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Trump Prepares To Take Office Under Appearances Of Unpredictability


Tomorrow, the new president of the United States will take a limousine to the Capitol with the outgoing president. There will be an important speech, an inaugural luncheon and a parade - all the rituals of a typical peaceful transition of power. But there is much about the new president that is out of the ordinary, as NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Donald Trump takes office with investigations continuing into relations between the campaigns and Russia. Trump has ongoing business interests that present hundreds of potential conflicts. And Trump's never-ending barrage of tweets has caused confusion on Capitol Hill and around the world. But, says former Democratic White House aide Bill Galston...

BILL GALSTON: For all the appearances of unpredictability and chaos, I think there are two fixed points that we need to keep in mind. First is the fact that an American-first foreign policy has been an area of consistency with him going back three decades. And the second is that the president-elect in domestic policy has a very clear understanding of the interests of the kind of people that he brought into the Republican coalition.

LIASSON: In other words, the president elect is an isolationist and a populist. What does that mean? In domestic policy, it means, for example, that Trump has promised that everyone should have insurance coverage. Trump knows that many parts of Obamacare are popular with the white, working-class voters that put him in office.

And as he showed during the campaign, he's perfectly willing to break ranks with his party's leadership in order to stay true to his base. And that, says Republican strategist Doug Heye, makes replacing Obamacare much harder.

DOUG HEYE: Republicans have now learned with Obamacare, though, it's obviously very unpopular within the party - we also know that one of the reasons that Democrats enact broad entitlement programs is because once they're in place, it's near impossible to get rid of it. And that's what we're experiencing right now.

LIASSON: On foreign policy, Trump's longstanding isolationism along with his pro-Putin tilt means that he's willing to break with 70 years of bipartisan consensus. He's put Germany's Angela Merkel on par with Vladimir Putin as U.S. allies. He's called NATO obsolete. He predicted, with approval, the break-up of the EU, saying that the eurozone, which happens to be the United States' biggest trading partner, quote, "doesn't matter very much for the U.S."

These statements have been contradicted by many of Trump's Cabinet nominees. Secretary of Defense designate James Mattis, for instance, testified that NATO is vital to U.S. national interests and that Putin's goal is to break up the Western alliance. But it's Trump's words that count right now, and they've caused despair in Europe, confusion on Capitol Hill and, for Russia experts like Molly McHugh, lots of concern.

MOLLY MCHUGH: The world view Trump is presenting tends to echo the worst aspects of the Russian worldview which is this idea of the unraveling of the liberal democratic world order, the removal of the values that have sort of held global security and prosperity in place since the end of World War II. That is something that Putin has been very focused on, and ignoring that is very dangerous.

LIASSON: Peter Feaver former national security aide in the Clinton and Bush White Houses has a different view. Despite Trump's expressed disdain for America's allies and admiration for Vladimir Putin, Feaver says the jury is still out on Trump's approach to the world. Maybe, says Feaver, Trump just wants a reset with Russia, not a wholesale realignment, much like other presidents - a difference in degree not in kind.

PETER FEAVER: It's possible that what we're seeing is just a very unconventional strategic communication strategy that will end up with policies that are more or less within the boundaries of the mainstream. It's impossible to say with certainty because he hasn't made a single presidential decision yet.

LIASSON: Trump hasn't made any presidential decisions yet, but he has been an extremely active president in waiting. And that brings us to something else that's unusual about Trump. He is the most unpopular new president in history. His approval ratings have actually dropped during his transition. Maybe that doesn't matter. After all, he won the election with almost two-thirds of voters saying he was unqualified.

And his low ratings are unlikely to affect his chance of success on Capitol Hill since most presidents - popular or not - get their first-year agendas passed if their party controls Congress. Ed Brookover, a former Trump adviser, says Trump's current approval ratings don't mean much for all the rule-breaking aspects of a Trump presidency. In the end, Brookover predicts Trump's success will be measured by a very traditional yardstick.

ED BROOKOVER: I think that we need to measure Mr. Trump's presidency by his effectiveness, so what that means is that do we have more jobs? Is our economy getting more stable? Are we safer than we were before he became president?

LIASSON: And it will take several years for America to answer those questions. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, there is a reference to James Mattis as "Secretary of State designate" .He should have been referenced to as "Secretary of Defense designate". ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.