One hundred days is way too short a time to assess a presidency. On this, if little else, there was unanimity among our stellar panel, facing a 1,000-strong audience in the dramatic arena of Westminster’s Emmanuel Centre. In summary, The Donald’s performance has been erratic and high-risk, but he isn’t all bad: panellist and self-proclaimed friend-of-Trump Piers Morgan recalled a New York barman saying, ‘He’ll either turn out a great president, or we’re all gonna die.’
So why try to judge him so soon? Because it is presidents themselves, starting with FDR, who have chosen to highlight this artificial milestone — and Donald Trump went larger than most by setting himself a crazily overblown list of objectives. That included building a wall along America’s southern border and replacing Obamacare, both of which (as the cultural commentator Bonnie Greer pointed out, with satisfaction) he has so far signally failed to achieve.
Listen to the full audio from last night’s event:
Greer apart, the panel gave the Donald some credit for his 100-day record. Most important, he secured the appointment to the Supreme Court of the conservative judge Neil Gorsuch. He picked a capable foreign policy team of Rex Tillerson at the State Department, Jim Mattis at Defence and H. R. McMaster as national security adviser — all inclined to steer the president towards relatively conventional Republican policy positions. Panellist Steve Erlanger, London bureau chief of the New York Times, added that firing General Mike Flynn, Trump’s controversial first choice for national security adviser, also counts as a notable achievement.
Below that, however, Trump has failed to appoint some 500 mid-ranking Washington officials, at State and elsewhere, who should by now be moving his agenda forward. Former deputy assistant secretary of state Colleen Graffy explained that a new president with long political experience arrives at the White House with a full entourage of potential appointees, but Trump had almost none. Instead, said Steve Erlanger, he relies — like a Mafia boss — on his family, his lawyers and his accountant. But he can’t ask his son-in-law Jared Kushner to run everything, and he really needs to fill out his team.
Trump hasn’t been abroad (or even west of the Mississippi) in his first 100 days, and sometimes displays frightening ignorance of the rest of the world. But he demonstrated a willingness to fire missiles when the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons ‘crossed his red line’ — something Barack Obama had shamefully failed to do in eight years, said Morgan — and in confronting Russia by doing so, he scotched the conspiracy theory that he was Putin’s puppet. In relation to China, he started badly by making overtures to Taiwan but ended by eating chocolate cake with his new friend President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, and edging towards an understanding on how to handle North Korea.
On this brief evidence, what can we make of such an inexperienced and unpredictable president? He has huge energy for a man of 70, said Morgan, he has the urge to win, he’s very sharp-witted: he’s a dealmaker who shouldn’t be judged by where he starts a negotiation, but where he finishes. As a real estate guy at heart, agreed Colleen Graffy, he has a vision of the completed development in his mind, and he’ll say whatever he has to say to make it happen and sell it. When he was building Trump Tower in New York, which has 58 floors, he’s supposed to have told his marketing people: ‘Say it has 68 floors, it sounds more impressive.’ And that’s how his presidency is likely to proceed — but don’t underestimate him, added Professor Ted Malloch, Trump’s pick for ambassador to the EU: his approval ratings may be low now, but he’s already looking towards a second term.
And what of his morals, asked an audience member: can you be a good president without being a good person? Well, said Morgan, Trump’s attitude to women may be offensive, but two of the most admired presidents of modern times, Bill Clinton and JFK, were far more outrageous womanisers. And being a good leader isn’t about being good, said Erlanger, it’s about determination and judgement. Does he have those? ‘He’s not my president,’ concluded Bonnie Greer, ‘But we’ll just have to wait and see.’
Our 100-day debate ran on for a little over 100 minutes — but the audience was clearly relishing the wit of former minister Michael Gove, the dry observation of Steve Erlanger, the insight of Colleen Graffy and Ted Malloch, the cut-and-thrust between an offended Bonnie Greer and a peacocking Piers Morgan — and the informed chairmanship of Andrew Neil. Only The Spectator assembles live discussions of this quality, and only history will judge whether Donald Trump’s presidency is a triumph or a disaster. So far, the jury’s out.