The road not taken for Donald Trump

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The following is an alternative history of the first year of the Trump presidency, written a half century later in some parallel universe. It’s what could have happened, but didn’t.

He awoke on Wednesday, Nov. 9, after several fitful hours of sleep, with a feeling like a fist in his stomach. Donald Trump was 70 years old, a celebrity billionaire and a professional hustler, a man set in his ways who didn’t read or confide in close friends and who hated shaking hands with strangers.

And unless he had just had the most vivid and realistic nightmare of his life, he had somehow been elected president.

There were voices outside the bedroom door — Secret Service agents, aides he barely knew, an odd menagerie of castoffs and hangers-on who had accumulated over the months. But Trump was alone.

Fortunately, there was a plan. In a meeting at Trump Tower, just the two of them, Chris Christie went over the transition blueprint he’d been preparing for months. He told Trump that his most important decision would be to name a chief of staff who knew how to build political coalitions and who also had the boss’s respect.

Christie, the party’s best communicator and the first of its major figures to swing behind Trump during the primaries, was himself the best fit. But he had conditions.

First, he needed control of the whole operation, especially the hiring. He wasn’t going to have Steve Bannon hatching conspiracies down the hall and young Jared Kushner looking over his shoulder. Second, all tweets had to go through Christie or his team.

These were his terms, Christie said — take it or leave it. Trump took it.

As Christie went about filling out the West Wing staff with experienced hands, Trump withdrew to his golf club in New Jersey. Unable to sleep, he placed a series of late-night calls to gather advice.

Surprised at being awakened by the president-elect, James Baker, the Republican wise man, advised him to be bigger than his detractors and to act as if the whole “Never Trump” movement had never existed. He wouldn’t be able to govern if he relied only on the political figures who had supported him, Baker said.

Trump listened. He shocked the cynics by naming Mitt Romney his secretary of state and Lindsey Graham his attorney general. He persuaded a Democrat, Mark Warner, to come on as secretary of the treasury, which deflated both the Trumpians at Breitbart and his harshest critics on the left.

Reluctantly, Trump announced he would immediately divest himself of all his family businesses and leave them to his children. He was making a clean break in order to dedicate himself to the most humbling challenge of his life.

In his moving inaugural address, written with the help of another erstwhile critic, Peggy Noonan, Trump sounded his familiar themes of national greatness and economic retrenchment, but he also spoke with humility about his own strange journey and the uncertainties that lay ahead.

In famous words now etched in stone at the Trump Memorial, Trump told a fractured nation:

I can’t say exactly how I ended up standing here at this moment. But I think it’s because you’re exhausted by the state of our politics, by the hatred and pettiness, by selfishness and deflection. I am, too. At times I’ve been part of the problem, I have to be honest about that. But we need to learn from each other. And I promise that what I lack in experience I will make up for in my determination to rebuild and restore the things we’ve neglected.

Afterward, Trump raged privately at press reports that said the crowd at his inaugural was even smaller than his slim margin of victory. But at the urging of his newly installed press secretary, the longtime Republican operative Kevin Madden, Trump refused to be baited publicly.

Instead, Trump told reporters that the crowd would be much bigger at his second inauguration, after the country had soared to new economic heights. The press corps laughed and moved on. Trump’s approval ratings immediately after the speech approached 60 percent.

The issue of Russian meddling in the campaign proved more problematic and threatened to dominate Trump’s opening months. But Trump deferred to his vice president, Mike Pence, and made peace with the intelligence agencies, acknowledging publicly that their findings on Russia had to be accepted.

When James Comey, the FBI director, turned up evidence of illegal dealings between Trump’s favorite general, Michael Flynn, and Russian operatives, Trump found himself grateful that Christie had refused to hire “that nut job Flynn” for even a junior post in the West Wing.

(The controversy wouldn’t surface again until 2031, when Russian archives, opened after the fall of the Second Soviet Union, revealed much deeper ties between the campaign and Vladimir Putin, including the involvement of Kushner himself. What Trump himself knew remains a mystery.)

Still, while Trump did manage to seat Ted Cruz on the Supreme Court, his first months in office were marked by a kind of drift. For the first time in his life, Trump forced himself to read — long tomes about Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He watched movies — “Dave,” “The American President,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

In April, over a private dinner in the residence, Frank Luntz, the longtime Republican pollster, showed Trump a PowerPoint on the election results. His most ardent base, Luntz said, had remained constant since the early primaries.

But, he said, Trump’s margin of victory had come from Republicans and independents who weren’t sure about him but were absolutely certain that the status quo was corrupt. They had voted to give Trump an audition.

Luntz laid out a choice. Trump could govern as he campaigned, and 30 percent of the electorate would adore him forever. Or he could govern as a truly independent reformer, as he had promised to be at his inaugural, and turn the two-party political math on its head.

This, Luntz assured him, was what Democrats feared most from his presidency.

Soon after, Trump summoned the leadership of both parties to the White House and proposed his first deal. He would go out and campaign for $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending, as long as the bill contained money for a high-tech wall along the border. Neither side could say no.

As the American Building and Border Act was breezing its way through Congress, Trump announced he had decided to renegotiate provisions of the massive Asian trade pact, rather than withdraw immediately. He remained in the Paris climate accord but delivered a stern lecture to the other industrial powers, laying down what would become known as the Trump Doctrine: America would do its part for the planet, but it would not shoulder the economic burden alone.

Trump’s base grumbled, but his popularity with independents and Democrats grew. By June, after he delivered an unflinching but respectful defense of America’s trade policy at the G-8 summit, 68 percent of Americans said they approved of Trump’s job performance.

Other foreign powers took note. Fearful that a popular and unpredictable new president might have enough capital to go to war, the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, agreed to cease further missile tests in exchange for multilateral talks.

Meanwhile, political analysts praised Trump’s shrewdness when he appointed his old rival, Hillary Clinton, as a special envoy to the Middle East. “It’s a no-brainer,” Newt Gingrich explained to a reporter. “If she brokers some kind of agreement, the president gets credit. If she fails, it validates the argument that she wouldn’t have been any better.”

Trump bumbled into his share of mistakes, like his comment about Britain’s Theresa May not being “hot enough” to corral a male-dominated Parliament. But the president soon realized that he could defuse controversy simply by apologizing. “I was an idiot,” he tweeted.

The press piled on, but the voters shrugged.

Trump’s final break with the reactionary forces on the right came in August, after white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville and a woman was killed. Trump and Attorney General Graham took Marine One to the scene, where Trump condemned all forms of bigotry and violent nationalism.

In an interview with Fox News, Bannon complained bitterly that his former protégé had lost his way. “I will tell you something, OK?” Trump said in response. “Steve Bannon is a very, very sad man. I don’t worry about supporters, OK? I worry about Americans, and I think they like what I’m doing, I really do.”

He was right. By November, when a Republican won the race for Cruz’s Senate seat, thus keeping alive the party’s perfect record in special elections, Trump’s approval rating had passed 70 percent. His plan to fix the flaws in Barack Obama’s health care law made it through Congress, with bipartisan support, before the Christmas break.

The first year of the Trump presidency is generally seen now as having marked a new chapter in American politics, dividing a long era of entrenched partisan stalemate from the more dynamic, post-party moment that followed. It also gave us the term “Trump bump,” which is now synonymous with winning approval by defying convention.

“Rarely, if ever, in our history has a man been so swiftly changed by the presidency while simultaneously changing the job itself,” the historian Jon Meacham wrote in the first volume of his Trump biography, “American Builder,” in 2035. “Had Trump not grown into the job at a time of such peril, there’s no telling where the American story might have gone.”

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