Donald Trump was not the first president to criticize the press. Yes, he was the first to publicly call the media “the enemy of the people,” but there’s a long history of chief executives bemoaning the fourth estate. And he’s not the first president to call into question the validity of the judiciary — that honor likely goes to Thomas Jefferson in 1808, when the court ruled against his Embargo Act.
The list of White House firsts and broken presidential norms is lengthy. Jefferson was also the first president to shake hands with guests, bucking the tradition of bowing that his predecessors George Washington and John Adams had established. Trump follows in the path of Zachary Taylor, who was the first president never to have served in an elected office before winning the election. Trump also traveled the trail blazed by John Quincy Adams, who was the first man to win the presidency without capturing the popular vote.
But no president in modern history has subverted Oval Office traditions and conventions as fast and furiously and with as much relish as Trump. After a campaign that could be kindly described as unconventional, it’s not surprising that Trump has strayed from some of the standards the nation has come to expect from the White House. As Americans get a continuing course in the difference between legal mandates and traditional niceties, Trump has spent his opening 100 days in the Oval Office eschewing customs and causing longtime Beltway observers to scratch their heads. Below are a few of the ways the 45th president has broken with the conventions of those who came before him.
Barack Obama was the first president to tweet from a presidential account, getting his own handle in May of 2015. His 352 postings generally promoted policy proposals, showed photos or extended well wishes on various holidays. He also did a few question-and-answer sessions on climate change and health care, but the majority of the tweets were inoffensive platitudes.
That hasn’t been the case since January 20. Trump has used the social media platform to attack everything from his predecessor (more on that in a moment) to the New York Times sports page. He’s posted stories about his approval rating, ranted about fake news, posited theories on paid protesters and illegal voters, addressed a music video featuring Snoop Dogg and advocated battling against Republican legislators in the Freedom Caucus.
The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2017
The president’s feed has been a barely filtered stream of consciousness, but it’s been defended — and even praised — by his staff as a way for Trump to circumvent the media and speak directly to Americans. Despite the supposed clarity of tweeting to the people, the White House is often forced to clean up after the president’s missives, either elaborating on what they claim Trump meant to say or simply stating that “the tweets speak for themselves.”
Attacking a predecessor
One particular tweet speaking for itself dragged some of the most powerful people in Washington into a wild goose hunt for evidence that didn’t exist. At 6:35 in the morning on Saturday, March 4, Trump tweeted, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Over the course of the next hour he added, “I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election! How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
This led Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House intelligence committee, to dig for facts to support the president’s claim, even though it likely started with a report Trump saw on Breitbart and not any official briefing. Even after FBI Director James Comey and the Senate intelligence committee said they could find no evidence of Obama or someone in his administration ordering a wiretap of Trump Tower, the search continued. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway theorized that intelligence agents had perhaps hacked microwaves at Trump Tower. Nunes eventually revealed that some members of the Trump transition team had been recorded incidentally as part of a separate investigation, but he couldn’t support Trump’s claim that Obama had ordered a wiretap to hurt the GOP campaign. Former national security adviser Susan Rice was implicated as an alleged leaker, but the claims couldn’t be corroborated, with Democratic and Republican sources both telling CNN that the classified materials provided no evidence the Obama administration did anything unusual or illegal.
Nunes has since stepped aside from investigating potential Russian interference in the election, a move in part spurred by a late-night meeting he had at the White House regarding his investigation into Trump’s wiretapping allegations.
Undermining the legitimacy of the intelligence community
Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community was fraught before he took the oath of office, after he spent part of the transition questioning their reports on hacks and leaks affecting the election. “They have no idea if it’s Russia or China or somebody,” said Trump in a December interview with Fox News. “It could be somebody sitting in a bed some place. I mean, they have no idea.” In a response to a consensus report from the intelligence agencies in December that Russia had meddled in the election, the transition team issued a statement that questioned the legitimacy of the intelligence community, writing, “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
In early January, BuzzFeed published a dossier containing unsubstantiated intelligence reports gathered on Trump. In response, the president-elect blamed the intelligence community for leaking them, comparing his situation to the Third Reich. “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public,” he tweeted. “One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
Trump visited the CIA headquarters in Langley on his first full day as president, blaming the media for manufacturing his rift with the agencies, saying the media “sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community. And I just want to let you know, the reason you’re the number-one stop is exactly the opposite — exactly.”
The New York Times reported in February that Trump planned on assigning a New York billionaire financier to review the intelligence community, but Stephen Feinberg is still reportedly negotiating how to handle his stake in his investment firm.
“The crown jewel of Palm Beach”
Whether at Camp David, Yalta or Helsinki, it’s not unusual for American presidents to meet foreign leaders outside of Washington. It’s also not unusual for a president to have a standard retreat away from Washington, whether the escape be Sagamore Hill, N.Y., for Theodore Roosevelt, a ranch in Crawford, Texas, for George W. Bush or Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., for Obama. It is unprecedented, however, to invite visiting leaders to hang out at Mar-a-Lago — a private club in Florida described as both the “crown jewel” and “legendary pinnacle” of Palm Beach, Fla., on its website — then conduct formal dinners in the middle of a crowded dining room.
Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Palm Beach property in February. Trump and his dinner guests received reports of a North Korea ballistic missile launch, and other diners who were present caught at least part of the response planning.
