Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 17° Partly Cloudy
News >  Nation/World

Analysis: Trump’s announcements help him look good while distracting from controversies

President-elect Donald Trump reacts after speaking at Carrier Corp Thursday in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
President-elect Donald Trump reacts after speaking at Carrier Corp Thursday in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
By Cathleen Decker Los Angeles Times

Donald Trump arrived Thursday in Indiana to tout the saving of about 1,000 American jobs – and to add yet more positive shine to an image honed daily with his effervescent use of social media.

Trump claimed this week on Twitter that he’d persuaded the Carrier heating and air conditioning firm to retain many of the jobs it planned to send to Mexico – a plan Trump regularly criticized during his campaign.

Then he announced that he would change his relationship with his namesake development company. The internet roared with assertions that Trump was going to leave his company entirely – thus lessening obvious conflicts of interest – even though Trump had not gone that far.

Both situations allowed Trump to extend a characterization he pressed during the campaign: that he was a billionaire firmly set on helping American workers and serving the country.

But both also took some of the conversation away from other moves that played against Trump’s populist posture, including naming a Goldman Sachs veteran as his treasury secretary pick and stocking his Cabinet with officials who have previously pledged to do away with programs relied on by some of the voters who elected Trump.

And, particularly with the announcement about his business, Trump put off mounting questions by promising to address them later, ensuring future attention from the media on whatever he decides.

All presidents work to cast events in their best possible light. In past administrations, such image-making would have been orchestrated by teams of message experts, speechwriters and video teams.

Trump has so far accomplished it with two thumbs and his Twitter account.

“What Trump seems to have figured out is the same audience that’s willing to accept a message in 140 characters in every other aspect of their lives is also willing to accept it when it comes to politics,” said Dan Schnur, a presidential campaign veteran who now directs the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.

And, he said, “He seems to have decided that the best way to avoid a controversy is to create another controversy.”

Trump’s desire to be the center of attention means that his transition has emphasized approach over policy. The policy will inevitably flow once his Cabinet and administration are fully stocked, but given Trump’s own bent, it seems unlikely that he will dramatically change his own focus.

After his event Thursday afternoon in Indiana, Trump was to head to a rally in Cincinnati, in the same arena where thousands of people greeted him less than a month before the election. The visit to Ohio is expected to be the first of several to states that flipped from Democratic to Republican in 2016, delivering him the presidency.

Trump has something of a luxury to crisscross the country. Unlike during the last presidential transition, the economy is not cratering, uneven though it may be. The nearly 1,000 jobs Trump credited to himself and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, while hugely important to the workers and the surrounding communities, are a smidge of the 11 million jobs gained under President Barack Obama’s nearly eight-year tenure.

The decision by Carrier followed its talks with Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, the Indiana governor.

Carrier had been one of Trump’s most reliable campaign targets, but salvaging its jobs seems to have been accomplished in a much different way than he promised.

He regularly cast Carrier officials as greedy outsourcers with whom he would deal harshly.

“ ‘I hope you make a lot of air conditioning units, but here’s the story,’ ” he told an audience in Cleveland in March, recounting his planned conversation with the company’s leaders. “ ‘Every unit you make that crosses the border, we are charging you 35 percent tax.’ ”

Few details are public, but what appears to have made the company cancel some of its planned job shifts was the combination of tax breaks and fears by its parent company, United Technologies, that its federal government contracts might be at risk.

The targeting of one company is precisely the criticism that Republicans have long made of Obama, whom they regarded as picking economic winners and losers based on ideology. Few if any spoke out against Trump’s actions.

Trump’s plans regarding his role in his own company won’t be known for weeks; he announced via Twitter that he would hold a news conference Dec. 15 to deliver details.

He first said he “will be leaving my great business in total” because it was “visually important, as president, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.”

But then he added that he was preparing legal documents “which take me completely out of business operations” – suggesting that his children would run the company, as he has long said, but that he could retain his ownership interest.

Already the Trump children have been heavily involved in the transition, and they and he have conducted meetings that commingled their business ambitions with his presidential plans.

Aides to Trump declined to answer when asked whether Trump would sell his stake in the company. “Stay tuned,” spokesman Jason Miller said.

The Carrier and Trump Organization announcements took the focus off actions by the president-elect that flew in the face of the harshly anti-Wall Street campaign rhetoric that so entranced his supporters.

At campaign rallies, thousands jeered his contention that Hillary Clinton was in the pocket of Goldman Sachs. A late-campaign ad showed a picture of Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein as the narrator declared, “It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”

But on Wednesday, Trump named Goldman veteran – and campaign finance chairman – Steven Mnuchin as his choice for treasury secretary. Another former Goldman employee, Stephen K. Bannon, will be Trump’s chief strategist. The company’s president, Gary Cohn, visited Trump Tower on Tuesday amid word that he was in the running to head Trump’s budget office.

It’s not unusual for executives from Goldman or similar companies to take high-ranking government jobs under either Republican or Democratic presidents. But it was bracing coming from a candidate whose election was powered by antipathy toward elites.

Both Mnuchin and prospective Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are expected to face congressional scrutiny over past deals that either cost jobs or, in Mnuchin’s case, led to tens of thousands of foreclosures during the housing crisis.

Trump spokesman Miller brushed aside any dissonance.

“The president-elect has done a fantastic job of putting together a Cabinet of winners,” he said.

Neither selection is expected to stumble, given Republican control over the nomination process. And Trump does seem to have some room for maneuvering given the enthusiasm of his supporters.

He also has a record of ignoring or upending the conventions of a campaign, and now those of a transition.

Since his election, he has cast aside the typical mode in which sober, private reflection leads to a formal announcement of appointments. In its stead is a freewheeling, Twitter-driven grab bag in which few are quite sure if policies are holding or changing, or if he’s inviting people in for vetting, for advising or to display contrition. The transition has been as much reality show as staid government.

On Wednesday, Trump officials made the unusual move of announcing that the competition for secretary of state had been cut to four finalists.

“Trump has decided that talking about these things in public doesn’t look indecisive but it builds suspense,” Schnur said.

“In the political world, that is absolutely revolutionary. On the other hand, it’s exactly what they do on ‘American Idol.’ He’s just building interest in next week’s show.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.