When you signed up to join The Masthead, I asked what question was at the top of your mind. For a lot of you, there was one simple answer: President Donald Trump. You asked everything from “Will he be impeached?” to “Will he start a nuclear war?” But for others, the 45th president of the United States is the last thing you want to hear about. “You have kept my head above the swirling waters of Trumpness,” wrote one reader. As your editors, this is our dilemma. How do we cover a subject that matters deeply to many of you, but which—journalists will be the first to admit—has sucked up a lot of the news oxygen. Today, I’ll walk through some of our coverage so that you can tell us: Where should we focus? Which aspects of the Trump administration merit further coverage, and which have been overplayed?
A STATUS REPORT ON PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP
This month’s Atlantic includes a cover package called “The Trump Administration: A Damage Report.” But that wasn’t our first word on on Trump, nor will it be our last. Our reporters have covered the presidency exhaustively. I’ve synthesized the past several months of our coverage into three distinct lessons.
1. Candidate Trump’s Foreign Policy Was Not Having One.
“America First” was a pledge “simultaneously to do more and less,” in Stephen Sestanovich’s words. As president, Trump has delivered on that incoherence. Killing the Asian-focused TPP trade deal was probably emotionally satisfying for his supporters, but, as Alana Semuels wrote in November, the deal would have imposed labor rules on other countries that could have helped American workers compete. Trump resisted the urge to simply nix NAFTA, a deal that could do with some modernization, but submitted to the temptation to threaten to renegotiate the recently ratified U.S. deal with South Korea. (He has become, as Amy Zegart wrote, the “Threatener-in-Chief.”)
Trump’s rhetoric about Kim Jong Un has left many, including Jeffrey Goldberg, to worry about the specter of nuclear war. But as terrifying as that possibility is, the most likely outcome for the Korean crisis is that the United States will simply come to accept the existence of the North Korean nuclear program. The U.S. deterred the Soviet Union’s nuclear threats for years; it can do the same for North Korea. But the signs of that acceptance will be easy to miss, as Mark Bowden explained. “No one is going to announce this policy.” It will simply be.
Unmissable, though, has been Trump’s stance on Russia. “Paralyzed by scandal and internal division,” wrote Eliot Cohen, “the administration has no coherent Russia policy.” Even where the administration appears decisive, the long-term consequences of its decisions are unclear. As Rob Meyer explained, the U.S. may have pledged to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, “but only kinda.” It won’t actually take effect until 2020. By then, he may have decided where he stands on NATO.
2. Even This President Needs His Party
On health care, “Trump has vacillated frequently,” wrote David Graham, bouncing between incompatible options. The effort collapsed because it failed to unite the coalitions within the Republican party. Similarly, Trump’s decision to end Barack Obama’s executive action on DACA “has triggered a process that will divide Republicans,” wrote Ron Brownstein. The net result will be putting DACA back on the president’s desk once the six-month clock runs out. His executive order on immigration—“widely seen as his first step toward authoritarianism,” according to Jack Goldsmith—failed for a different reason. The “ban was sloppily written, barely vetted inside the executive branch, legally overbroad, and incompetently rolled out,” wrote Goldsmith. Trump will need both competence and allies on tax reform, an issue, where, Russell Berman wrote, congressional Republicans greeted an early proposal “through gritted teeth.”
But Trump’s executive branch has been consequential in several areas. For conservative Christians, wrote McKay Coppins, “supporting Trump in 2016 had constituted a deal with the devil.” That deal paid off with the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. A voter-fraud commission run by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Vann Newkirk reported, “will play a role in an ongoing process of national voter suppression.” Attorney-general Jeff Sessions, while dodging Russia accusations, has rolled back protections on civil asset forfeiture and reversed Obama-era guidelines on prison sentences. His secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has been, from the moment of her narrow confirmation victory, “one of the most divisive secretaries in history,” and is now reviewing Obama’s guidance on Title IX protections for victims of sexual assault. As Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development, put it, “I'm glad that Trump is drawing all the fire so I can get stuff done.” Away from the spotlight, what David Graham called a “shadow government” has been “remaking the nation’s regulatory landscape.”
And so long as Trump maintains a Republican majority, he’s not likely to leave the presidency early. Impeachment? “Most serious political observers have dismissed it as a daydream—at least as long as Congress is controlled by Republicans,” wrote Coppins.
3. Laws May Constrain Trump, But Norms Do Not.
The president’s willingness to break the unwritten rules of politics has induced change throughout the culture. Charlottesville brought into the open support from white supremacists that had long been tacit. Trump’s exploitation of them has been clumsy, but he has opened the door for the next leader, warned Ta-Nehisi Coates. “It does not take much to imagine another politician, wiser in the ways of Washington and better schooled in the methodology of governance—and now liberated from the pretense of antiracist civility—doing a much more effective job than Trump.”
