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Press Secretary Sean Spicer faces “the opposition”: Trump’s adviser Stephen Bannon has said that the media ought to “keep its mouth shut” (© Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


Donald Trump told dinner guests at the White House on February 26 that his first month in office had “been fun”. As we all know, that month and those that followed were actually chaotic, plagued by a huge legislative defeat over healthcare, by leaks, by scandals and by the invalidation of executive orders by the courts. Adding to this shambles have been the president’s persistent tweets which enable him to shoot himself in the foot over and over again. His tweet exhorting the Justice Department to give General Michael Flynn immunity from prosecution, for example, was an improper intervention in the judicial process which could well rebound on him. Similarly, it is hopeless for the administration to insist before the courts that its travel ban is not a Muslim ban when Trump has frequently tweeted that a Muslim ban is exactly what he would introduce.

In addition, there are literally thousands of unfilled jobs in the administration. Of the 553 senior appointments that Trump needed to get through the Senate by the end of March he got only 21 through and he nominated only another 40. For the other 492 he hadn’t even made nominations. Even the White House — where Trump needs no Senate assent — is badly under-staffed. Part of the problem lies in the fact that Trump likes to micro-manage even junior appointments, with each nominee then being fought over by the contending White House factions. This is an unusual and dysfunctional process.

But these are not normal times. From the word go this administration has operated in an atmosphere of unprecedented polarisation. It was quite abnormal for the inauguration to trigger nationwide hostile demonstrations and, afterwards, for Democrat activists to organise a “resistance” movement to the new president. As many town hall meetings showed, there is a level of popular disquiet and partisan feeling never normally seen in what is usually the honeymoon period of a new presidency. The media have picked up on this excitement and every day has seen breathless reports about every new blunder by the administration.

The White House itself is gripped by this excitement and a sort of threat of violence at one remove. It is not abnormal for presidents to quarrel with the media, but from the very outset Trump and his advisers have said that the media are “the opposition”, that they ought to “shut up” and even that they were “the enemy of the people”. Trump himself denounces the media repeatedly, referring to all the mainstream newspapers and TV channels as “fake news”, “the lying media” and so on, and he has fulminated that various press practices (such as relying on anonymous sources) should “not be allowed”. We have even seen his spokesman Sean Spicer deliberately exclude the New York Times, CNN, the BBC and various other key outlets from a press conference. Trump also refused to attend the usual White House Correspondents’ Dinner — the first time in 36 years that a president has failed to attend.

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