HOUSTON—Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing: James A. Baker III was the gold standard when it came to running a White House. And so far he’s not overly impressed when it comes to the troubled kickoff of the Trump administration.
In his first extensive comments on America’s controversial new president, the former chief of staff, campaign manager, diplomat and all-around GOP wise man offered a serious and substantive critique of the early days of President Trump’s takeover. His advice: Stop blowing up the U.S. relationship with Mexico, don’t expect them to pay for the wall, don’t act as “Israel’s lawyer,” don’t be an isolationist, support NATO and do a much better job of working with the other power centers of Washington—Congress and the Cabinet—before unveiling disruptive new policies like the temporary refugee ban. “The rollout here was deficient, we have to acknowledge that,” he says.
When we met in his Houston office last week for the launch of The Global Politico, our new weekly podcast on international affairs in the Trump era, Baker held forth for nearly an hour about how things are supposed to work in a West Wing that’s got its game on, the ways in which the brash billionaire in the White House is—and is not—like his old boss Ronald Reagan, and his disappointment in Barack Obama for leaving “the world in much worse shape than it was eight years ago.”
He also weighed in on Russia sanctions, taking a firm line that they should remain in place to remind the Russian President Vladimir Putin that “rolling the tanks” into neighboring countries like Ukraine will not be tolerated, worried that Trump will trade those sanctions away for “nothing” and argued that Israel is risking its future by building more settlements. “We have allies that are just scared to death,” he notes, as a result of Trump’s early rhetoric and unpredictable foreign policy.
One of the Republican Party’s few remaining elder statesmen and a key architect of the last two GOP administrations seen as successful, Baker, now 86 and still hard at work, helped bring the Cold War to a soft landing, negotiated the reunification of Germany and assembled the coalition that won the first war with Iraq. Today, he’s far enough outside the Beltway bubble to avoid the hysteria of the Twitter news cycle it can seem like the rest of us are trapped in—and so savvy about the ways of Washington that his worries seem like just the ones to pay really close attention to as we all figure out how to navigate a Trump presidency that is already disrupting decades of American foreign policy. It bears noting that Baker is not just another establishment #NeverTrumper; in fact, he discloses that he voted for Trump, however reluctantly, given Trump’s attacks on the two Bushes Baker helped usher to the presidency, though he is clearly more enthusiastic about his hunting buddy Rex Tillerson, the longtime ExxonMobil CEO just sworn in as secretary of state, the job Baker held 25 years ago.
When he reigned in the Washington of the 1980s as its premier backstage power broker, Baker took as his personal motto the saying, “prior preparation prevents poor performance.” Clearly, the Trump White House is not yet delivering on the prior preparation part, a problem that Baker says may well be because Trump comes from decades of running his own company exactly as he wished. “Running a business and running the government are two entirely different functions, quite frankly, and process matters,” says Baker, who tells me he has also given his advice directly to Trump, Tillerson and Trump’s new chief of staff Reince Priebus. And presumably also Vice President Mike Pence, who was seated next to Baker at last night’s Super Bowl in Houston. “Process matters a lot in order to avoid mistakes, controversy.”
Already, he is struck by a White House that he worries is set up for internal conflict, division and miscommunication. “The White House that they have constructed has a lot of chiefs,” he says. “In this White House, it seems to me, you’ve got at least four, maybe five, different power centers, so we are just going to have to wait and see how it works in practice.”
In this White House, it seems to me, you’ve got at least four, maybe five, different power centers, so we are just going to have to wait and see how it works in practice.”
But it would be a mistake to say Baker sees Trump as doomed to fail. As befits a congenital dealmaker, he’s an optimist at heart, one who can often discern an opening where others see a closed door. And so Baker is careful to say he believes—well, maybe hopes is a better word—that Trump will turn out to be a pragmatic president who cares enough about succeeding in the job to change course after screwing up. “Pragmatic” is a great compliment when wielded by Baker, and he is not one to choose the public bullhorn of opposition to a president of his own party. “It’s not unexpected you have these kind of kinks. The important thing is you learn from ‘em,” he says.
Still, it is not just the poor rollout, confusion and uncertainty around Trump’s executive order on refugees that have stood out to Baker. When we meet in a skyscraper-high conference room at Baker Botts, the law firm that bears his great-grandfather’s name, surrounded by photos of his days at the side of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Baker is particularly roiled by the very unpragmatic way in which the Trumpites have alienated and upset the Mexican president in the first days of the new administration.
