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What Was Most Surprising About Trump’s First Year?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone, to our final chat before the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration!!!

Or is it just “the anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration”?

In any case … we’re going to mark the occasion by looking back on what’s been most surprising about Year One of the Trump epoch.

My first question: What did Trump do in his first year that you found the most surprising?

Nate, you answer first.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I was surprised by the lack of surprises.

micah: That’s a cop-out.

natesilver: It’s also super annoying, like when people ask you what your greatest weakness is in a job interview and your response is, “I’m too hard on myself.”

micah: I’m a perfectionist.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I’m gonna call bullshit here. You did NOT foresee him firing FBI Director James Comey.

micah: (I love when things get acrimonious less than three minutes into a chat.)

clare.malone: Actually, I went back and looked at a timeline of events, and I agree with Nate to a certain extent — a lot of the things I was surprised at weren’t policy things, but modes of communication things.

natesilver: Of course there have been some surprises, but there have been fewer surprises than I would have thought.

micah: Well then … WHAT WAS THE MOST SURPRISING?!?!?!?!?!?

natesilver: I mean, Comey does come to mind. Plus a Democrat winning a U.S. Senate race in Alabama.

And maybe how explicit the saber rattling toward North Korea has been, which sometimes reads like a bad parody.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Well, I’m not surprised Trump reneged or didn’t follow through on some campaign promises, but I guess the fact that he really has moved to the right and capitulated so easily to congressional Republicans on policy is at least a little surprising to me.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Yeah, I was surprised that he largely, on policy, governed as a President Ted Cruz or a President Marco Rubio would have. He really was a Republican president on policy, except on a few issues. I expected more populism, a less-traditional GOP foreign policy, maybe infrastructure or a health care bill that was not as conservative.

clare.malone: My most-surprising Trump actions are: his North Korea tweets, his both-sides response to the white supremacist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Anthony Scaramucci hiring and firing (what a fun week!), the Comey firing, and the immigration shutdown in his first week.

natesilver: See, I’d put Charlottesville on the list of the least surprising developments.

perry: I was also surprised by the racial stuff, which he said during the campaign but I assumed he did not really mean. I thought the race-baiting was just a way to win the primary. But the travel ban, the immigration raids, the NFL stuff, Charlottesville, and the recent shithole/shithouse episode all suggest otherwise.

clare.malone: On his Charlottesville response … I dunno. It felt different from the times during the campaign when he flirted with racist themes. It felt more explicit and weird.

harry: IDK … I think Trump’s rhetoric has remained fairly constant, while his positions on issues have seemingly changed. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that.

natesilver: Trump has flirted with sympathy toward racist conduct all his life.

micah: Yeah, as Perry said, I guess it comes down to whether you thought Trump’s race-baiting during the campaign was political calculation or genuine.

We have to conclude it’s genuine now, right?

natesilver: That’s probably what we should have concluded before also, though.

perry: I might say I was hoping it was not genuine.

So maybe that changed my expectations of it.

micah: I mean, I’ve always been of the feeling that it doesn’t matter whether it’s genuine or not. The actions are what matter. If someone punches you in the face and breaks your nose, but it was an accident … well, you still have a broken nose. And if they accidentally punch you in the face over and over again …

natesilver: There’s a tendency in the media to assume politicians’ behavior is strategic instead of sincere.

clare.malone: So … I don’t think people thought he wasn’t racist. People thought he would be more restrained in the Oval Office, probably.

perry: Right. That is what I expected. Wrongly.

harry: To Clare’s point, most people thought Trump was racist during the campaign.

clare.malone: Maybe that’s a surprising thing, to Perry’s point — how disorganized the White House is.

natesilver: I mean … part of the problem with this framing is that there’s like a normal range of uncertainty, and I think he’s within that normal range for the most part.

It wasn’t totally out of character for Trump to fire Comey, for instance, even though you might not have predicted it specifically. And his lack of restraint also had lots of precedent on the campaign trail — and throughout his life — even though your median expectation might be that he would have checked himself a little more.

harry: Dare I say that people thought there would be some sort of pivot, and there hasn’t been?

perry: Obviously, yes, I expected this White House to be topsy-turvy, which is why I did that “power centers of the White House” piece. But the firing of the communications director so quickly, the chief of staff who lasted less than a year … the year has been a bit beyond “topsy-turvy.”

clare.malone: Yeah, remember those “wings” we talked about so much?

natesilver: People who said we ought to take Trump “seriously but not literally” should be pretty surprised. We aren’t those people, though.

micah: I guess that would be my answer to what’s been most surprising: That the normal Republicans have seemed to lose so much power in the White House, and yet at the same time normal Republicanism has won the day policy-wise.

