News analysis

Trump's first month in office the rockiest in modern history

US leader has inspired supporters but also energised opponents in sharply polarised country

United States President Donald Trump's first month in office, marked by a mix of radical policy change and inexperience, has been the rockiest of any president in modern history.

There has been no honeymoon. Mr Trump's unorthodox, seemingly improvisational style has shaken up Washington and unsettled US trade partners and allies.

In a country already sharply polarised, his challenging the status quo across a broad front has not only inspired his supporters, but also energised opponents, possibly further solidifying opposition.

The courts and the bureaucracy have pushed back. More contention lies ahead as Mr Trump makes fresh moves to curtail immigration, sustains his attacks on the media and criticises the intelligence community for leaking information.

His criticism of judges, for "political" decisions that stalled a controversial executive order on immigration, may have created difficulties for his pick of Mr Neil Gorsuch for a Supreme Court seat. Mr Gorsuch faces his first Senate confirmation hearing on March 20.

Since taking office, Mr Trump's unorthodox style has shaken up Washington and unsettled US trade partners and allies. More contention lies ahead as he makes fresh moves to curtail immigration, sustains his attacks on the media and criticises the inte

Mr Trump remains in campaign mode - a strategy that bypasses convention and takes his message directly to his power base.

Prior to a rally in Florida at the start of the weekend, he told reporters on board Air Force One: "Life is a campaign. Making our country great again is a campaign."

He told 9,000 people at the rally: "I want to speak to you without the filter of the fake news."

In a glowing self-appraisal, he named a string of initiatives that he has launched to fulfil campaign promises, and pledged more of the same.

 

Much of what Mr Trump has done is "political theatre" specialising in "confusion, diversion and distraction", cautioned Professor Inderjeet Parmar from the Department of International Politics at the City, University of London.

"Under all the theatrics about Russia, about Muslim bans and Mexican walls, there are far bigger things going on," he said, mentioning the rollback of regulations on the environment and big banks.

Mr Trump has had setbacks, though. The Democratic Party's foot-dragging on the confirmation of his Cabinet appointees means he has not had a meeting of his full Cabinet yet. His nominee for Labour secretary, Mr Andy Puzder, had to withdraw following embarrassing revelations, including that about his hiring of an undocumented migrant worker.

Mr Trump also lost a second key figure in national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was essentially embarrassed into resigning over a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador in Washington before Mr Trump had taken power.

On the bright side, Mr Trump had a successful meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and a cordial phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

His acceptance of the "one China" policy "averted a major crisis in US-China relations", Ms Bonnie Glaser, director of the China power project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mail. "It created the opportunity to start talking about other issues in the relationship. Beijing is eager for a resumption of dialogue and diplomacy."

But foreign and national security policies are "a work in progress", said Emeritus Professor Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. "The firing of Michael Flynn has made policy coherence within the National Security Council all the more difficult. The fact that senior staff to the departments of Defence and State have not been nominated, let alone approved, means that policy coherence is also lacking in line ministries," he said.

Much of the mainstream media - never friendly to Mr Trump - has been further antagonised and is unlikely to let up on the so-called Russian connection.

"That's the most important issue to keep an eye on," Mr Rafael Frankel, vice-president of consultancy Bower Group Asia, told The Straits Times. "Depending on what emerges, Russia and conflict of interest could be a game ender for him."

At home, Mr Trump seems to thrive on the impression that he is under siege from a hostile media and stubborn Democrats. He has a popularity rating of 40 per cent - the lowest for any president in modern history - but his own support base has remained largely intact.

But while the combativeness was expected, "even a combative administration needs to choose its fights carefully and selectively", Cornell University professor Glenn Altschuler said in a telephone interview. "When you attack members of the intelligence community... going after them for leaks, you should expect more leaks. We can expect the media to redouble its efforts to investigate him," he added.

Analysts say that the Republicans are so far choosing accommodation because they are getting what they want - business-friendly deregulation and a conservative agenda. But Mr Frankel said: "The Republican leadership has the power to put on the brakes or put on the screws. Vice-President Mike Pence is their insurance policy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'Trump's first month in office the rockiest in modern history'. Print Edition | Subscribe