii) Republicans are voting with him in record numbers; and (iii) Trump’s executive orders have had major policy implications, in some instances. You can phrase that differently, but I think a lot of people see problems with Trump’s communications (which are real) and think his administration has been ineffectual. But look at the scoreboard. The Trump administration can simultaneously be a communications disaster, wrapped in scandal and still have real-world impact on its policy goals.

natesilver: I basically agree with this, although there’s more robust evidence now that his approval ratings are declining.

harry: I think that’s true about his approval ratings — though, those can change. From a policy standpoint — and keep in mind that we’re still nearly two years away from the 2018 midterm elections — Trump isn’t losing.

micah: Yeah, I think this is all right.

natesilver: Let’s take you behind the curtain here at the FiveThirtyEight politics chat. Harry edited his comment from “Trump is winning” to “Trump isn’t losing,” which nullified my whole reply.

harry: Prove it.

natesilver: Because “he’s winning” probably isn’t right. His signature executive order has been knocked down by the courts (for now). His popularity wasn’t very good to begin with and is declining. Democrats in Congress are resisting him in record numbers, even though Republicans are voting with him in record numbers. There’s a lot of liberal political activity, like at the women’s marches, and that stuff can have pretty big implications down the road. The raid in Yemen doesn’t seem to have gone well, and there have been some minor (only minor so far) dust-ups with American allies.

So you can definitely say that Trump has let the other team put a few points up on the board.

And you can make a pretty reasonable case that he is losing, in fact — that things are going slightly worse than expected, even if your expectations were fairly low.

However, it isn’t a blowout, and some of the narratives are very wrongly treating it as one.

harry: Let me put it this way: I’m not sure there is a clear sign that Democrats are winning. Battles may be won or lost, but the war carries on.

natesilver: That’s fair. Democrats haven’t gotten very many wins. And as we discussed last week, they don’t seem to have a strategy at all on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

On the other hand, Democrats are out of power, and it’s hard for the party out of power to accomplish much when the other party is toeing the party line. So to some extent, it’s not Democrats but Trump himself who’s his own worst enemy.

micah: OK, let’s wrap this up with my noise nomination.

This is a tricky one because there’s a good deal of signal here too, but I’m going with … LEAKS!

natesilver: I thought you were gonna go with the Ivanka Trump/Nordstrom storyline — that would have been another good “noise” one.

micah: That seemed too obvious.

So obviously there are essential leaks that provide invaluable information about what’s going on behind the doors of the White House and administration agencies. But there have been so many leaks so far that it’s very hard to figure out what matters and what doesn’t.

harry: Forget what matters and what doesn’t matter. It’s also hard to figure out what’s real and what isn’t real. The anonymous sourcing, as Nate pointed out earlier, is rampant.

natesilver: Yeah, especially when “senior White House official” could mean anything from an intern to Trump himself.

Like those stories about how Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump heroically fought back against Trump’s purported LGBT executive order seemed to represent the Jared and Ivanka point of view in a way that I’d have found very pleasing if I were Jared and Ivanka.

And some of the stories alleging that [Bannon/Spicer/insert name here] are falling out of favor with Trump seem like they might be planted by people who want [Bannon’s/Spicer’s/insert name here’s] job.

I’m also sure that some of the stories are true and super important. But it’s kind of like the old adage: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” I assume that half of the inside-the-White House stories based on anonymous sourcing are basically bullshit, but I don’t know which half.

harry: One of the key things here is that they’re all leakers. Trump is probably leaking too. Or trying to.

natesilver: So do we think it’s significant that there have been so many leaks (even if some of the leaks themselves are self-interested gossip)?

micah: That does seem significant. Basically a whole chunk of the executive branch has said “fuck it.” Because they don’t like Trump.

harry: It shows a lack of discipline within the administration. The Obama White House, by contrast, managed to keep leaks to a minimum.

micah: Well, Obama went after leakers pretty ruthlessly.

harry: It goes back to my original “signal” nomination — that Trump is relying on a small group of folks and not running more stuff through the system.

micah: You mean my edited version of your signal nomination.

natesilver: We’re gonna make the next politics chat a LIVE chat, Harry.

micah: That’d be terrifying.

OK, last thoughts?

harry: Buy Nate’s book? … I’m kidding. When we are looking for signal going forward, the question you have to ask yourself is: “Does this have real-world policy implications?” Or, “Will this affect everyday people?” If the answer is “no,” it’s probably noise. If “yes,” then you might have yourself a signal.

Folks, a little inside information: Nate’s been typing for about 37 hours now. I hope his response is the greatest ever.

natesilver: I guess I’d just say … we all agree that Trump has had some successes and some failures so far. I might even say that the media is overlooking some of the successes, like Trump’s support from Republicans in Congress. But I’d be careful with the idea that Trump’s presidency is all just sort of averaging out to a Mark Halperin C+ grade or something. There are a LOT of ways this presidency could turn out, including some tail risks where some pretty crazy things happen.

harry: Nice plug for the article. Granted, I do agree. I’ve been emphasizing when I talk with people that it could get crazy at any point. Or it could just not. Anything is on the table.

natesilver: And to some extent, it’s important for everybody to keep those tail risks in mind as they report on the daily goings-on. Trump’s tweet about Nordstrom is probably not going to lead the country to a deep and dark place, even if conflicts of interest are a real issue. His tweet that openly says you should blame the court system when the next terrorist attack/bad thing happens is a much bigger deal, on the other hand.

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

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

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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