WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 24:  U.S. President Donald Trump walks to the Oval Office after arriving back at the White House, on February 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump made the short trip to National Harbor in Maryland to speak at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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Halfway through an interview in the Oval Office, President Donald Trump is asked if he regrets any of his abrasive tweets about allies, political opponents and the state of the world. Mr Trump pauses, momentarily: “I don’t regret anything, because there is nothing you can do about it. You know if you issue hundreds of tweets, and every once in a while you have a clinker, that’s not so bad.”           

The Trump presidency is like no other in the 230-year history of the American Republic. He is the first commander-in-chief never to have held government or military office; a property tycoon and reality TV host who has changed party allegiance five times. Nominally a populist, he has hired the wealthiest cabinet in history. His top White House aides, including his son-in-law, have combined assets of more than $2bn. 

Mr Trump confounded elite opinion in last year’s election (“You lost, I won,” he informs his guests at the outset). Today, the born-again Republican believes his mainstream critics are once again wrong. Business confidence is up and the Dow has surged. Mr Trump demands credit: like Franklin Roosevelt with radio and John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan with TV, the president sees himself as master communicator to the masses. 

And he has the proof. “Where is Dan? Where is Dan Scavino please?” he bellows across the Oval Office. Within seconds, Mr Scavino, a former golf caddie who ran Mr Trump’s social media during the 2016 campaign and now does the same in the White House, walks over with a laptop to report that the president’s combined following is 101m. “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here . . . I have over 100m followers between Facebook, Twitter [and] Instagram,” Mr Trump says proudly. “Over 100m. I don’t have to go to the fake media.”

The Twitter exchange encapsulates Mr Trump: defiant, if a little defensive, and determined to show he is the man in charge. At times charming, at other times intimidating, his governing style delights in the unconventional. Yet it is profoundly destabilising, at home and abroad. Combined with incendiary accusations that the outgoing Obama administration ordered wiretaps in Trump Tower during the presidential election, as well as lingering questions about possible contacts between his campaign aides and Moscow, it has caused some to wonder if the Trump administration will survive a full term.

Yet as Mr Trump approaches his first 100 days in office, there are tentative signs that there is more method behind the madness than critics suspect. 

Mr Trump and his team view the world in 2017 as marked by economic nationalism and strongmen from Vladimir Putin in Russia and Narendra Modi in India to China’s President Xi Jinping. They see it as a place where the US must vigorously assert its own interests. 

“I do believe in alliances. I believe in relationships. And I believe in partnerships. But alliances have not always worked out very well for us,” he says. 

Uncertain alliances

To allies such as the UK, Germany and Japan, Mr Trump’s transactional approach is deeply unsettling because it ignores the role the US has played in keeping the peace, from western Europe to the Korean Peninsula and the western Pacific. Their fear is that the US, defender of the liberal rules-based order for the past seven decades, is making a historic shift from selfless to selfish superpower. 

A more optimistic, if cynical interpretation is that Mr Trump is merely using his presidential bully pulpit as a softening-up exercise — an opening gambit in a negotiation that will see him pull back once he has achieved more limited, economic and financial objectives in trade policy and international security. 

The president insists he is not bluffing. “This is a very, very serious problem that we have in the world today. And we have more than one, but this is no exercise . . . this is not talk. The United States has talked long enough and you see where it gets us, it gets us nowhere,” he says. “When you say is this a brilliant exercise, this isn’t a brilliant exercise . . . At the same time, I am not telling you what I am doing.”

Trump on . . . 

Healthcare reform ‘If we don’t get what we want, [from Republicans] we will make a deal with the Democrats [on healthcare]’

Brexit  ‘I think it is going to be a great deal for UK, and I think it is going to be really, really good also for the EU’

TwitterWithout the tweets, I wouldn’t be here. I have over 100m [followers]. I don’t have to go to fake media’

One thing he has made very clear is his desire to level the international playing field. He believes it has tilted too far in favour of allies enjoying a free ride under the US military umbrella, or emerging economies, notably China, which he claims have exploited world trade rules. In his telling, America has been a soft touch. 

“It hasn’t worked for our predecessors. Look where we are. We have an $800bn trade deficit,” says Mr Trump. (The Department of Commerce reports the US trade deficit in goods and services was just over $500bn in 2016.) 

On Thursday and Friday, Mr Trump will host Mr Xi at Mar-a-Lago, his opulent Florida resort. The meeting poses perhaps the stiffest test so far of his “America first” approach. The US has a $347bn trade deficit with China; and one of Mr Trump’s campaign pledges was to brand Beijing a currency manipulator, a move which earlier US administrations considered, but discarded.

China, the rising power in the region, is a vital potential partner in helping to contain neighbouring North Korea. Yet before assuming office, Mr Trump made a point of speaking to the incoming Taiwanese president. The exchange cast doubt on America’s commitment to the “One China” policy under which Washington recognises Beijing as the sole legal government of China.

However, Mr Trump told Mr Xi last month that he would honour the policy and is studiously polite about his soon-to-be guest. “I have great respect for him. I have great respect for China. I would not be at all surprised if we did something that would be very dramatic and good for both countries.”