I wouldn’t have predicted both of those things happening together.

There’s an unbelievably big gap between Trump rhetoric and Trump policy.

natesilver: Maybe because his appeal wasn’t based on “economic anxiety” to begin with? (Although, then again, maybe it was, which is why he’s so unpopular.)

harry: Congressional Republicans are controlling what they can control. They pass the bills they want and tell Trump to go you-know-what himself on bills they don’t want.

micah: OK, next question …

What have you been most surprised hasn’t happened?

natesilver: Perhaps the lack of economic protectionism, trade wars, etc.

clare.malone: Yeah, I continue to find it fascinating that Trump got convinced to follow House Speaker Paul Ryan’s agenda, not his own, on, e.g..e., trade stuff, infrastructure.

natesilver: Another one: Trump’s response to terror attacks, like the one in New York City in October, has been relatively restrained compared to how I might have expected him to react.

micah: I guess I also think the fact that Trump hasn’t sparked a trade war is the most surprising — I agree with Nate.

harry: I find the lack of a breakdown in Trump/Ryan relations kind of surprising. Ryan, if you remember, didn’t endorse Trump right away. And yet, Trump’s biggest problems seem to be with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

micah: That’s a good answer.

clare.malone: Well, if we believe the Ryan retirement rumors, that relationship might not be too long for the books

natesilver: I wouldn’t go overboard in declaring it a great relationship. They got a tax bill through, but not much else.

harry: They would have gotten a health care bill done if McConnell had come through.

micah: This kinda gets us into my next question …

What have congressional Republicans done in Trump’s first year that you’ve found most surprising?

natesilver: See, on this point I’m gonna really stick to my guns and say I’m not surprised by the Congressional GOP’s reaction to Trump. It’s about how you’d expect them to calibrate it given high partisanship on the one hand, but lots of private concerns about Trump on the other hand — and his also being very unpopular.

perry: The amount of time the GOP spent on health care was surprising, once it became clear in March that the members didn’t really want to vote on Obamacare and had always been talking a big game on repeal without any real plan to do it. The fact that they came back to it in September was bizarre, looking back.

clare.malone: It’s boring, but I’ll echo that the health care failure was the most surprising.

micah: Harry and Nate?

harry: I’m surprised by how cozy Sen. Lindsey Graham has been with Trump, while Sen. John McCain has, well, not been.

natesilver: I was surprised that GOP members of Congress from California, New York and New Jersey didn’t do more to protest the capping of the state and local tax deduction. That’s a pretty obscure one, though.

perry: I think — and I know there a lot of people who view Congress as only enabling Trump — that Sen. Richard Burr inviting Comey to a major hearing (after Trump fired Comey) and generally defending him was actually a fairly big slap at the president of his own party. Senators have backed up the Russia investigation in a lot of important ways, especially compared to House members. The gap between Rep. Devin Nunes (very pro-Trump in terms of Russia) and Burr is interesting.

natesilver: Overall, the Republican Congress has not always turned the other cheek toward Trump. Although the most important decisions it might make are still ahead of it. (What happens if Trump tries to pardon Jared Kushner, for example?)

micah: IDK … the extent to which congressional Republicans have let Trump get away with stuff depends on the issue. I agree that Senate Republicans have done some real stuff on Russia (relative to the House, at least), but what about on Trump family business stuff/conflicts of interest?

harry: The House has been more supportive of Trump, it feels. That’s interesting if only because there’s a higher shot that they lose their majority because of Trump.

clare.malone: How do congressional Republicans act post-midterm?

micah: Clare is really asking the million-dollar question, right?

Let’s say Democrats win the House but not the Senate.

