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Donald Trump seems to be stunningly ignorant about what a president actually does

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

President-elect Donald Trump ran for president apparently without understanding the job description.

In the five days following his victory at the polls, the Wall Street Journal reported Trump’s team didn’t understand they would have to hire a new West Wing policy staff. Trump, according to the New York Times, apparently hopes to commute from the White House to New York or Mar-a-Lago on weekends. Trump said he expected a quick getting-to-know-you meeting with President Obama on Thursday, even though it was scheduled to last an hour.

His level of ignorance is so profound that President Obama is reportedly planning to spend an unusual amount of time with Trump, more than President Bush spent with him, to try to prepare Trump for the next four years.

Given that Trump’s political career was based on questioning Obama’s eligibility and fitness for office, it’s fair to assume Obama wouldn’t do this if he thought he had another choice. And given that Trump has no experience in governing and, so far, hasn’t added anyone to his tight inner circle who does, Trump’s misunderstandings about the presidency are essentially a crisis.

That means the Cabinet and officials he puts in place are going to be critically important — not just because they have a lot of power to influence policy, but because in some ways they’re going to be teaching the president how to do his job.

Being president is very different from running for president

President Obama Meets With President-Elect Donald Trump In The Oval Office Of White House
Trump meets Obama in the Oval Office on November 10.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Running for president is hard. You’re on the road all the time, your every utterance is scrutinized, you have to prepare for debates and manage donors and keep up a tough schedule.

But being president is much, much harder. Trump used to joke on the campaign trail about how hard he was working at running for president. One theme that emerges from reports from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal is that he doesn’t realize how much harder it can get.

In the meeting with Obama, the Journal reports, Trump seemed surprised by how much the president has to do: “Mr. Obama walked his successor through the duties of running the country, and Mr. Trump seemed surprised by the scope.”

He wants to continue holding large rallies — “he likes the instant gratification and adulation that the cheering crowds provide” — and perhaps running his own Twitter account, according to the New York Times.

Nor did Trump realize he had to hire a staff. The Wall Street Journal wrote that Trump aides “were … as unaware that the entire presidential staff working in the West Wing had to be replaced at the end of Mr. Obama’s term.”

And, the Times reported, he “might spend most of the week in Washington, much like members of Congress,” and spend the weekends on his various properties around the country, including Trump Tower in New York and Mar-a-Lago in Florida.

It’s not clear whether Trumps thinks that he gets the weekends off, or that he simply expects to be able to work from wherever he is. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan both had a “Western White House” — Bush’s ranch in Texas, Reagan’s ranch in California — with security and communications upgrades so they could work from there.

But the presidency is not set up for telecommuting every weekend. Most politicians would understand this is a political liability. Days the president spends away from the White House and not on official trips, no matter how much work is being done, are traditionally counted as “vacation” and closely tracked, something Trump would realize if he’d paid attention to the flak Bush caught for spending nearly 500 days of his presidency on his Texas ranch.

Trump is going to find out the reality of the presidency very soon. But he’s already the first president to take office without experience in either government or the military. And he’s shown little sign of trying to make up for those deficits.

Trump’s lack of preparation makes his key hires even more important

The media didn’t expect Trump to win, and, it sounds like, neither did he — but the Wall Street Journal also reported that he feared a “jinx” if he started planning seriously for his administration before the election. Last week was apparently the first time that Trump seriously confronted the reality of being president.

Two recently passed laws on presidential transitions require candidates to start planning to take office long before they’re actually elected, because the short period between Election Day and inauguration is important, and a federal requirement shields candidates from accusations that they’re being presumptuous. Trump had a transition team in place starting in May.

But he still has thousands of people to hire. And they’re going to be very important.

A president’s choice of advisers is always significant. But every previous president has had experience thinking about the kinds of questions about priorities and policy effects they’re going to have to grapple with. Trump doesn’t. The people surrounding him are going to have to carry a much heavier load than they would with someone more prepared. And they’re going to be rewarded with much more influence.

Beyond implementing his agenda, Trump has a government to run. And the people he’s picked so far, like him, have very little experience in actually running a government (even a state government). The people below them will be even more important than usual, and this is the first time the team is thinking about hiring them.

Two notable factors of Trump’s hiring history stand out here. He has a history of valuing loyalty above all else. And during the campaign, he often seemed to share the same views of whoever had influenced him most recently. Quality isn’t always his guiding principle when he’s hiring, but once he’s hired someone, that person has tremendous influence.

And so far, Trump has chosen a white nationalist who ran a website that specialized in fearmongering about nonwhite Americans and a career political operative with no experience running a bureaucracy. In doing so, he’s sent a signal to his base and to Congress. He hasn’t set himself up to learn any more about the job he’s about to have to do.

Watch: It’s on America’s institutions to check Trump

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