For denizens of D.C., life and work in unusual times
Understanding each other
In a town that thrives on orderly rhythm, President Trump – elected to do things differently – is delivering near-daily disruption. For some, that’s energizing. For others, it's exhausting.
Washington—From Senators to low-level staffers workaday Washington is dealing with the drama and disruption of Donald J. Trump's singular presidency.
The nation’s capital thrives on orderly rhythm, and that’s something in short supply these days. A Trump tweet or sudden statement can blow up months of legislative or lobbyist planning, on any issue. Executive branch bosses are thin on the ground, as many top spots are still unfilled.
Reporters? They’re everywhere, in unruly packs. Constituents are jamming congressional phones to express opinions or to ask about where the country is going.
Weekends off aren’t a given. Vacations won’t be a respite unless cell phones are turned off. But for the afflicted there may be comfort in this: A democracy that’s 241 years old can probably handle an unpredictable leader who’s fond of social media. Presidents come and go. The process of US government endures.
“The American republic is an extremely resilient entity,” says a DC business lobbyist who previously worked for a Republican on Capitol Hill. “It’s not going anywhere.”
‘Kids always help’
The struggle starts at the top. By all accounts President Trump demands a lot from his staff – and so does everyone else.
Take Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy White House press secretary. She’s got one of the most demanding jobs in Washington, trying to explain Trump to shouting reporters.
Ms. Sanders is known for her no-nonsense style, but softens when she mentions her kids. Last month, she kicked off a press briefing with a shout-out to her daughter, who was turning five that day.
“I get to wish Scarlett a happy birthday,” Sanders said, flashing some of the southern charm of her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. “I think her first birthday wish would probably be that you guys are incredibly nice.”
Sanders, who also has two sons, says having three young children helps her maintain perspective. But she doesn’t buy into the idea that things are especially stressful now. “It’s always like that – kids always help,” she says.
‘A test of our institution’
Up on Capitol Hill, a press secretary for a high-profile Republican senator says that Saturday used to be the day to let off stress. Not anymore. There are no breaks.
“It’s a totally different job” with Trump as president, this staffer says.
There’s been a big increase in constituent and media inquiries, a deluge of news to handle, and big pieces of legislation to try to shape. And the senator’s office hasn’t gotten any bigger.
But this aide finds reinforcement in the high purpose of the work itself.
“I think this is a test of our institution,” the press secretary says. “I believe in the Senate as an institution. If you believe in your boss and what they’re trying to do, that’s all you can do, just get up every day and do your best.”
‘People want to be in the fight’
On the other side of the aisle, there are lots of Democrats that still bemoan Hillary Clinton’s loss and look for coping mechanisms to get make it through each Trump news cycle.
But others have responded to the challenge of losing in a different way, says Drew Hammill, a longtime aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California.
“I’ve been approached by so many people who have either been on the Hill before or are fresh out of college and want to come to the Hill. People want to be in the fight,” says Mr. Hammill. “I’ve never seen anything like it” – not even in the years of Republican President George W. Bush and the controversial Iraq war, he says.
Hammill, who was Rep. Pelosi’s spokesperson when she was Speaker of the House, says that for himself, things are busier now than they were last year under President Obama. Pelosi and her Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, are the top elected Democrats in town. They’re more the face of the party.
The presidential tweets add a new dynamic, of course. Then there are the breaking news bombs that seem to drop with regularity around 6 or 7 p.m.
“You can’t combat all of it,” says Hammill. Otherwise the message gets lost. Indeed, he observes, the White House’s own message got lost this week.
“You don’t break through if you react to every little thing. But on the flip side, their lack of message discipline doesn’t allow them to break through on a lot of things as well.” For example, this was supposed to be infrastructure week. “What happened to that?”
Indeed, what did happen to that?
Consternation over the unpredictability
The saga of infrastructure publicity may be a textbook example of how Trump has blown up the way Washington usually proceeds.
Trump has long said he wants an infrastructure bill to help rebuild America. But the White House is far from the only entity working on that issue. A coalition of 200 groups outside government – unions, business organizations, think tanks, and others – interested in rebuilding the US organized their own Infrastructure Week for mid-May. They scheduled more than 100 events around the country.
Then, boom, Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey. Cue the media frenzy. The infrastructure events did not get as much attention as they might have otherwise, says the Washington business lobbyist, who was involved in planning the week.
In the time of Trump “there’s a greater sense of consternation because of the unpredictability of what may occur in the next day and how that can disrupt things that have been previously planned,” he says.
Does that burn people out? Maybe a little. But another dynamic is that the Trump swirl has discouraged the Republican governing class from trying to join the new administration, says this D.C. veteran.
After a party has been out of executive power for eight years, a return to the White House usually generates a tsunami of applications from stalwarts who have been working in the private sector. It’s an opportunity to put into practice policies they’ve been working on for years. But this time, it's different.
“We aren’t seeing that rush,” says the lobbyist.
‘Is it a lost cause? No.’
All across D.C., offices meant to house deputy assistant secretaries and other political appointees are empty and echoing. These are the mid-level executives of the government, the people who take policy guidance from the White House, present it to the career civil service folks, and press for implementation.
“We are missing several layers of leadership still,” says a current State Department official, speaking on background.
On issues from Trump’s proposed travel ban to his pullout from the Paris climate change agreement, the White House has not consulted State Department area experts. These are very committed people who have worked long hours trying to protect US interests and make progress for the world at the same time, says this official.
“When decisions are being made without input or engagement from experts, people feel marginalized and are quite concerned about the future,” says the State Dept. official.
In practice, the career staff left can keep some issues moving forward, if funded with money from past year budgets, says this official. But they’re facing proposed budget cuts of 9 to 10 percent under Trump, something that is causing fear and concern.
Those proposed 2018 budget cuts would affect a vast array of government programs, including federal funding that has been used to stand up new renewable energy technologies – and has helped the US keep its global lead in that space, says a noted energy lawyer who works in project finance.
One such loan guarantee program with the Department of Energy has seen strong success, with a default rate of only 2.3 percent, says the lawyer, who has been working in Washington since 1975.
But he’s not throwing up his hands. “Am I concerned? Yes. Do I think it’s a lost cause? No.”
For those who work on climate change, the Trump administration’s actions have caused particular concern, prompting more to participate in marches or protests. Peter Graham, managing director for policy and research at Climate Advisers, says in talking to friends from developing countries with unstable governments or transitions he’s realized the importance of playing the long game.
“We have a lot to learn from them in terms of how to maintain stamina,” he says.
‘So much fun’
Back on Capitol Hill, Bill Cassidy, the Republican senator from Louisiana, has his own way of dealing with Trumpian distractions.
He simply ignores them and stays focused. Putting his hands up to the sides of his head, he says, “I’ve got my blinders on.”
He’s happy, though, to talk about areas where he’s in the thick of things: health care and tax reform, two major issues occupying the Senate. Reporters regularly trail alongside him in the halls, up the elevators, and on to his next destination as he shares his thoughts on tax credits, or, in his own healthcare bill, insurance auto-enrollment for patients.
“It is so much fun, because you walk around thinking about incredibly interesting things, but things which have import,” he says.
This story was reported by Francine Kiefer and Linda Feldmann in Washington, with additional reporting by Christa Case Bryant, Henry Gass, and Jessica Mendoza. It was written by Peter Grier.