The deconstruction of the administrative state will not be televised.
Donald Trump is eager to look like a man of action, pulling the levers of government and redirecting the ship of state. The president has had a photo op to reinforce this narrative nearly every day since taking office. A steady procession of guests, from steelworkers to congressmen and the presidents of historically black colleges, has flanked him as he rolled back environmental protections, took aim at Dodd-Frank and killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Ever the showman, Trump even postponed his second attempt at a travel ban, which had been scheduled for Wednesday, so that it could get a news cycle to itself.
With that in mind, it should speak volumes when Trump does not invite camera crews into the Oval Office to film him taking action. Three recent examples illustrate this:
Making it easier for mentally ill people to get guns:
On Tuesday, Trump participated in a flashy photo op to sign two feel-good resolutions. The "Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act" authorises the National Science Foundation to encourage females to become entrepreneurs. The "Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers Women Act" says NASA should urge young girls to study science. Neither of these measures provides even one dollar to help advance these worthy aims, which is why they passed Congress unanimously by voice votes.
During a lunch with the anchors from all the major networks, meanwhile, Trump suggested that he could get behind a grand bargain to enact comprehensive immigration reform. This turned out to be a big head fake, but it nonetheless dominated the conversation during the run-up to his maiden speech before a joint session of Congress that evening.
While the press corps was distracted and the cable channels aired footage of Trump surrounded by a bipartisan group of smiling women, behind closed doors and with no fanfare the president quietly signed a measure that killed a regulation enacted by the Obama administration to tighten gun background checks.
The rule required the Social Security Administration to send over the names of people who receive government checks for being mentally disabled and others who have been deemed unable to handle their own financial affairs to the FBI office that runs the national background check database. This is a universe of about 75,000 people.
The National Rifle Association says the rule curtails the Second Amendment rights of these people and persuaded GOP leadership to use the Congressional Review Act to undo it. Under the Constitution, Trump had 10 days to sign off. By waiting until the day before the deadline to do so, when there were so many big stories in the mix, he ensured it got minimal coverage.
In a normal time, with a conventional president, undoing this regulation would have been front-page news. Trump's move would have sparked a national conversation about the country's continuing failure to seriously address both gun violence and mental illness. Major publications would have run deeper stories about how flawed the national background check system is five years after the massacre at Sandy Hook, with an emphasis on the gun lobby's role in keeping it that way.
But in the current news environment, with the Trump administration running a blitzkrieg offense and the attorney general embattled for concealing secret meetings with the Russian ambassador while under oath before Congress, it's very hard for anyone to stay on top of everything. Not only does the media have limited bandwidth, but cable producers are always reluctant to give much airtime to issues that don't have obvious visuals. (Three White House spokeswomen did not respond to a request for comment about the decision to sign the gun measure off camera.)
Changing the DOJ line of succession:
On the same day that Jeff Sessions was sworn in, Trump quietly signed an executive order to change the order of succession at the Justice Department if the attorney general resigns.
It was significant because the president had just fired Sally Yates as acting AG after she wouldn't defend his travel ban. As he was entitled to do, Trump went outside the official order of succession to elevate Dana Boente, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to replace her. A week before his term ended, Barack Obama had (also without fanfare) changed the order of succession to remove Boente from the list.
Because the Senate hasn't yet confirmed Trump's nominee for deputy AG, Boente is now serving in that role on an acting basis. Sessions' recusal himself from overseeing the FBI's Russia investigation means it will be handled by Boente.
In an indication that they didn't want to draw attention to this, it's worth noting that Trump signed three other orders in front of reporters immediately after Sessions was sworn in. Each was non controversial: One would "break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth," the president told the assembled press pool. The other would create a "task force on reducing violent crime," he said. And the third would instruct DOJ to implement a plan to stop crime against law enforcement officers.
Basically no one noticed Trump's fourth order. A USA Today reporter noticed that it was dated on a Thursday but didn't appear on an official web site that lists such actions until Friday. The White House didn't explain the discrepancy.
