Are we witnessing a pre-inauguration power struggle?

Email a Friend

U.S.  President Barack Obama (R) meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque  - RTX2T2TS

Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now for more on the state of the Trump transition and the last weeks of the Obama administration, we turn to presidential historian and “NewsHour” regular Michael Beschloss, and White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio April Ryan, author of “At Mama’s Knee: Mothers and Race in Black and White.”

Ms. Ryan, I want to start with you.

It seems President Obama is still leaving his mark on his time here with commutations from federal prisons, even in Gitmo some of the prisoners being transferred out, obviously abstaining from the U.N. vote regarding Israel.

APRIL RYAN, American Urban Radio Networks: Well, he’s going to be president until the very end, January 20, at 12:00, noon, 2017.

And this president has a legacy when it comes to criminal justice. The commutations, he says, will be on par — the pardons and commutations will be on par by the end of his administration with other presidents. But this is a legacy piece that he wants to show and make a mark with.

And then when it comes to Gitmo, that’s been a piece. He’s been wanting to close Gitmo. That’s been one of those pieces that just has not fully worked for him the way he wanted it to, but he still — once again, he’s being presidential.

And as we were talking, he has had a day with the Japanese leader, Abe, and they’re working on issues of trying to show the world how reconciliation could look years after what happened at Pearl Harbor and also talking about a world without any nukes, a hope for that.

So he again is trying to set an example and keep his legacy in place as much as he can until that last moment that he is president in Washington, D.C., next year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael Beschloss, do presidents try to secure their legacies in these last few days? Are there other historical examples of presidents taking significant policy positions or diplomatic stances on their way out?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Sure, they do.

George H.W. Bush in 1992 sent American troops into Somalia for humanitarian reasons, although, in his case, he called up Bill Clinton, the new president, and said, is this OK with you, and Bill Clinton said, yes, I’m for that. Let’s basically be for this together.

And Dwight Eisenhower before he left the presidency in 1961, he broke diplomatic relations with Cuba for a long time. But the difference here is that you have got Donald Trump, who began right after the election doing all sorts of things that were new, like, for instance, the telephone call to the president of Taiwan, all sorts of tweets to make it clear that someone new is going to be in charge with very different views, and very different from, for instance, Ronald Reagan, who waited until a week after he became president to say the Soviets lie, cheat, commit crimes to achieve their ends.

But Reagan felt the time to do that wasn’t during the transition, but right after he was president, when he had the full power of being in the White House.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael, does that have a cooling effect or does that impact in any way how the rest of the world perceives the abilities and actions of the current president?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure, it does.

It muffles what President Obama is trying to do. And in the past, usually, a president-elect would be careful about sending a signal that there are sort of two presidents here at once. Or, for instance, in the Eisenhower case, the Bush case that I mentioned, they usually tried to at least do it together with the president who is still there — or — excuse me — with the incoming president.

But we have seen all sorts of precedents shattered by Donald Trump, and this is one more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: April Ryan, these tweets and these sort of disagreements seem to be happening in public and at the same time the incoming White House and the transition team say that there is back-channel communication that continues between President Obama and President-elect Trump.

APRIL RYAN: Right.

And it’s very interesting. I asked some White House officials about that communication, and all they would say is the fact that it’s very interesting that Donald Trump during his time running for the Oval Office would chastise President Obama, talk about Hillary Clinton following President Obama, and now he calls President Obama quite a bit looking for advice or just wanting to talk about issues.

And I find that very interesting, to the point where the president, though, however, no matter how interesting it is, he makes it a point to pick up the phone and call him as soon as he can, call him back, just for the smooth transition that the president was afforded from George W. Bush to his presidency.

So, this president finds it very interesting. And particularly this is a crazy time, as they are watching this president say that if he were running against Donald Trump, he would win, and Donald Trump is going after him on social media, saying, I don’t think so, and then trying to keep the transition working. That’s a very interesting piece by itself.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael Beschloss, let’s talk a little bit about the Cabinet, or at least the announcements so far. How do they stack up on different axes, whether it’s gender or race or socioeconomic status?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, even the most ardent Trump supporter would have to say it’s not exactly the most diverse Cabinet on earth, a lot of billionaires and generals in the close entourage, not a great deal of — many women, not a lot of diversity here.

And the interesting thing to me is that John Kennedy, let’s take that example, he was elected 1960 by only 100,000 popular votes, and his electoral vote was about 303, very close to Donald Trump’s.

Yet, Donald Trump, who didn’t win the popular vote and the electoral vote like Kennedy, you know, unlike Kennedy, feels that he can basically do this and doesn’t feel a political need to, you know, make more of an effort with Democrats on the other side.

Kennedy, in his case, said, you know, I was barely elected by the popular vote. I would rather make some efforts to show that I get along with Republicans.

And so he put Republicans at the Defense Department, the Treasury, in key positions to show that he recognized that that wasn’t the most resounding mandate on earth.

HARI SREENIVASAN: April Ryan, this transition team has said that they have been looking for something different.

APRIL RYAN: Well, yes, they are looking for something different, something totally not Washington.

And what we’re getting from many persons that I have talked to, be it Democrat or Republican, there is a general consensus that this is a business approach to social problems, and that, you know, with no governance really.

There are few people who are in the Cabinet who have a governance stance and government knowledge, governing knowledge. But the problem for many is that this is so new and so fresh.

And on racial terms, George W. Bush, I’m thinking back to that administration. George W. Bush had the most diverse racial construct of his Cabinet. Now you go to the next Republican president, number 45, Donald J. Trump, who is listening to his constituency and standing by what he said when he was campaigning, that he didn’t care about being politically correct. It’s going to be very interesting to see.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael, how does this transition, at least historically, play out, when you have perhaps captains of industry moving into roles where they’re leading organizations with thousands of people, but they’re different kinds of organizations?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s one of the biggest experiments or even gambles we have seen in American history.

Donald Trump’s whole thing, and he said this in the campaign, is, I don’t think having political or public service experience is particularly helpful. He essentially said — he even essentially said that he thinks it’s harmful because you’re part of an old establishment that didn’t work.

So, we’re about to see whether this works or not, and four years from now, we will know.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. We will have you back then.

Michael Beschloss, April Ryan, thank you very much.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Great to see you. Thank you.

APRIL RYAN: Thank you.

The post Are we witnessing a pre-inauguration power struggle? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.