It’s not the wall itself—that’s delivering on a campaign promise, as far as Baker is concerned. But insisting that Mexico pay for it even while expecting President Enrique Pena Nieto to visit the White House seemed to Baker just needlessly insulting, given that any Mexican president would find it politically impossible to agree to such a thing.
“The art of the deal is understanding what the political constraints are on the person across the table,” Baker says. “That’s a really important relationship and we shouldn’t lose it.” Later, unprompted, he returns to Mexico. “You can’t expect to have Mexico say, ‘We’re going to pay for the wall.’ They’ll never do that,” he says. “All Mexicans oppose the idea of being arm-twisted into paying for the wall. They’re not going to do it.”
The ghost of Ronald Reagan looms large over our conversation. Many Republicans have cited the example of Reagan as another outsider who came to Washington determined to blow up its ideology and stale conventions, and no doubt Trump—who entered office with record-high disapproval ratings—would love a taste of the public acclaim Reagan enjoyed through most of his two terms in office.
In fact, Baker says, it was a favorable comparison he drew between Reagan and Trump at the lunch before Nancy Reagan’s funeral last year that led, indirectly, to his one-on-one meeting with Trump. As he recounts it, Baker was telling Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister of Canada, that Trump’s rise reminded him of Reagan’s.
“I said I saw some parallels here with the way Reagan came up,” Baker says. “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.”
Mulroney, unbeknownst to Baker, is a friend of Trump’s, and soon after, Baker got a call from the billionaire. At their meeting, Baker handed him a two-page memo with some thoughts about the campaign, including his hope that Trump would not abandon core Republican principles like free trade and American leadership in the world.
Baker may see political parallels between Trump and Reagan, and he certainly sees an echo of the GOP establishment’s early disdain for Reagan in its distaste for Trump today. But as I’ve learned working on a biography of Baker over the last couple years along with my husband, the New York Times’s Peter Baker, Jim Baker was so invaluable to the Reagan Revolution not because he helped the Gipper blow up Washington but because he knew how to work its institutions. And that included first and foremost the White House, where Baker as chief of staff quickly figured out how to gain control despite being a newcomer to the president’s inner circle who was viewed suspiciously by Reagan’s longtime aides and ideologists like Ed Meese.
Jim Baker was so invaluable to the Reagan Revolution not because he helped the Gipper blow up Washington but because he knew how to work its institutions.
In our conversation, Baker makes a point of drawing a distinction between Trump and Reagan on just this point.
“In fact, Ronald Reagan’s administration had a lot of people in it who had been there before,” he says. “And we knew how Washington worked and what didn’t work. Consultation and not surprising people is important if you want them to support the policy and Ronald Reagan was very good at understanding that. He was ideological, there’s no doubt about it… but in terms of how you got there and what you did, he wanted to do it in a way that made it work, so that you could accomplish it. And that’s what he did,” Baker says. “He was to some extent an ideologue but people don’t appreciate the extent to which he was really pragmatic. If he told me once he told me a thousand times sitting there in the Oval Office with him… he would say, ‘Jim, I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over a cliff with my flag flying.’”
Many of those lessons that Baker learned as Reagan’s chief of staff are the ones that still color his views about how to run a government and win at politics—even all these years later in the Trump era.
But when it comes to foreign policy, it’s his experience with his close friend of decades, George H.W. Bush, that frames his view of the optimal setup for Washington getting things done in the world—and that’s a setup that’s virtually unimaginable for Tillerson in today’s secretary of state role.
“The most important thing for a secretary of state to have is a seamless relationship with his president. And that’s one of the things I told Rex,” Baker says in our interview, before quickly noting that in his case, he and the president were so close that Bush was his daughter’s godfather. “Nobody was ever going to get between me and my president.”
For Tillerson, who has just met Trump, saw himself cut out of the early controversial decisions like the refugee ban and wasn’t present for the president’s tough phone calls with worried American allies, no one can imagine such a relationship. He’s likely to wake up each morning just as surprised by the president’s Twitter rants on global matters as the rest of us.
Still, I came away somewhat reassured by the conversation with Baker. When contemplating the early disruptions of the Trump era, it clearly helps to have the long view.
Then again, when I press Baker, as famous for his lawyerly caution back in the day as much as for his negotiating skills, one last time on what kind of president Trump will turn out to be, there is no upbeat ending, just a clear-eyed summation.
“We don’t know yet,” he says. “I think we have a president who wants to succeed. We’re going to find out soon enough….”