Which seems like the modal outcome.

natesilver: I mean … the thing people get wrong — because it feels like Trump has been president forever — is that it’s still really early.

harry: It feels like no time at all to me, to be honest.

perry: In this era, I’m not sure running away from the president of your own party really ever makes sense. Fox News and other parts of the Republican Party enforce discipline. The moderates in the GOP will be the ones who lose in the midterms. I think the remaining House Republicans will stand with Trump pretty closely. Senate is different.

clare.malone: So here’s my scenario: Let’s say the Democrats win the House and vote to impeach Trump. Let’s say the GOP holds the Senate, but by a very slim margin. Do they vote to impeach in the Senate? Get a President Pence?

perry: No. Not a chance.

natesilver: Yes, a chance.

clare.malone: Because they think they would lose in 2020, Perry? Lose the base?

micah: It all depends on what he’s getting impeached for, doesn’t it?

perry: Well, if Trump called Putin in July 2016 and said, “Hack Podesta’s email on Sept. 12,” then yes. But based on the information we have right now, not a real chance.

micah: Right, I think it would take something toward the more extreme end of potential findings.

natesilver: What if Trump fires the special prosecutor or pardons his son-in-law?

micah: No.

natesilver: I just don’t think there are a lot of useful precedents for Trump, so predictions that he won’t be impeached seem overconfident.

People need to default more toward an uncertain prior.

micah: I’m just judging based on how congressional Republicans have been reacting to smaller stuff and scaling up.

natesilver: Also, I think the mentality changes a lot after a big Democratic wave election, if there is one.

harry: I’ll just say what I’ve always said: The chance of impeachment is underrated and the chance of conviction is probably overrated.

natesilver: I mean … it’s more likely than not that Trump gets impeached, right?

micah: I’m not sure of that.

harry: There’s a pretty good shot, but that’s a rather bold statement.

clare.malone: Well, it’s basically like answering the question of whether or not you’re confident in a Democratic House wave in 2018.

perry: So Democrats are likely to win House. Correct. There will be a huge push from liberal activists for impeachment.

Is that 50 percent? Let me think about that.

natesilver: Let’s say a 65 percent chance of Democrats winning the House, which is about where betting markets have it. Conditional upon their winning the House, what’s the chance Trump gets impeached? Maybe 75 percent? Plus a small chance that he does something so egregious that even if Republicans hold the House, they impeach him. I think you come out at about 50 percent or a bit higher.

perry: I think Rep. Nancy Pelosi and some of the more cautious Democrats will feel that Trump is very unpopular, and beating him in 2020 is a safer bet than trying to remove him.

I don’t know if that view will win out, but that will be the D.C. strategist view. And she listens to those people.

micah: What do betting markets peg impeachment at?

natesilver: Betting markets say there’s about a 45 percent chance Trump doesn’t finish his term, which is probably too high. But impeachment (setting aside the conviction/removal part) is fairly likely.

clare.malone: What if Pelosi isn’t speaker?

perry: I think this gets to an interesting question. If the Democrats win the House, will they only elect a pro-impeachment person as speaker?

micah: Fair question, but I have to steer the convo in another direction …

clare.malone: Boooooo!

Thank you for engaging, Perry!

micah: What have congressional Democrats done that has most surprised you?

harry: Total blockage. They’ve learned their lesson from the Republicans during the Obama years. It’s no-holds-barred.

micah: But is that surprising?

clare.malone: Yeah.

You’re surprised by total blockage?

What other option did they have?

micah: None, I don’t think. We haven’t really seen Trump or Republicans put them in a position where deal-making is really even an option.

clare.malone: If it were a different GOP president, maybe, but the Democratic base is out for blood with this one.

harry: I guess I thought there would be more compromising from the moderate Democrats in the Senate. Perhaps that was conditional on Trump having governed differently policy-wise in his first year (not as typical GOP president).

micah: Right, that last part hasn’t happened.

clare.malone: I guess there is the banking regulation stuff.

natesilver: Yeah, that’s an underrated surprise, I think. How rarely the moderate Democrats have lined up with Trump on key issues.

At the same time, I think people might underrate the likelihood of a Trump attempt to p—t if Democrats win both chambers of Congress in November.

micah: OMG

Nate, I expect more from you.

natesilver: See, the very fact that it’s socially unacceptable to suggest Trump might p—t is a good reason to think he might p—t.