“HOLY MOLY !!!” wrote guest Richard DeAgazio on Facebook. “It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that North Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan. The Prime Minister Abe of Japan huddles with his staff and the President is on the phone with Washington DC. the two world leaders then conferred and then went into another room for hastily arranged press conference. Wow…..the center of the action!!!”
That weekend DeAgazio also posed for a photo with an Army officer carrying the “nuclear football,” a briefcase that contains the launch codes for the nation’s atomic arsenal.
“The President was briefed in a SCIFF [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility] prior to dinner,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters after outlets published accounts of the dining terrace diplomacy. “They were reviewing the logistics for the press conference. … President was subsequently briefed in a classified setting.”
Mar-a-Lago became the center of world politics again in early April, when a visit from President Xi Jinping of China coincided with a United States military strike against Syria, with 59 cruise missiles being launched against an air base that had reportedly been used to carry out a chemical weapons attack. How did Trump recall Xi’s visit and the missile strike coinciding? In terms of the club’s finest baked goods.
“I was sitting at the table,” said Trump in an interview with Fox Business News. “We had finished dinner. We’re now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen, and President Xi was enjoying it. And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded, what do you do? And we made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way. And I said, Mr. President, let me explain something to you. This was during dessert.”
Every weekend new photos are posted to social media from guests at the club, showing the president and his staff mingling in the dining room. Legislation has been proposed to make the rolls of the club public — membership information is currently private — but the bill has gained little traction in the legislature. The cost of a membership doubled to $200,000 on January 1.
Awkwardness with longtime allies
At least the Mar-a-Lago meetings with Abe and Xi appear to have gone smoothly, which is a departure from some of the White House’s conversations with two of America’s oldest allies. According to the New York Times and the Washington Post, Trump ended a planned hour-long call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after just 25 minutes, telling him it was the “worst call” of his day talking to foreign leaders.
“This is the worst deal ever,” Trump reportedly said of an agreement to bring 1,250 refugees to the United States from an Australian detention center, the disagreement over the agreement leading to the abrupt end of the call. Vice President Mike Pence said during his visit to Australia last week that the deal would be honored.
In a March meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump did not present her with an invoice for American security guarantees as was initially reported. He did tell her in their private exchange that Germany owed America billions, and that he was prepared to forgive some of the debt because she was “wonderful,” according to a senior administration official and a diplomat briefed on the meeting who spoke to Yahoo News’ Olivier Knox. Trump also seemingly snubbed a handshake attempt by Merkel despite extended exchanges with other White House visitors.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump mentioned that Xi had told him that “Korea actually used to be part of China.” The comments caused outrage in Seoul, as the country has at no point in its history been a part of China. Candidates for the country’s presidency weighed in, and the foreign minister released a statement, saying, “It’s a clear fact acknowledged by the international community that, for thousands of years in history, Korea has never been part of China.” The comments came as the White House attempted to curtail North Korean weapons testing on the peninsula.
Trump is not the first wealthy man with potential business conflicts to take the oath of office, but he’s the first modern president to have this many potential conflicts. George Washington was worth over $500 million in today’s dollars and owned valuable land — farmed by slaves — near the area that would become the nation’s capital. Modern presidents have kept ties to their business – Lyndon Johnson’s radio and TV station holdings, for example — but the country hasn’t seen anything like Trump’s empire, which spans the globe and owes various lenders an estimated $650 million. Trump has said his adult sons are running his business as a blind trust, but the close-knit connections between family, White House politics and business make potential conflicts seemingly impossible to prevent.
The conflicts have been difficult to keep up with since Trump became president-elect. In November, shortly after the election, first daughter Ivanka Trump’s company had to apologize after promoting a $10,000 bracelet from her own jewelry line she wore on 60 Minutes. Conway was censured after telling Americans to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” during a Fox News interview. (Conway was not disciplined, and her exhortation was quite profitable for Ivanka’s company.) Ivanka, now an official White House adviser, put her company into a blind trust, but her influence with the brand is still strong. First lady Melania Trump hasn’t been left out of the familial mix of business and government — her official White House biography had to be edited to remove a reference to her QVC collection of watches and jewelry.
Then there’s the matter of Trump’s Washington hotel, which has become a hub for foreign dignitaries and domestic influence seekers. The Trump Organization has reportedly looked into opening another D.C. hotel under a new Scion brand. Trump’s weekend meals out in Washington have been at the hotel’s restaurants, drawing lines and attention to the steakhouse that opened in September. The organization’s international assets also seem to have benefited from his new position, from Argentina to China to Turkey.
Politicizing a terrorist attack in an ally’s country
Trump broken another key norm by inserting himself into an American ally’s presidential race. “Another terrorist attack in Paris,” tweeted the president on April 21. “The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!”
He was referring to the shooting of police officers in Paris the previous night, and the presidential election he was referencing was a contentious race whose divided factions opened the door for right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen to potentially win the race in a runoff. Later that day Trump told the Associated Press in an interview that he was not formally endorsing Le Pen but that she was “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.”
Trump told the AP in the same interview that he wasn’t concerned that his remarks could potentially send a message to terrorists that their attacks could sway democratic elections.
Read more from Yahoo News’ coverage of Trump’s first 100 days:
- The contrarians: They didn’t vote for Trump, but they would now
- Trump foreign policy at 100 days: The downside of unpredictability
- Twitter, Mar-a-Lago and Obama bashing: The 45th president’s 100 days of norm-busting
- Photos: Voices from overseas — People from around the world consider Trump’s first 100 days