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U.S. presidency: It’s Donald Trump vs. Everyone Else

The American presidency is no enclave of serenity, the White House no island of tranquillity. Some presidents clash with Congress, others with the bureaucracy. Some chief executives fight with the State Department, some with the intelligence community, a few with the judiciary. And many wrangle with the press.

The Donald Trump difference is that, just weeks into his presidency, he is at war with them all – and all at once.

Mr. Trump, a self-proclaimed rebel swept into office by a populist insurgency, has vowed to "drain the swamp" of the capital. Swamps, with their snakes and alligators, are dangerous ecosystems, their denizens eager to mount fights of their own. In the case of Washington and Mr. Trump, the swamp dwellers are doing so with all their energies and venom.

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Here are some of the tensions that have marked Washington over the years. Perhaps alone among the 44 occupants of the presidency, Mr. Trump is at the centre of all these struggles:

The president versus Congress

This conflict was set up by the framers of the Constitution, who in their 1787 document set the executive and the legislative branches on a natural collision course. For much of the country's early years, the Congress had the whip hand, dominating Washington except in times of war; Abraham Lincoln's Civil War powers, in effect from 1861 to 1865, were a remarkable exception to the pattern.

As the government grew, however, the conflicts between Congress and the White House grew as well, becoming increasingly sharp as each branch sought to assert its prerogatives and to become the predominant power in Washington. From time to time – during Lyndon Johnson's Great Society domestic programs in the 1960s, for example, or during the drive for comprehensive tax overhaul in the Ronald Reagan years that led to the Tax Reform Act of 1986 – the two branches worked well together.

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But always there was inherent tension, especially sharp when the two branches were controlled by different parties, as they were in many of the Barack Obama years. But only a few weeks into the Trump administration – when the President and both houses of Congress are from the same party – the tensions are beginning to mount. The President may calm GOP nerves Tuesday night when he speaks to a joint session of Congress; he is expected to speak of a massive increase in military spending but Republican lawmakers hope he will share some more specifics, particularly on domestic spending matters.

"Trump is going to have a tremendously hard time with Congress," said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas expert on Congress. "The question is whether he can bring Republicans along, but they are extraordinarily wary of him right now."

The President versus the State Department, the intelligence community and the Pentagon

Chief executives sometimes come to office skeptical of diplomats, spies and generals, while some have great confidence in them – only to have that confidence shattered. John F. Kennedy listened to the advice he got on Communist-controlled Cuba in his first months and swiftly found himself engulfed in a fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, where in 1961 a U.S.-backed uprising fizzled in tragedy.

A year later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the President urged the State Department to examine whether the United States might offer to remove missiles from Turkey as part of a resolution to the threat of Soviet weaponry being installed 140 kilometres off the coast of Florida. Secretary of State Dean Rusk resisted, arguing that the Turks would be discomfited. "Kennedy said he's been talking about it for a week," said Sheldon M. Stern, a former Kennedy Library historian and author of a book on the missile crisis, "and no one had done anything about it."

The 35th president's impatience with the State Department came at a time of high drama and high danger. In the case of Mr. Trump, many diplomats have expressed strong disagreements with the administration.

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No State Department officials reportedly were in the room when the President met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And U.S. intelligence officials are so skeptical of Mr. Trump that, it became clear this month, they have deliberately withheld intelligence from the President, who has been disdainful of his own intelligence agents.

But a new front has opened in the Washington wars, the subtle pas de deux between Defence Secretary James Mattis and the President. Mr. Trump hopes to engage Russia in the high-profile fight against Islamic State. Mr. Mattis is skeptical. The result is a classic struggle between a chief executive with strong instincts and a top Cabinet official with strong views.

The president versus the Washington bureaucracy

Presidents come and go, but bureaucrats stay in their cubicles and offices. Harry Truman understood something about Washington that his successor, former general Dwight Eisenhower, would discover only in pain: The army of Washington bureaucrats is not at all like the U.S. Army. "Poor Ike," Mr. Truman said as the new president prepared to take office. "He'll say 'Do this' and 'Do that,' and nothing at all will happen."

This is a truth that Mr. Trump is now discovering. He was forced to fire an interim attorney-general and has wrangled with bureaucrats who were appointed two or three administrations ago. Earlier this month, Environmental Protection Agency employees openly lobbied the Senate to reject the President's nominee to head the agency. And if the President decides to take unilateral decisions in the area of business or environmental regulations, he may begin to understand that passive resistance is a capital art form.

"The bureaucracy is always slow to respond to issues they find problematic," said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a Gettysburg College expert on the executive branch. "If bureaucrats like a policy, they'll follow the President quickly. But if they don't like it, they'll slow it down. This is a lesson Donald Trump is beginning to learn."

The president versus the press

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Trump was never bashful of expressing his contempt for the press even as he proved to be a magus or maestro of the media. He would speak of "the failing New York Times" and then have telephone conversations with its reporters and editors, including Maureen Dowd, the gifted commentator who has been the scourge of presidents all the way back to Ronald Reagan. He would speak of the press's "dishonesty" even as editors across the country would debate whether to apply the word "lie" to his misstatements.

The President opened a new barrage with the press last week when he said the news media was "very smart, they're very cunning and they're very dishonest." That same day, his White House press operation excluded several top news agencies, including CNN and The New York Times, from a private briefing – a move that clearly was intended as a provocation.

All presidents spar with the press, seldom with much luck. Thomas Jefferson, who believed deeply in press freedom, once told a senator that "advertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper." Lincoln fought with the press as well.

So, of course, did Richard Nixon, who prepared an "enemies list" full of reporters, editors and columnists and whose vice-president, Spiro Agnew, complained bitterly about "nattering nabobs of negativity," a line crafted by a White House speechwriter, William Safire, who soon thereafter became a New York Times columnist.

Mr. Trump's predecessor was no conscientious objector in the presidential war against the press, taking strong, unprecedented efforts to stanch leaks, even to the point of initiating legal action. But Mr. Obama never launched a fusillade of criticism like that of Mr. Trump in his latest news conference.

"This tension between press and president is one of the great constants," said Stephen Hess, a veteran of the Eisenhower White House who, as a Brookings Institution scholar, has written broadly about the Washington press corps. "But presidents don't fight in such an ill-tempered manner. Nixon hated the press but knew it well enough to know how to use it or to get around it. Trump's problems come in part from going on his own instincts."

The president versus the judiciary

This is one of the oldest conflicts in U.S. political history. Presidents hold the title of commander-in-chief in military matters but often are frustrated that they cannot command the courts to uphold their initiatives. Mr. Trump is especially frustrated in this regard, having seen a series of judges undercut his immigration order.

Mr. Nixon fought with the courts and lost, eventually being forced to release the transcripts of his secret Oval Office tapes. Franklin Roosevelt was so frustrated by judicial decisions striking down New Deal legislation that he proposed a court-packing plan to permit him to appoint jurists with views congenial to his own. The plan failed utterly.

One measure of a president's approach to his job and his role is the portraits he selects for his office. Staring down on Mr. Trump is Andrew Jackson, who is remembered for his remarks about the chief justice in an 1832 case. "John Marshall has made his decision," the president said. "Now, let him enforce it."

The result is a president conducting a political war on many fronts. "He seems to be having a real difficult time transitioning not only from being a private citizen into being a President but from being a candidate into being the President," said Andrew Simpson, a Duquesne University historian. "You almost feel that you can't go to your job because you might miss something we've never seen before."

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

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