As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump sold himself as a successful businessman and deal-maker who gets things done. But former Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III warns that “running a business and running the government are two entirely different functions.”
In a wide-ranging new interview with Politico, the widely respected Republican — who counts admirers from both sides of the aisle and reigned as Washington’s top backstage power broker under former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan — shares his criticisms, hopes and advice for the 45th president.
Rule No. 1: “Process matters,” says Baker. “Process matters a lot in order to avoid mistakes, controversy.”
As a result of Trump’s inflammatory campaign rhetoric and unpredictable foreign policy, “We have allies that are just scared to death,” Baker says.
In his first two weeks in office, Trump took steps to fulfill his controversial campaign promises to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and to temporarily ban refugees and Muslims from entering the U.S.
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Baker, who tells Politico that he voted for Trump, takes issue not with the wall or the ban themselves — but with the way they were unveiled by the Trump administration.
Of the refugee ban, he says: “The rollout here was deficient, we have to acknowledge that.”
And when it comes to the much-promised wall, Baker decries Trump’s unrelenting insistence that Mexico will pay for the wall — even in the days leading up to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s since-canceled visit to the White House.
“The art of the deal is understanding what the political constraints are on the person across the table. That’s a really important relationship and we shouldn’t lose it,” Baker said, later adding, “You can’t expect to have Mexico say, ‘We’re going to pay for the wall.’ They’ll never do that. All Mexicans oppose the idea of being arm-twisted into paying for the wall. They’re not going to do it.”
Baker tells Politico he has shared his advice on how to get things done in Washington directly with Trump, his new secretary of state (and Baker’s hunting buddy), Rex Tillerson, and Trump’s new chief of staff, Reince Priebus. It’s also likely Baker imparted some words of wisdom to Vice President Mike Pence, who was his seatmate at Sunday night’s Super Bowl in Houston.
Trump phoned Baker personally when he heard that the former secretary of state had favorably compared Trump to his former boss, President Reagan, at a lunch before Nancy Reagan’s funeral last year.
“I said I saw some parallels here with the way Reagan came up,” Baker recalls. “I was an establishment Republican when Reagan was coming up and we were really fearful, we were afraid he was going to get us in a nuclear war. Here was this Grade B actor, Bedtime for Bonzo, I mean, my God [we thought] the world was going to end, and that turned out not to be the case.”
While Trump was still a candidate, he and Baker had a one-on-one meeting. After it was over, Baker handed Trump a two-page memo with some thoughts about the campaign, including his hope that Trump would uphold Republican principles like free trade and American leadership in the world.
Politico sums up Baker as an optimist at heart (“as benefits a congenital dealmaker”) — and one who is hopeful Trump will turn out to be a “pragmatic president” who won’t be too stubborn to change course if he screws up.
“It’s not unexpected you have these kind of kinks. The important thing is you learn from ‘em,” says Baker.