Trump in Transition

John R. Russell IV

Donald Trump may have run a raw, no-holds-barred campaign, but as the reality of becoming President sinks in, a more complex picture is appearing, according to John Russell, a DC-based Republican lobbyist. "When the Secret Service says 'Mr. President-elect come with me' the weight of the world is now on your shoulders." Russell told a LAWAC Global Café Breakfast meeting on Friday November 18th that "there will be a definite rightward shift." At the same time, Trump is also listening to those around him who are trying to shore up relations with the Congress - "Because they will need Congress going forwards." What remains to be seen is how this balancing act works.

Russell, who is a principal in the DC-based law firm Dentons, said it was no coincidence that Reince Priebus - a GOP establishment figure who is close to Paul Ryan and Scott Walker - was appointed chief of staff at the same time as Steve Bannon - who ran the far right website Breitbart. Bannon, "who is an unknown in Washington and has been on a jihad against many in the establishment" will be used to keep up the pressure for draining the so-called swamp in DC. "Breitbart seems to be what will be used to hold GOP lawmakers to account," said Russell.

As for the supposed disarray in the Trump transition team, Russell says that is common for first-term presidents. "Transition teams go from 0 to 6,000 miles an hour in an instant - they are bumpy because all of a sudden you are moving from the campaign world to the policy world."

In discussion with John Russell IV

Russell said the most important people in that team include Trump's family, former FEC chairman Don McGahn, vice-presidential pick Mike Pence and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. "I would put his family in one box. They say that children are a reflection of the parents, and those kids are unbelievable.... The children and the family matter. ... Don McGahn is a name you are going to hear more and more. He was their campaign attorney. He was instrumental to implementing the five-year ban on lobbying... Mike Pence matters. He is the stabilizing force, and he is perceived by those on the inside and those on the outside as the bridge between the Trump team and the rest of government.... And never count out Kellyanne Conway. She was the one that certainly tapped into this incredible dissatisfaction with congress. The president has her ears. People may say that the glass ceiling wasn't broken on election night, but one was broken: Kellyanne is the first woman to win an election campaign."

The announcements of General (Ret.) Mike Flynn as national security adviser, Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo as proposed head of the CIA and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as proposed Attorney General all had two things in common: "it shows early adopters are going to be rewarded," as all supported Trump from the early days of his campaign. And it shows the people around Trump so far "are a law and order type gang." But the broader contours of his foreign policy are still unclear, with - as of this writing - no announcement on the Secretaries of State and Defense. "Clearly, those in Washington and certainly those in the foreign policy world are holding their breath at the moment. They are waiting to see who is chosen. This is going to be one that we are all watching carefully because the worst case scenario is going to be devastating."

Russell expects that Trump will move to scrap or change the Iran nuclear deal "because many in Congress hate it, and his supporters want a strong American response." He also expects that Trump will reach out to Russian President Putin to do a deal on Syria. "The interaction with Putin is going to be interesting because dealing with Syrian President Assad requires Russian and American cooperation. I think that's where I am watching really closely to see what happens. I'm actually looking more closely at that than whether we pull out of NAFTA."

Asked about turning down the hateful rhetoric of the campaign, Russell said: "The president-elect has talked about binding the wounds, and he is going to have to back that up. And we as Americans have to hold him accountable to that. There is a palpable fear around the country about what happens next."

Asked about how Trump will address concerns about human rights, Russell said there is a hard line within the Republican party, represented by figures like former ambassador to the UN John Bolton - but it is unclear if Trump would propose him for Secretary of State, as has been rumored. "Here is what I believe. I don't think Donald Trump is a Buckley republican. I don't know if Donald Trump is a republican at all. I don't know where Donald Trump's heart truly is in all of this...At the end of the day, for some of these appointments, you are going to need 60 in the senate. You get a few passes but you don't get to put an entire ideology in your cabinet."

Russell said that Trump will likely continue with his direct appeal to the crowds, as well as his Twitter habit: "I think you are going to see a Donald Trump victory tour soon. I think you are going to see Donald Trump as a cheerleader. Mike Pence is the worker bee."

As for the many Republicans who disavowed Trump, Russell said it is only to be expected that some will reverse their positions now Trump has been elected - and not all are simple opportunists. "There are those who have walked away from Trump, but when you are presented with an opportunity to serve your country, a lot of people, democrat or republican, would say yes... If you live in Washington, often there are people who have cut you. But you are never let down by the American people. That is how a lot of people are justifying it [supporting Trump.] They do it because it is public service." As the saying goes, "there is no crying in politics."