Trump Tower is starting to seem like the Trump Tower of Babel.
But there are a couple of ways of looking at the collision of voices and views that appears to be taking place within the glitzy Fifth Avenue skyscraper.
The ungenerous way is to view the infighting over power and nominees as evidence of an undisciplined administration-to-be in which veterans of the unorthodox campaign are refusing to cede control to Republican establishment pros. The fresh-from-battle guerrilla army apparently doesn’t want to put on uniforms and march in formation.
In a video on Nov. 21, Trump told the nation that “our transition team is working very smoothly, efficiently and effectively.” But that was almost a month ago.
A Politico story this week quotes an insider as describing the scene in the Tower as “vitriolic,” with two of Donald Trump’s most important aides and their lieutenants at odds – campaign chieftain turned senior strategist Steve Bannon and Republican National Committee chairman turned Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
The president-elect, whose reality-TV show The Apprentice pitted teams of contestants against each other in their quest for a job with the Trump Organization, likes the fireworks that arise from competing factions, according to Politico. It says that he “seems to be relishing the idea of presiding over a divided administration.”
But there is another way of looking at the sharp-elbows jockeying over which side will put more allies in place within the new administration – a contest that Priebus and the organized team he brought over from the RNC seems to be winning over Bannon, his big-money backer Rebekah Mercer and other voices of the radical right. (Preibus’ latest win: Ronna Romney McDaniel, chair of Michigan Republican Committee and a niece of Mitt Romney, is in line to be the new chief of the RNC.)
Beyond the competition for influence in his cabinet picks and other high-level appointments, Trump seems to be building an administration in which positions that may diverge from his are allowed and even encouraged.
Other administrations have come to power with arguably far less willingness to entertain conflicting viewpoints, even those within a certain spectrum.
For example, in his candidate for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump has chosen an oil executive who has acknowledged that humankind is a factor in climate change. But shortly after a meeting with former Vice President Al Gore, the well-known prophet of global warming, Trump nominated climate change skeptic Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
One of Trump’s signature positions on the stump was cracking down on illegal immigration and building his famous wall on the border with Mexico. Yet he nominated Andy Puzder for Labor Secretary; if confirmed, the CEO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s would have no direct role in stopping the flow of illegals, but he is on the record as saying trying to send home 11 million undocumented workers is not feasible, and in the past he has indicated support for a path to citizenship.
In a statement last week, Puzder seemed to repudiate some of those positions, but not everything he said Saturday about standing up for American workers is inconsistent with what he has said before.
More important, Trump has nominated former Marine General John Kelly to be secretary of homeland security. In that role, Kelly would be directly responsible for halting illegal immigration. However, as Yahoo News reported last week, the choice was a disappointment to hardliners because the general’s views are suspect.
In a 2015 interview, at a time when he led the U.S. Southern Command, Kelly told an interviewer: “Last year, we had 70,000 unaccompanied minors move to the United States up through Mexico, trafficked very efficiently. Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson would tell you that an audit to deport any of those children is a four or five year process and a quarter of million dollars, with almost a zero chance they’ll go home. Frankly they’re better off in our country. I’m not saying they should stay, but they’re better off here.”
Trump has said that the person he relies on most for advice is the face he sees in the mirror every morning. But a willingness to entertain an array of opinions is a healthy sign for any presidency.