Removing transgender protections:
Last week, the Trump administration revoked federal guidelines specifying that transgender students have the right to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity. It is one of the most significant social policy shifts ushered in by the new president during his first 40 days, which means it was too big of a deal to bury.
But the White House kept the president himself as far away from it as possible, describing it in a statement as "a joint decision made . . . by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education."
Anyone who knows anything about how government works knows that nothing like this happens without sign-off at the highest levels. In this case, Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had been at loggerheads regarding timing and specific language. So others were involved.
The president could also have had the two department heads come into the Oval Office and made a statement with them behind him, or he could have made a show of signing the memorandum himself. Or he could have even tweeted about it. He didn't.
Considering Trump's motives:
The president, a registered Democrat from 2001 to 2009, is not naturally a movement conservative. He knows he must cater to his base, but you can tell that he's sometimes uncomfortable with it. And it's very clear that he would prefer his legacy to be more about jobs and the economy than the culture wars.
There is also little to suggest that Trump is an authentic or in any way committed social conservative. "I'm very pro-choice," he said in 1999, before changing his position on abortion. Just last April, he came out against North Carolina's bathroom law as a solution in search of a problem. "They're paying a big price. And there's a lot of problems," he said at the time, before later backing off under pressure. "Leave it the way it is." Upsetting the religious right, Trump also said after the election that gay marriage is "settled" law after the Supreme Court's decision.
Trump's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared, both top advisers, also tend to be extremely uneasy with the kinds of socially divisive executive actions that will offend their 30-something liberal socialite friends in Manhattan, whose cocktail parties they want to continue getting invited to. They killed a draft executive order that would have dramatically expanded the rights of people, businesses and organisations of faith to opt out of laws or activities that violate their religion, such as same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Obsessed with appearances:
Every White House cares about optics, of course. Communications professionals always try to manipulate press coverage. They give as much exposure as possible to good news and dump bad news on Friday nights when people are checking out for the weekend. They hand out some scooplets to favoured reporters at friendly outlets to get the spin they want on them. When there's a lot happening, they disclose uncomfortable or embarrassing stuff that they don't want to get much attention. This is how every modern administration works, and it is the duty of White House reporters to resist getting played, no matter who is in power.
Trump, though, cares more about showmanship than any modern president, at least since Mike Deaver worked in the White House during Ronald Reagan's first term. That's why he routinely talks as if he is directing a movie instead of leading a country. It's why he complained privately to several people about Sean Spicer's ill-fitting suit after his press secretary's disastrous debut in the briefing room. Speaking to a group of governors at the White House earlier this week, Trump pointed out Mike Pence. "He's a real talent," the president said. "And he is central casting, do we agree? Central casting!"
As he picked his Cabinet, Trump constantly told aides that he wanted his secretaries to look the part. He reportedly thought Rex Tillerson looked like a diplomat. He loved that James Mattis's nickname is "Mad Dog" (even though the retired general doesn't like being called that). "I see my generals," Trump said during the lunch right after the inauguration. "These are central casting. If I'm doing a movie, I'd pick you general, General Mattis."
Trump's signature showmanship was on display Thursday during his visit to Newport News, Virginia. He helicoptered onto the deck of the Navy's newest nuclear-powered warship to try building support for a major hike in military spending. He wore a red "USA" cap to keep his hair from blowing in the wind when he got off Marine One and then changed into a Navy cap and put on a special green jacket. The president, alongside Mattis, descended in an external elevator built to move planes up and down and emerged to the roar of the crowd. "I have no idea how it looks, but I think it looks good," Trump told the crowd. "This is a great-looking hat, just like this is a great-looking ship!"
You might also recall how Trump, who still has an executive producer credit on "The Celebrity Apprentice," treated his Supreme Court rollout like a reality TV spectacle. As he introduced Neil Gorsuch to the nation in prime time, he ad-libbed with a smile: "So was that a surprise? Was it!?"
James Hohmann is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post.