President Trump May Not Be Getting Much Done. But He's Putting on a Good Show

Apr 28, 2017

On the 91st day of his presidency, Donald Trump gathered industry CEOs and labor executives in the Oval Office and told the assembled cameras he was making good on his pledge to rebuild the nation’s steel industry. “We're going to fight for American workers and American-made steel,” Trump said, reading off prepared remarks. “And that's beginning immediately.”

But the promise didn’t live up to the pageantry. The memorandum encouraged the Department of Commerce to expedite an investigation into whether steel imports harm national security, potentially paving the way for tariffs. The probe itself had been set in motion the night before, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he had already put a rush on it. The memo, Ross added, did “not confer any new legal power” to his agency.

It was a familiar pattern in the Trump Administration, which has been marked by the fast-paced issuance of executive orders and presidential memoranda. The President has ordered reviews and studies on everything from the fight against ISIS to monuments designated under the Antiquities Act. Aides have touted the flurry of directives as among Trump's signature accomplishments over his first 100 days. These symbolic actions—almost always accompanied by the presentation of his signature like Moses’ stone tablets—are a central feature of the nascent presidency.

This wasn't the original plan. Trump barreled into office with ideas of quickly remaking everything from the nation's health care industry to its tax code to its trade agreements. But with his legislative agenda facing headwinds and his poll numbers well below 50 percent, the former reality television star is going back to what he knows best. When deals become elusive, he practices the Art of the Show.

Trump has taken to the trappings of the role. Not long before he took office, he huddled with White House decorators to determine how to put his stamp on an office he coveted for decades. Paging through décor options, Trump picked drapes of gold, deeming them more ornate. He shelved plans to install television sets in the Oval Office for the first time since the days of Lyndon Johnson, fearing they would detract from the character of the room. Trump made these decisions with the eye of a real estate developer who prioritized aesthetics in his business and television careers.

Every President deploys the pomp of the presidency to varying degrees. “There is a power of convening that comes from the White House, just going through the gate and walking in those rooms, and we used that a fair amount,” says Jen Psaki, a former communications director for Barack Obama. The 44th President was uncomfortable behind the Oval Office's Resolute Desk, preferring his private study or the armchairs near the fireplace for doing work. President George W. Bush enforced strict decorum in the office, insisting on jackets and cinched ties for men.

Trump believes that ceremony connotes power. He has described with disdain how former President Jimmy Carter used to disembark Air Force One carrying his own suit bag. “I always said,” Trump told TIME before taking office, “that’s not what the country wants.” He prefers to invite world leaders to the White House complex rather than traveling to their capitals, and on April 26 bused the entire Senate down Pennsylvania Avenue for a briefing on North Korea that would have been far easier to conduct on their turf.

Now, as he bumps up against the inertia of the Washington Establishment, the checks of the judicial branch and the divisions within his own party, Trump has increasingly turned to ceremony—often in place of genuine action.

"The Trump Administration has clearly learned a lesson from the Reagan Administration: the pictures drown out the sound,” says Republican strategist Michael Steel, a longtime adviser to former House Speaker John Boehner. “Images showing Trump making progress and focusing the American peoples' priorities—like jobs, national security, and border security—can have more impact than the actual policy results."

That's one reason why Trump’s days are packed with CEO gatherings, listening sessions and meetings with members of Congress. Most begin with statements to television cameras, and they often conclude with a posed photo in the Oval Office. Aides schedule formal dinners with political allies and casual drop-bys with members of the media.

While Trump's relationship with the press has been rocky—he faced pressure from some aides to banish reporters from the White House, and initially resisted the notion of a “press pool” to cover his movements—he quickly came to realize that he had the world's biggest megaphone at his beck and call. On several occasions Trump has called reporters into the Oval Office for unannounced photo ops, before retreating to his dining room off the historic office with his guests to marvel as anchors discussed what he had just orchestrated.

“It’s all about the show down there” at the White House, says an adviser to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. “They want the trailer, and we’re trying to make the Ken Burns documentary.”

The reality doesn't always match the production values. Trump has issued more than 50 executive orders and presidential memoranda, but nearly all are symbolic—such as ordering policy reviews or directing actions that agency heads already authorized. Beyond steel, he has used orders to call for regulatory reviews and expedited infrastructure approvals, but those have little practical effect on policy. He has signed 28 pieces of legislation, with 13 rolling-back Obama-era regulations under the Congressional Review Act. Three resolutions appointed members to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution.

“What this White House does goes beyond political communications,” says longtime GOP operative Kevin Madden. “They don't communicate as much as they produce. They produce events and images as if every hour is just another episode that is part of a television docudrama. So, the press conferences, the executive order signings and the busloads of United States senators unloading at the White House are all backdrops to this production.”

Some of the showmanship is by design. Aides use the meetings and signings to ensure the President feels occupied and to satisfy his craving for news attention. His worst instincts, they believe, often manifest themselves on Twitter when he is bored or believes he has lost the limelight. But the flurry of stage-managed photo ops also reflect the President’s diminished political capital and the limited legislative achievements of his first 100 days.

As the symbolic 100th day neared, Trump was acutely aware that he needed to do a better job selling himself. “He’s more aware than anyone how he’s being perceived,” says one administration official. “And when he feels he’s being mistreated, he’s the first to work to correct it.” The President told aides—whose communications ability he had previously graded at a "C"—to prepare a flurry of announcements and actions.

The Wednesday before the April 29 market was a quintessential day for The Trump Show. The White House released a tax plan that grabbed headlines, but was little more than a campaign document, with few substantive details. It staged the Senate briefing on North Korea, replete with appearances by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and a cameo from the President. All this won live coverage on cable news. But on their way out, Senators said they had gleaned little new information about the Administration’s thinking. Meanwhile, the White House worked furiously to promote a healthcare deal for which they still don’t have the votes.

The flurry summed up the early days of the Trump presidency: extravagant action, with little concrete progress.

With reporting by Philip Elliott in Washington

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