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Washington waits, worries, wonders about Trump era

WASHINGTON - Steve Moyer has seen a lot in Washington. But after decades working on environmental issues, the Montgomery County native who lobbies for protecting streams for fishing isn't sure what to expect from president-elect Donald Trump.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Giant Center, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, in Hershey, Pa.
President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Giant Center, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, in Hershey, Pa.Read moreAP Photo/Matt Rourke

WASHINGTON - Steve Moyer has seen a lot in Washington.

But after decades working on environmental issues, the Montgomery County native who lobbies for protecting streams for fishing isn't sure what to expect from president-elect Donald Trump.

His organization, Trout Unlimited, 14,000-strong in Pennsylvania, hopes Trump's plans for a major infrastructure program might include clean-water projects. It was heartened by Trump's recent comments pledging to protect natural resources.

But Trump has also talked about aggressively attacking environmental regulations that he thinks hurt business.

Which all leaves Moyer - like much of Washington - unsure what to think as a new, unpredictable president readies to take office alongside a GOP-led Congress.

"Not much moved in Congress over the last several years. Now stuff can and will happen," said Moyer, who moved to Washington from Hatfield. "You just have this tremendous clash coming, and it's wildly unpredictable about where it's all going to end. People like us feel that there's just a ton on the line that hasn't been on the line for a long time."

For the first time since 2010, one party will hold the White House and Congress.

But from foreign policy to fishing, Trump has sent muddied signals - leaving professional Washington, from lobbyists to think tanks to bureaucrats, mystified over how he'll use the opportunity.

Tax reform is one major issue, debated for years, that may finally advance. What shape that complex idea takes is fuzzy, at best.

Infrastructure projects? Democrats like the idea, but are wary of giveaways to developers. Republicans are skeptical of the cost. Trump hasn't laid out specifics.

And when it comes to international relations, Trump has already upended decades of orthodoxies with phone calls and tweets.

Trump won with a platform thin on specifics, he has frequently contradicted himself, and his aides at times reinterpret his bold pronouncements.

"With [Hillary] Clinton, it would have been much more status quo," said Joel White, president of the Council for Affordable Health Coverage and a former Republican aide in Congress. "With Trump, it's kind of like the next six months are going to be pedal to the metal. . . . Who the heck knows what's on the agenda? All we know is that it's going to be full throttle ahead."

Trump's early appointments have added to the confusion. Professional insiders see contradictions and competing visions.

Trout Unlimited, for example, was heartened by Trump's pick for Secretary of the Interior, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R., Mont.), a lifelong fisherman. But its leaders are worried over his choice for the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma attorney general showed open disdain for the agency he's now being nominated to lead.

"The theme or the direction is not perfectly clear," said Moyer, who lobbied on environmental issues for more than 30 years.

Carl Thorsen, a lobbyist originally from the Scranton area, said predictions might be pointless.

"Anyone who says they know exactly where [Trump] is going on an issue is kidding themselves," Thorsen wrote in an email.

Perhaps nowhere has this been more pronounced than in foreign policy, where the president-elect has thrashed a field steeped in protocol and subtlety.

Trump has cozied up to Russia. He has swatted aside intelligence agency conclusions that Russia meddled in the election to help him. And he upended long-standing policy toward China by taking a phone call with the president of Taiwan.

Another shock to the system came Thursday when Trump tweeted: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes."

The message came hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin talked about strengthening his country's nuclear arsenal - and raised the prospect of an arms race following decades of policy aimed at avoiding one.

His stances have brought rebukes from some Republican security elites, and criticism that he has no coherent plan.

Peter Feaver, a National Security Council aide under President George W. Bush, was among those who denounced Trump during the campaign.

Since then, Feaver said, he has been encouraged that Trump has seemed to take advice from respected GOP elders, such as former defense secretary Robert Gates and ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But Feaver said many other picks, including Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, would be hard to imagine in a more traditional administration.

The president-elect is "willing to say or do the thing that's just not done, that breaks a tradition or a norm or unwritten rule," said Feaver, who teaches at Duke University. "It's a mistake to call it erratic. There's more of a purposefulness behind it. They're not going to accept arbitrary restrictions that were accepted at face value."

The tea leaves, such as they are, remain so vague that some professional analysts don't feel comfortable even discussing them. One foreign policy organization contacted for this article declined to make any experts available, saying there is too much confusion for a sound analysis. Other groups in a range of policy fields usually eager to promote their work also declined interview requests.

Of course, Trump's promise to shock Washington and the professional class was exactly what many of his supporters wanted.

Although Hillary Clinton would have arrived with a built-in and political infrastructure, few in the lobbying world know how to get to Trump.

"He's really a populist president," said White, the former congressional aide. "He's not really beholden to much of anyone."

Democrats, potentially frozen out of power, are hoping Trump's penchant for deal-making provides a foothold. Almost any major legislation, they note, will need Democratic votes in the Senate.

"That's why Democrats and those who support and advise them are still very important and relevant," wrote Israel Klein, a former Democratic aide and now managing partner at lobbying firm Roberti Global.

Others said that anyone hoping to sway the debate in Washington would do well to adopt the themes that carried Trump to the White House. Their arguments will have to be tailored to how they can benefit the working class, said Salo Zelermyer, a lobbyist and former Bush administration official who works on energy issues.

"If you're going to have a successful advocacy strategy," he said, "you'd better be prepared to answer those fundamental questions that relate to those folks' concerns."




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