How Trump is doing on staffing, legislation and messaging

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Today is February 20, one month into the new Trump administration. It’s an early moment to pause and ask where things stand.

For that, we turn to our Politics Monday team, Tamara Keith of NPR and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

And welcome to both of you.

It is Monday. We are already a month, as we just said, Amy and Tam, into this administration. So, let’s take a little bit of stock.

Tam, you have been looking at the president’s appointments for big, important positions, the positions that have to be confirmed by the Senate. What are you seeing? How is he doing compared to other presidents at this point?

TAMARA KEITH, National Public Radio: In terms of getting them confirmed, he is behind schedule. That’s not entirely his fault. Senate Democrats have been slow-walking the nominations, in part because they say that many of these nominees are sort of out of line with the mainstream.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, just the other day said that this is the most conservative Cabinet he’s seen. Democrats take that as validation of their arguments.

But in terms of broadly, beyond just the Cabinet, the Senate-confirmed positions, President Trump has named 34 people so far. That is just slightly behind pace of President Obama and ahead of the pace of President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush. So he’s not actually behind, despite many stories saying, oh, my gosh, he’s behind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because you look at some of the numbers. You said 500 — you were telling us 515 awaiting confirmation, the 34 they have named, and 20 of them are still waiting.

TAMARA KEITH: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Amy, there is a lot of focus on these numbers. How much does it matter?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: I think there is the story about the process and then there’s the story about the perception.

And I think that, as we learned from Tam, the process, he’s not that far off. If you look, again, academic studies, President Obama, by his first 100 days, only had about 17 percent of his appointees in. So, it’s not the pace that’s the problem. It’s the perception that there’s chaos here.

Some of it is about the people that he’s chosen who have visions or views that are different from the president’s. Ideologically, we don’t really still know where the president is on a whole lot of issues, where his North Star is.

And so, as you pointed out, today, you had the secretary of defense go to Iraq and say, I know that the president himself has said we’re going to come take your oil. Don’t worry.

That’s one reason for that. The other is a lot of talk about this loyalty test, so-called loyalty test for people who want to be in high-level positions. Every president wants somebody that is loyal to them. There is nothing wrong or different about that.

What is different, though, is that it seems to be taken to a level like we haven’t seen before. If you have written or said anything during the course of the campaign that was critical of Donald Trump, you are not going to be appointed or you may lose a job that you have been appointed for once they find out what you have actually said.

So I think that’s what lends this idea that this is sort of a Cabinet or a process in chaos.

TAMARA KEITH: And there were so many people in the so-called establishment, so the people that would be in line for these sorts of positions, that spoke out against Trump during the campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. There’s a lot of material out there to work with.

But, Tam, he said at his news conference last week: I have gotten more accomplished in the first four weeks of my time in office than, he said, some presidents have done in their entire term.

I think a lot of people thought that was hyperbole and let him get away with a little of that. But what has he accomplished? What have we seen? We have seen a few executive orders. Legislation is not there yet.

TAMARA KEITH: Legislation is definitely not there yet.

And at least one of those executive orders is on hold pending court action. And now President Trump, with the travel ban, is planning some time soon to do a new one that would get around some of the legal challenges.

But, yes, things he has done, the Keystone XL pipeline and Dakota Access pipeline, he signed that executive order. It’s not legislation, but it is that something that was on hold and is moving. So, there is a new president in town. He is able to do some things just simply by being there and by not being Barack Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy?

AMY WALTER: And there still is a legislative process to this. He wants to build a border wall, we have got to pay for that. It has to go through a legislative process to appropriate that money.

You want to get rid of Obamacare? We know that there is a whole process legislatively that’s involved with that. So, he’s setting the ball rolling, but you still need Congress and, of course, the courts to go along with your procedures.

The other piece of this — and I feel like a broken record, Judy — we have talked about this almost every time I’m on.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will forgive you. We don’t think you’re a broken record.

AMY WALTER: But part of it, too, is the reason we’re not talking so much about what he’s done in three weeks is that he steps on his message more than anybody else does.

Again, a more traditional president would come in and they would spend every single morning waking up and talking about the two or three or four issues they want to talk about. Instead, it’s attacks on the media. It’s tweets that go even above and beyond just simple attacks on the media, calling them an enemy of the people.

And so the issue is, if he wants to talk about what he’s accomplished, he has to have the discipline, the president needs to have the discipline to focus on those issues day in and out and let the people around him not put out fires, but actually focus on talking about and pushing ahead on this agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, he pulls out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal, for example, but we don’t hear — we’re not hearing …

AMY WALTER: We hear a little bit about it, but there has to be a replacement, which is, he says: I’m going to do bilateral deals.

OK. Let’s see what they look like. We still — look, we’re only a month in, but that’s what we have to look for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one thing you could argue he’s done, Tam, is stir up the anger and frustration of a lot of Democrats, or at least people who are opposed to him. We don’t know if they’re Democrats or Republicans.

There was another one of those sets of protests today. We have got a map. In fact, around the country, there were a number of protests in cities. People called it the president’s — this is — Not My President’s Day.

How much anti-Trump energy is there out there? And can we tell if this is something that has legs? Is it going to last?

TAMARA KEITH: Well, clearly, there is anti-Trump energy. There is also energy showing up at many of these town halls that members of Congress are having.

I think that we don’t know, if it’s real, whether it’s the new Tea Party, whether it sticks. And, in part, we don’t know whether the Democratic Party is going to be able to capitalize on this energy because at the moment there is not really a leader of the Democratic Party. They’re in the middle of an election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it?

AMY WALTER: Yes, I absolutely agree with that.

And we have to watch and see where this energy goes. And for those folks who watched in 2009 these raucous town halls and said, well, it’s probably not going to be much of anything, obviously, that was proven wrong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Tea Party.

AMY WALTER: All of — the Tea Party emerged in 2010.

Donald Trump, all of his rallies, oh, well, maybe they’re not such a big deal. Clearly, underneath all of it, there was a great deal of energy for Donald Trump that we were able to physically see.

But I agree with Tamara. We have got to see where this goes. The challenge for Democrats is not that they don’t have energy. They have a geography problem. And the states that they need to win in order to take control of the Senate or in order to win seats in the House, maybe even control Congress, are red states on the Senate side, and then states that are really — or districts that are really Republican.

That’s the challenge. So, what we’re seeing is two sides really, really fired up. That doesn’t help Democrats. What Democrats need is to see Republicans become depressed and fall out of love with Donald Trump. That hasn’t happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The geography problem, you have written about this.

AMY WALTER: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, great to see you both. Thank you.

TAMARA KEITH: You’re welcome.

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