I’m not saying it would be a particularly competent p—t. But could he agree to pass a big infrastructure bill with mainly Democratic votes? Sure.

micah: It’s only socially unacceptable here.

natesilver: No, you’ll get ratioed on Twitter too.

harry: Pivot.

There, I said it.

natesilver: One could argue that Trump’s legislative affairs strategy has been expedient. He wants “wins,” doesn’t want to crash the stock market, and otherwise doesn’t care too much about the details of domestic policy. So why wouldn’t he deal with Pelosi/Chuck Schumer, if it’s a bill that he thought business interests would like and that he thought might make him more popular?

micah: Why hasn’t he done that yet?

perry: Democrats have been more unified than I expected, as Nate is hinting at. I figured splitting the more moderate Democrats like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin from the more anti-Trump liberals like New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand would be easy. It might be for a more competent White House — Bush did it in 2001.

micah: Last question …

What has the media done that’s most surprised you in Trump’s first year?

harry: How openly anti-Trump the coverage has been.

micah: In a good way or a bad way?

clare.malone: Yeah, I actually think I’m basically on that wavelength. It’s interesting how adversarial the media has been, but I think that’s almost a reaction to what they think the reading/watching public wants? Like, when The New York Times reporter got pilloried for the way he interviewed Trump — that really surprised me. (I don’t have time here to get into how people expect print interviews to be the same as TV ones and it’s not the same skill.)

natesilver: I mean, I have some relatively petty gripes here, mostly related to the election. I’m continuously surprised at how a certain major publication that got a whole lot wrong in 2016 hasn’t really owned up to it. And I’ve been surprised that there hasn’t been more self-reflection from the media about how it treated Hillary Clinton and the email stories. But I actually don’t have that many complaints about how the media handled Trump’s first year in office. It has, for the most part, been trying to evolve.

clare.malone: What you’re getting at — that people haven’t reflected on 2016 coverage — is why coverage is more adversarial. I mean, it also should kinda go without saying at this point that this is a really unusual White House and the president lies a lot/makes a lot of claims that people need to push on.

natesilver: I also think coverage has gotten better over the course of the year. Like, the media seems more willing to deal with the reality of Trump’s attitudes toward black people than it was back in April or May of last year.

perry: Interesting. I actually think some parts of the traditional media (let’s say CNN’s Jake Tapper and Don Lemon, and The Washington Post at times) have been fairly direct describing Trump’s racial moves in an honest, straightforward way. People are saying “racist” when it applies.

clare.malone: But especially in the first weeks, it felt like some stories lacked context.

perry: Harry is right: The coverage has been more anti-Trump than I expected. I think much of it is appropriately anti-Trump, but the shift from kind of “both sides are at fault” coverage has been more pronounced than I expected.

Another thing: There has been some outstanding work from less well-known reporters because there is so much news happening, so there is more opportunity for new voices to emerge, which is good. Some example: the coverage of Trump’s immigration policies from Vox’s Dara Lind; Josh Dawsey at the Washington Post (who broke the shithole story); and Eric Lipton of the NYT’s coverage of the federal agencies under Trump.

micah: Closing thoughts?

perry: I found 2017 totally odd. I didn’t think Trump would be this traditionally Republican on policy. I didn’t think I would write basically a whole series of articles about how he played racial politics constantly. The president having to say, “I am not a racist,” (and reporters feeling compelled to ask him about it) was something I didn’t expect. Even for Trump, the staff upheaval was wild. I didn’t think Doug Jones would win in Alabama until it was called for Jones in Alabama. I expected the Obamacare repeal to pass, and the tax cut to pass with Democratic votes. 2016 was of course stunning on a bunch of different levels. I think 2017 was not that surprising by that standard. But it was unpredictable. McCain voting down a health care bill!

natesilver: I think 2017 (Trump as president) was less surprising than 2016 (Trump winning the general election), and 2016 was less surprising than 2015 (Trump rising to the top of the Republican Party in a field of 17 candidates).

perry: I agree with that. Well said.

micah: So things are getting less and less surprising!

clare.malone: #thenewnormal

perry: And in 2018, if the out party wins the House, it will be downright normal.

harry: 2017 felt normal to me.

micah: OK, on let’s end things on that ridiculous statement.

perry: LOL

harry: LOL

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

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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