Trump has attempted to rewrite the nation’s relationship with the press, as well. “Modern strongmen seek merely to discredit journalism as an institution, by denying that such a thing as independent judgment can exist,” wrote David Frum, though he, too, sees Trump as too unserious to be fully effective. Trump’s assaults on taboos have left traditional politicians uneasy about standing with him publicly. “Pollution travels most rapidly by physical touch,” explained Jonathan Haidt, so watch to see who is willing to shake Trump’s hand in the coming months.
And yet being politically sacrilegious has its advantages. Trump, James Parker pointed out, “can’t go off message, because his message is ‘Look at me! I’m off message!’” His political style has inspired imitators in unlikely places, like the liberal comedian Samantha Bee’s television show, as Caitlin Flanagan wrote. “Trump and Bee share a penchant for verbal cruelty and a willingness to mock the defenseless. Both consider self-restraint, once the hallmark of the admirable, to be for chumps.” That lack of restraint, argued Goldsmith, means we may not end the cycle of political aggression any time soon. “The breakdown in institutions mirrors the breakdown in social cohesion among citizens that was also a major cause of Trumpism.” What comes after Trump? Perhaps more Trumpism.
A REPORTER’S TRUMP SURVIVAL GUIDE
The Atlantic’s breaking news reporter, David Graham, writes about staying afloat during a very newsy presidency.
When I speak to Atlantic readers, I often hear that they are struggling to keep up with the pace of news generated by the Trump administration. If you feel this way, let me tell you: It’s no easier from inside the newsroom.
Like many journalists, I got into this business in part for the adrenaline rush of covering breaking news. But since President Trump took office, it’s felt like almost every day is a five-alarm day, with stories that in normal times would take up days if not weeks of news cycle. (Remember just a few months ago when Trump revealed sensitive classified information from an ally to Russian government officials? You can be forgiven for forgetting, as I had until a colleague reminded me.)
So, how do we react to the constant cycle of breaking news? Often I can wake up in the morning, look at the headlines, and know immediately the general topic I’ll be writing on. There was a time, especially between the election and inauguration, where it felt like I was just writing about what Trump tweeted every day. Thankfully, that has abated, though his tweets are still—rightfully—an important part of thinking about a story, since they give an unusually unfiltered perspective on the president’s views.
Then the task is to figure out how to write about it. My best stories don’t tell readers what to think about a news development, but how to think about it. I’ve got a few tricks to do that. One is simply narrative. When there’s so much going on, people forget about important elements, so I started a May piece off with a straightforward chronology of the preceding days. At other times, it’s useful to draw back and focus on a bigger question. Trump’s tweets bashing Jeff Sessions are interesting per se, but I chose to write on how they represent a broader pattern of Trump being an impossible boss who undermines his aides. One of my favorite maneuvers is to situate a moment historically: While some analysts were apprehensive about Trump giving a speech about Islam in Saudi Arabia, I wrote about how American presidents have a long, dubious history of trying to explain Islam to Muslims. Occasionally, there’s room for fun along the way—like a quick look at the work of interpreters in high-pressure meetings like Trump’s summit with Putin.
I feel a lot of pressure in this. I’m far from the definitive voice of The Atlantic, but my take is often the first one we publish. I have to write in a way that is useful to readers, true to the publication’s identity, factually and analytically accurate—and, oh, yeah, ready in two hours or less.
In addressing that challenge, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about an Atlantic legend, Elizabeth Drew. During Watergate, Drew began writing a daily diary of what it was like to live in Nixon’s America, later compiled in the milestone Washington Journal. I hope that my daily chronicling of the administration can serve a similar role of marking time. (Forget matching her quality, though: Drew is 81 and still routinely kicking my butt, and everyone else’s, with her work.) These pieces are not the final word, but they should help readers understand the moment a little bit better. There are two barriers to doing that effectively. First, it’s easy to either become frantic and lose perspective on an individual news development, or else to become jaundiced and lose sight when something actually monumental occurs. Second, it’s very hard to stay awake. Unfortunately, gallons of coffee only help with the second problem.
—David Graham, staff writer, The Atlantic
TODAY’S WRAP UP
Question of the day: How can we as The Masthead help you understand the Trump presidency? (Including by focusing on other things, too.)
Your feedback: Let us know what you thought of today’s email. If you want to see changes, we want to make them. Take a survey.
What’s coming: Tomorrow, I’ll turn to your responses to Caroline’s note about public schools last week, including a bit more about private schools. And I’ll give you the transcript of our conversation with Jim Fallows.
What we’re thinking about: How to cover North Korea and nuclear war, two big subjects that led a number of you to write in.
EDITOR, THE MASTHEAD
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