I was there last Friday—already a very long time ago—when Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. This was not an event with a shortage of witnesses. One of my neighbors in Section 7 was shooting video of himself with the Mall in the background. “Here we are, folks,” he said. “They go . . . quite a ways back, as you can see. Quite a ways.” He was a model witness, absorbing and transmitting, gliding along the surface of the present. We sat in folding chairs, joined into pairs by plastic brackets to keep them facing forwards. Afterwards, micro-moments of video looped like flashbacks from an awkward party: Bill Clinton staring intently at some off-screen entity; Donald climbing steps to see the Obamas off, leaving Melania and her perfect blue gift box abandoned, down by the car; Melania and Donald dancing at the ball, her smile widening and then narrowing as his gaze, like a lighthouse beam, crossed her face. There was the moment at the bottom of the chute, when Donald mugged at the camera. “So here we are,” his smirk seemed to say. “Weird, isn’t it?” Then the more familiar Donald emerged, a newborn, fat and screaming, from the Rotunda’s velvet orifice.
On Saturday, Donald gave a speech at the CIA. As a backdrop, he used the Memorial Wall, which honors the CIA employees, many of them anonymous, who died in the service of the country he now led. He said the wall was “very, very special” and that CIA employees “are really special, amazing people.” “Radical Islamic terrorism,” he said, “it has to be eradicated just off the face of the earth. This is evil . . . it’s time right now to end it.” He said the word “war” seven times and expressed nostalgia for a time in America when “we’d win with wars.” Most of the time, Donald speaks with a false intimacy, anchoring his claim to truth in the implicit, casual acknowledgement that all his past statements were maneuvering, necessary lies, prologue, so that now, finally, he can tell it to you straight. The words win and war, however, are Donald’s special words, spoken with some awareness of their meaning.
The CIA speech came as a surprise to the media, which had been told that Donald would be taking the weekend off. One of his longtime supporters, who was with Donald at Langley and sent me a picture to prove it, told me over Twitter that the CIA speech had been in the works for some time. Whether planned or improvised, the visit was a smart move. It pulled news cameras away from the anti-Trump protests, which had by then swamped the mall and dozens of cities around the world. The applause—whatever its source—made it appear that Donald had support from the CIA rank-and-file, at a crucial moment when liberal senators were considering how hard to fight against his nominee, Mike Pompeo. And finally, despite Donald’s bluster, his willingness to go and meet the CIA on their turf was his version of an olive branch, one he had previously extended to only one other institution, the New York Times.
Even as Donald attempted to make peace with the intelligence community, he stepped up his battle—“a running war,” he called it—against the press, who he cast among “the most dishonest human beings on Earth.” He acted through the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, who seems to relish telling lies as a demonstration of presidential impunity. By Monday, it was clear that President Trump was not going to be any more truthful or courteous than candidate Trump. Nevertheless, the press persisted in its nanny-like attempts to shame him into better behavior, as though the election were still in the future.
In the meantime, Donald got to work. By Tuesday night, he had sworn in three members of his cabinet and signed ten executive orders. He struck out at Obamacare, federal regulations, abortion clinic funding, and the Trans-Pacific trade deal. He boosted two oil pipelines, including the Dakota Access Pipeline, which had drawn thousands in protest as recently as December, prompting Obama to put it on hold. He froze hiring throughout the entire federal government, exempting the military.
In the middle of the week, Donald visited the Department of Homeland Security, where he signed an executive order that mandated the regular publication of a newsletter detailing the crimes of the undocumented immigrants that he was intent on rounding up and deporting. Draft versions of other extreme executive orders had begun to leak to the press. One was an exploratory step toward bringing back black site detention and torture. Another, which turned out to be accurate, would ban immigration from several Muslim-majority countries and close U.S. borders to refugees.
Reading the newspapers, it seemed as though Donald was off to a rocky start. Insubordinate elements in his administration were leaking internal documents and complaining, on background, that he watched too much TV. But the executive orders themselves delivered exactly what Trump had campaigned on—xenophobic, incendiary nationalism, wrapped in the irresistible entertainment of Trump’s clumsy demagoguery. The White House’s opening strategy had begun to take shape. They would continue to engage in trolling and epistemological trench warfare against their committed opponents (the Democrats, the old establishment, the press) while building bridges to the more pliable “middle” (congressional Republicans, business, and foreign leaders). Someone seemed to have informed Trump that he would face his greatest resistance within federal agencies, where the civil service could resist carrying out his cabinet’s orders. His series of ceremonial rallies at CIA, DHS, and the Pentagon forced the leadership of the agencies to choose whether they wanted to join the cheering vanguard or sacrifice the next four years of their careers.
Donald continued to offer forgiveness to the ambitious and the penitent, driving the wedge deeper into the #NeverTrump establishment. Consider Robert Gates, former head of the CIA and one of Obama’s former secretaries of defense. In September, Gates wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Donald was “beyond repair . . . thin-skinned, temperamental, shoot-from-the-hip and lip, uninformed . . . too great a risk for America.” On Thursday, Gates sat onstage at the National Archives and told the story of how he met Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and Michael Flynn, who put him in a room with Donald himself. “Because of the Wall Street Journal it was a tad awkward,” Gates said. “I think the last line of the op-ed was, ‘he’s unfit to be commander-in-chief.’”
With Trump now installed in the Oval Office, the two men quickly made up. Gates said that Trump had wanted to know if he was interested in a job. “I said I’m done building my resume,” Gates said. But he did have one suggestion—Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil. “I’ve known Rex for a number of years,” Gates said, on Thursday. “I’ve gotten to know him, actually through the Boy Scouts . . . Rex and I would stay up late into the night, talking about the world. Cigar, whiskey, these are great opportunities to, uh, listen to people and learn.” Mike Allen of Axios, who was interviewing Gates, was gracious enough not to mention that ExxonMobil had also paid Gates an unknown sum of money through his consultancy, RiceHadleyGates. If the political weather was turning against Donald, why was Gates, a consummate Washington insider, continuing to bet on him?
Despite Donald’s unyielding rhetoric, his White House demonstrated a supple response to at least one criticism—that a Trump administration would abandon US allies. Donald tried to patch things up with his most sympathetic European counterpart, Britain’s Theresa May, giving her the podium at the Republican conference in Philadelphia on Thursday and a series of bilateral talks on Friday. Retired General James Mattis, Trump’s secretary of defense, announced that he would travel to Japan and South Korea “to underscore the commitment of the United States to our enduring alliances.” On Friday, Trump made a short speech at the Pentagon, standing before the Hall of Heroes, a room dedicated to recipients of the Medal of Honor. “The soul of our nation lives between these walls,” Trump said. “They shed their blood and poured out the love from their hearts to protect our home.” He then sat down at a ceremonial table and signed the executive order that would dominate public conversation through the weekend—a ban on the entry of immigrants and green-card holders from seven Muslim-majority countries. He read the title of his executive action twice: “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” He is a slow reader, and he tends to squint as though the type were too small. “We all know what that means,” he said. “Big stuff.” Looking on with a mild, approving expression was Vice President Mike Pence, who a year before had called such a measure “offensive and unconstitutional.”
After everyone important had left, I entered the Hall of Heroes. It was smaller than it looked on TV, with a drop ceiling and eighty seats upholstered in blue vinyl. A White House media crew was packing up their cables and sound board. Sitting on a table beside their equipment was the seal of the president—the splayed eagle clutching the arrows and the olive branch. Now detached from the table where Donald had signed two of his executive orders, it looked like a movie prop. It was about the size of a salad plate and made of painted ceramic. On its back was a row of terraced grooves that could be used to hook it onto nearly anything.