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Americans Divided Over Donald Trump's Early Moves As President-Elect


Even before he is sworn in as president, Donald Trump is putting his own stamp on the role of chief executive. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Donald Trump is shaping up to be more than just an activist president. With one tweet, he can drive down the stock price of a major American company. With another, he can unleash a flood of death threats against a local labor leader who displeases him.

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens is a Trump critic who says the president-elect is giving new meaning to the bully part of the bully pulpit. Take Trump's intervention to force the Carrier company to keep 750 jobs in the United States.

BRET STEPHENS: Carrier just sets a dangerous precedent that a president can essentially take a private company by the throat. It's not what you'd expect really from a guy who supposedly believes in the power of free market.

LIASSON: Other Trump critics say the Carrier deal was worse than just bad economic policy. Evan McMullin ran against Trump in the presidential election. He's worried that Trump has authoritarian instincts.

EVAN MCMULLIN: The most fundamental part of authoritarianism is this idea that what the authoritarian believes should go goes, and that's it. They are the only authority. It's the president making decisions about particular companies rather than working within the system to create laws that affect companies in the context of the rule of law.

LIASSON: But Trump supporters say Trump is just a strong leader doing exactly what he promised to do during the campaign. Laura Ingraham, a conservative talk show host on LifeZette, says what Trump did when he reminded Carrier's parent company about their defense contracts with the federal government and got them to accept the package of incentives the state of Indiana was already offering them was well within the bounds of traditional executive action.

LAURA INGRAHAM: Giving companies incentives to stay in states, as you see governors do all the time, is very popular across party lines. And what's wrong with that? What's wrong with doing things that actually help regular working-class Americans and that are popular?

I just think in the end, we have to start re-examining our economic policy. Otherwise, we're just going to have people working in strip malls, and maybe the lucky few are going to be computer code writers. But I don't know what all the other people are going to do for jobs.

LIASSON: Trump's critics point to other examples to argue that Trump could undermine liberal democracy, like Trump's steady stream of inaccurate statements, including the false claim that millions of illegal votes prevented him from winning a popular vote majority.

MCMULLIN: It serves to undermine our democratic institutions. And so if those institutions are weakened, if we have less faith, for example, in elections, that strengthens the hand in the freedom of operation that the authoritarian has.

LIASSON: Whether you call it lies, propaganda or fake news, it's become a big part of Trump's leadership style. At a recent forum at Harvard University, Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski didn't even try to argue that what Trump says is true.


COREY LEWANDOWSKI: You guys took everything Donald Trump said so literally. And the problem with that is the American people didn't. They understood that sometimes when you have a conversation with people, whether it's around the dinner table or it's at the bar, you're going to say something - and maybe you don't have all the facts to back that up.

LIASSON: Lewandowski seemed to be arguing that since average Americans often don't know what they're talking about, why should Trump? Other Trump surrogates like Scottie Nell Hughes openly embrace Trump as the first president operating in a post-factual world.

SCOTTIE NELL HUGHES: There's no such thing unfortunately anymore of fact. So Mr. Trump's tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are true.

LIASSON: But the argument that Trump somehow poses a threat to Democratic institutions - that's a bunch of left-wing hyperventilation, says Karl Rove, former chief strategist for President George W. Bush.

KARL ROVE: This is farfetched, starting with the authoritarian - yes, there are Republicans concerned that he rambunctiously doesn't understand the constraints on the executive and doesn't understand the prerogatives of Article 1 that the Congress enjoys. Yeah, but you know what? The process is going to teach him those constraints, and reality is going to teach him those constraints.

LIASSON: Although Republican leaders say they're comfortable with Trump maintaining his business interests with all the potential conflicts and self-dealing that might imply, there has been some pushback from Republicans in Congress against other Trump suggestions - for mass deportations or stripping citizenship from flag burners or slapping tariffs on companies that leave the U.S.

And there are other restraints on any president, says former Clinton White House adviser Bill Galston. There's the Constitution and all the checks and balances that the founders designed to protect individual rights, a free press and an independent judiciary.

BILL GALSTON: I think the next few years will be a kind of stress test for the liberal democratic constitutional institutions that we have built with such pain and such struggle over the past two and a quarter centuries. And I am cautiously optimistic that our institutions will pass that test, but they will be tested.

LIASSON: This is what the conversation is like at the dawn of the age of Trump, where it's not yet clear what a Trump presidency will mean for the economy, foreign policy or for democratic institutions. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.