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A transition that is more than anyone bargained for

Well, you voted for this, America.

Donald Trump's presidential transition is in complete chaos. His team failed to show up for meetings at the Pentagon and other critical agencies.

Trump loyalists fired Chris Christie, who spent the latter months of the campaign setting up a legitimate transition process. Foreign leaders are reportedly blindly dialing the Trump Tower to try to reach the president-elect who is speaking to them without any official briefings from Obama administration officials.

Donald Trump embraces the flag during a campaign rally in Tampa., Fla., on June 11, 2016.
Getty Images
Donald Trump embraces the flag during a campaign rally in Tampa., Fla., on June 11, 2016.

Two of the top officials handling national security issues, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Matthew Freedman, have already been fired. In a Washington Post op-ed, Eliot Cohen, a national security expert who served under President George W. Bush, wrote that one interaction with Trump's team convinced him that no serious conservative should attempt to work for the incoming president.

"He is in the midst of a transition team that was never well-prepared to begin with and is now torn by acrimony, resignations and palace coups," Cohen wrote. "The president-elect is surrounding himself with mediocrities whose chief qualification seems to be unquestioning loyalty."

And Trump himself is back to using his Twitter account to try to settle grievances, going on a rant Tuesday morning against The New York Times for its reporting on the transition.



Those who worry about Trump's fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be comforted by the first country on that list.

On Tuesday night, Trump ditched his press pool, breaking with long-standing tradition, to go to dinner at the 21 Club and promised diners he would "get your taxes down, don't worry."

None of this should come as any surprise.

Trump ran his campaign as an improvisational carnival unmoored from any traditional political norms. It worked. He won the Republican nomination in a crowded, inchoate field. And then he narrowly defeated an unpopular Democratic nominee beset by massive email hacks and the unfortunate timing of an FBI letter about her use of a private email server while secretary of state.

And it's not as if Trump won a smashing victory, even though he claims he did. He won the Electoral College with slim margins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida. He trails Hillary Clinton in the popular vote by nearly 1 million. Trump now calls the Electoral College "genius." In 2012 he called it a "disaster for democracy."

All of the chaos has profound implications for Trump's ability to govern. When he takes office on Jan. 20, he will be in full control of a sprawling federal bureaucracy with thousands of jobs to fill. Transitions are difficult and complex for every incoming administration — Bill Clinton's in 1992 was notably rocky — but the level of disarray now appears unprecedented in recent history.

Trump, who has reportedly suggested he's not sure he wants to spend all that much time living in the White House, will also take office with the thinnest of mandates. In a Washington Post poll out on Wednesday, just 29 percent of Americans say the president-elect has a "mandate" to carry out an agenda that included building a wall with Mexico, kicking out undocumented immigrants, banning Muslims from entering the United States and prosecuting Hillary Clinton. The 29 percent figure compares with 50 percent who said at the same time in 2008 that President Barack Obama had a mandate for his agenda.

The optimistic view of Trump's presidency is that he will govern as a pragmatic centrist with no fixed ideological agenda and will make deals with Congress on tax reform and infrastructure spending and restrain himself in matters of foreign policy and war. The pessimistic view, which at the moment seems far more reasonable, is that his White House will be a chaotic disaster ruled by vengeance and score-settling.

Americans, at least those in the critical swing states, opted for change in 2016. Change is clearly coming. But it may be much more than anyone bargained for.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.