Trump never “pivoted,” as candidates are supposed to do when they win their party’s nomination and begin campaigning in the general election. And he has continued to not pivot as president, even despite pundits breathlessly observing him “becoming president” on the night of his first speech to a joint session of Congress. Despite the presence of moderating influences in the White House who have, sometimes successfully, pulled him away from the nationalist impulses that drove his candidacy, Trump hasn’t changed--and there’s no evidence he ever will. He is one of the least conventional candidates to ever win the office.
Trump has had a profound effect on an American political culture already heavily weighted toward entertainment. The battles in the White House play out on cable news, the palace intrigue akin to a season of The Real World. Who will win this round — Steve Bannon or Jared Kushner? Gary Cohn or Peter Navarro? Trump himself views the world through the prism of media coverage, is obsessed with cable news, and acts accordingly. It’s the entertainment presidency. And despite the stasis on policy—the U.S. is still in the North American Free Trade Agreement, and serious tax reform looks unlikely this year—Trump’s unconventional approach has changed the debate surrounding these issues in ways that could eventually have real impact. It’s Trump who has made renegotiating or terminating NAFTA into a live issue, and who has expanded the range of tax proposals being seriously debated.
Those two issues offer a glimpse into how much Trump has changed the presidency, even as he struggles to change policy. He came close last week to signing an executive order that would withdraw the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he has repeatedly promised to renegotiate if not terminate—only to back down after speaking to the leaders of Canada and Mexico.
On tax reform, his team rushed out a one-page plan last week that was roundly mocked in Washington as half-baked; a source close to the White House said that Sean Hannity and most of the presidential staff had encouraged the president to focus first on health care, saving taxes for after Obamacare had been repealed. (Hannity declined to comment.) Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had said previously that tax reform probably couldn’t get done this year.
But after an op-ed by Larry Kudlow, Stephen Moore, Steve Forbes and Art Laffer in The New York Times last week urging tax reform forward, the plan went ahead.
Kudlow said he had been at the White House on Tuesday and Wednesday and he and the others have “made their views known.”
“We were down there yesterday, we were in the West Wing,” he said on Thursday. It was a dramatic example of how Trump’s willingness to operate outside the usual policy process, and to accept advice from informal advisors, has reshaped the way debates are unfolding.