Many experts worried that President Trump would be dangerously volatile on foreign policy. But the combination of some strong figures in his national security team, particularly James Mattis, defence secretary, and the calming role of Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s influential son-in-law, appears to be steadying the ship. Mr Trump has stopped speaking about moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while reviving talk about a possible two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians and softening criticism of Nato allies. One constant is that he resolutely refuses to say a bad word about Mr Putin. 

While Mr Trump never apologises, he is capable of Protean shifts. In his interview with the Financial Times, he is keen to make clear he has no grudge against Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, having apparently declined to shake hands with her in front of the cameras in the Oval Office. 

President Donald Trump meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, March 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Angela Merkel and Donald Trump meet in Washington in March © AP

“I had a great meeting with Chancellor Merkel,” Mr Trump says. “I shook hands about five times and then we were sitting in two seats . . . and I guess a reporter said ‘shake her hand’. I didn’t hear it.” 

On Brexit, he is similarly anxious to dispel suggestions that the US would happily countenance a break-up of the EU. Asked if he thought other nations were likely to follow the UK, Mr Trump says: “I would have thought when it happened that more would follow, but I really think the European Union is getting their act together.”

No bluffing on trade

On trade policy, too, Mr Trump appears to be more practical than many observers first assumed. Having berated Mexico as the chief source of illegal immigration and unfair trading practices under the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), the administration is shifting gear. For example, Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary and long-time friend, is seeking to resolve a longstanding dispute over sugar, aware that failure would embolden Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a radical left-winger running for Mexican president in 2018. 

Mr Ross, who joined the interview, cautions that people should not underestimate Mr Trump. “Tough rhetoric is certainly useful in the lead-up to negotiations, but the president isn’t bluffing,” he says.

If his foreign policy is less revolutionary than first feared, Mr Trump’s domestic agenda remains controversial. He  was propelled to office on a populist wave as Republicans, and enough blue-collar Democrats, rallied to his cause, abandoning Hillary Clinton, the establishment favourite. In his “Carnage in America” inaugural speech, Mr Trump paid homage to his supporters  declaring that “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer”.

Chart: Trump presidency data

The president has championed the cause of US manufacturing, cajoling foreign and US corporations to think again about locating jobs and factories in America. However, the self-styled dealmaker is finding governing harder than he imagined, even though the Republican party enjoys majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate. 

Things began to unravel when he sought to use executive powers to control immigration — with both the first and second attempts blocked by the courts. More significant was the recent setback in efforts to replace the Obamacare healthcare law. 

Republican leaders abandoned a vote after failing to win enough support to pass a hastily assembled bill. “I didn’t want to take a vote. I said why should I take a vote?” says Mr Trump, who pledged to repeal Obamacare as soon as he took office. Asked how he felt about the setback, he is still sore: “Yeah, I don’t lose. I don’t like to lose.”

He stresses that Republican lawmakers are still trying to reach a deal. But he says it “would be fine” if the Freedom Caucus, a group of hardline conservatives who are fierce opponents of Obamacare and also unhappy with the first bill, remain holdouts. 

China's President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the House of Parliament in Bern as part of his two-day state visit to Switzerland on January 15, 2017. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to be the star attraction at this year's Davos forum, taking place next week at a time of rising populism and uncertainty around the globe. / AFP / POOL / PETER KLAUNZER (Photo credit should read PETER KLAUNZER/AFP/Getty Images)
China's President Xi Jinping meets with Donald Trump on Thursday for a summit that is expected to focus on trade and North Korea © AFP

“If we don’t get what we want, we will make a deal with the Democrats and we will have in my opinion not as good a form of healthcare,” says the president. “But we are going to have a very good form of healthcare. It will be a bipartisan form of healthcare.”

The White House initially viewed Obamacare reform as “the key to unlocking the door”, and generating the funds necessary to make it easier to draft the first major US tax reform legislation since 1986 as well as a new $1tn infrastructure programme. Now, however, it is unclear how the administration can craft tax legislation that would satisfy fiscal conservatives by not raising the deficit.

Chart: Trump presidency data

Mr Trump is holding his cards close. “I don’t want to talk about timing. We will have a very massive and very strong tax reform,” he says.  Left unsaid is that his team is desperately looking for new ways to finance tax cuts, which need to be revenue-neutral to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. 

Unless Mr Trump can salvage healthcare reform, he will hit his first 100 days in office without any big-ticket successes. His choice of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court was applauded by Republicans, but Democrats are threatening to block a vote in the Senate.

His advisers are working on ways to bypass Congress — mainly through a series of executive orders and other actions. This is what Steve Bannon, the top White House strategist, ominously calls “the deconstruction of the administrative state”. 

Mr Bannon has set up a “war room” in the West Wing where he has listed all of Mr Trump’s campaign pledges on a large whiteboard.  The billion-dollar questions are whether Mr Trump can translate those pledges, especially the one to “Make America Great Again”, into practical policy, and whether he can keep his business interests separate from official business. 

Mr Trump is keen to dispel any misleading parallels in world history. After posing in front of Andrew Jackson, the first populist US president, he escorts his guests to an adjoining room where a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt hangs, whom he praises as a game-changing president. While true, one visitor gently reminds Mr Trump that there is a crucial difference. TR boasted of carrying a big stick, but he also made a virtue of speaking softly. 

Follow @lionelbarber, @Dimi and @gilliantett on Twitter.

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