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Analysis: 4 Takeaways From Trump’s First Turkey Pardoning

Even when Trump passes presidential test, Russia matter looms

A protester, David Barrows, wears a President Donald Trump mask while holding a sign outside the White House on Tuesday as the president prepared for the annual turkey-pardoning ceremony. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A protester, David Barrows, wears a President Donald Trump mask while holding a sign outside the White House on Tuesday as the president prepared for the annual turkey-pardoning ceremony. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Drumstick is a free bird, thanks to President Donald Trump.

The commander in chief used his executive authorities Tuesday to pardon the Minnesota-bred fowl just two days before he might have become someone’s Thanksgiving meal.

Drumstick and his co-conspirator (read, alternate), Wishbone, will live out their remaining years as free birds at Virginia Tech University, alongside Tater and Tot, the last two turkeys pardoned by former President Barack Obama.

Trump, flanked by first lady Melania Trump and son Barron Trump, noted he has rolled back many of Obama’s legacy items. And, to Tater and Tot’s collective chagrin, Trump quipped that he inquired about continuing that pattern by revoking their freedom.

“As many of you know, I have been very active in overturning a number of executive actions by my predecessor,” Trump said. “However, I have been informed by the White House Counsel’s Office that Tater and Tot’s pardons cannot under any circumstances be revoked. So we’re not going to revoke them.

“So Tater and Tot,” the president said with faux resignation in his voice, “you can rest easy.”

Watch: Trump’s Post-Thanksgiving Tax Bill Hopes Hang on Four Key Senators

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Here are four takeaways from Trump’s first turkey pardoning ceremony:

The optics

Sure, the entire turkey-pardoning ceremony is just for some holiday fun. Still, there was Trump using the word “pardon” at the White House amid the Robert S. Mueller III-led federal investigation into whether his 2016 campaign might have colluded with the Kremlin.

There’s more: Trump used his presidential authorities to let Drumstick and Wishbone off the hook just hours after he spoke with none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone about Syria and other matters.

It’s as if the president and his team cannot resist trolling their critics. Remember the day after Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey on May 9 — later admitting that frustrations over the Russia probe were on his mind when he did so? The sitting U.S. president not only defiantly hosted top Russian officials the next day at the White House but he invited them into the Oval Office, even joking about having canned Comey.

The optics were worse back in May. But they weren’t great Tuesday as the Mueller investigation and several congressional probes of the Russia matter continue.

Yet, the ever-defiant Trump — who regularly denies any wrongdoing or collusion during the campaign — appeared unconcerned about using the P-word as he, his top aides and family members are the subjects of what could be presidency-altering investigations.

“I will grant a presidential pardon,” he said at the start of the brief event, “to a turkey.”

The spectacle

A little over a year ago, many expected it would be Hillary Clinton, flanked by husband Bill Clinton and perhaps her two grandchildren, who walked out of the Oval Office to set a bird free.

Instead, out came the Trumps. Soon, the former New York real estate mogul who was once more famous for luxury hotels, a gold-plated Manhattan penthouse and the television boardroom of “The Apprentice,” was face-to-face with a 47-pound white turkey with a 5-foot wingspan.

As the president opened the ceremony by calling it a great American tradition and praising U.S. military troops, Drumstick perhaps best illustrated the cultural divide the uniquely New York City president was able to bridge with millions of rural voters. Drumstick let out a gobble as Trump spoke and the president who dominated rural areas in the 2016 election knew just how to respond: “Hi Drumstick!”

“Oh, Drumstick,” he said, “I think, is going to be very happy.”

Gone were Obama’s annual reciting of turkey-themed “dad jokes.” But Trump got in a couple of quips. Along with the Tater and Tot line, the president noted he and the first lady have hosted a number of foreign leaders, lawmakers and others at the White House since he took office. “And, along the way, a few very strange birds,” he said. “But we have yet to receive any visitors quite like our magnificent guest of honor today, Drumstick.”

The disrupter in chief

As Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently told Roll Call, the 45th president isn’t that into Washington traditions. From his rhetoric to his use of Twitter to threatening nuclear war to attacking members of his own party whose votes he needs on major legislation, Trump truly is the disrupter in chief.

“I don’t get the sense he really cares about norms,” Mayer said. “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature of this White House and this president.”

Yet, at times, Trump appears to enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the office. And, as played out in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, some of its wackier traditions.

It has been 70 years since the National Turkey Federation first presented a turkey for pardoning to a sitting U.S. president, Trump said. That first one went to President Harry Truman, he said, “who, I might add did not grant the pardon.”

“He refused. He was a tough cookie,” Trump said to laughter from a packed Rose Garden crowd and a Drumstick gobble. “Today, I’m going to be a much nicer president.”

The presidential test

The 45th chief executive hasn’t always passed this test but he cleared the bar Tuesday.

Trump honored U.S. military troops who are often unable to spend Thanksgiving with their families. He also praised police and fire personnel.

“Thanks, thanks folks, to the finest and bravest people,” he said of them, also calling the November holiday a day of healing for the “national family.”

“This Thursday, as we give thanks for our cherished loved ones, let us also renew our bonds of trust, loyalty and affection between our fellow citizens as members of a proud national family of Americans,” Trump said, hitting a tone his critics wish he would more often.

Yet, even as Trump played the part without incident Tuesday, the Russia matter is never far away.

Near the conclusion of the ceremony, as he and his family posed with the freshly pardoned Drumstick, the president did not respond to two shouted questions from a reporter on whether he intends to “pardon any people.”

Trump remained silent.

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