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July 23, 2019

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A brand-conscious Donald Trump embraces the look of the presidency

President Trump Inauguration Parade

President Donald Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, points to members of the crowd as they walk in his inaugural parade on Pennsylvania Ave. outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Trump Inauguration Parade

President Donald Trump watches as a marching band passes the reviewing stand during his inaugural parade on Pennsylvania Ave. outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Launch slideshow »

President Trump Inauguration Swearing-In

President Donald Trump is joined by the Congressional leadership and his family before formally signing his cabinet nominations into law, Friday, Jan. 20, 2107, in the President's Room of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Vice President Mike Pence, the president's wife Melania Trump, their son Barron Trump, and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool) Launch slideshow »

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, proudly unpresidential in word and tweet during the transition, readily embraced the pomp-and-patriotism visuals of the presidency Friday.

There were some images that even an appearance-obsessed branding impresario could not control: a less-than-packed inaugural parade route, an inauguration crowd markedly smaller than the one President Barack Obama drew in 2009, and protesters who set a limousine on fire in the afternoon.

But Trump glided through hours of ceremony, intent on projecting the image of a confident and unifying leader, even as scores of protesters were being arrested on the streets of Washington and opponents tried to heckle his inaugural address.

“I see my generals; they are central casting,” Trump said during a luncheon with legislators and military leaders in the Capitol shortly after he was sworn in, paying them one of his highest compliments — one he has used to describe Vice President Mike Pence and Mitt Romney.

“If I’m doing a movie, I’d pick you general, Gen. Mattis,” Trump added, gesturing to James N. Mattis, whom the Senate confirmed as defense secretary later in the day.

Trump, who often watches his televised interviews with the sound off, took pains to look like a central casting version of a president on his first day in office.

“Trump loves optics, and he loves brands, and he has been burnishing the optics of the presidency, which he thinks need to be dramatically improved,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of the conservative Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of Trump.

The new president is a creature of habit who loves to control his working environment, and the day of pageantry obscured the change from private citizen to leader of the free world, which will begin in earnest Saturday. One of the biggest shifts: Staff members have swapped out a new encrypted phone for his Android cellphone — his electronic Linus blanket — which had hundreds of numbers of associates from whom he seeks advice.

One friend of Trump said that his aides and security officials did not want him to text, and that some were urging him to forgo his personal Twitter account — a staple of his campaign — to use only the official @POTUS handle created by Obama’s team and controlled by staff members.

Trump was resisting it, the friend said, and the president polled the crowd from the stage at the second inaugural ball about what he should do and delighted in reminding people that he had defied his critics. At the first one, he danced with the first lady, Melania Trump, to the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” after saying he found a moment at his swearing-in ceremony “like from a movie set, so beautiful.”

The day began for the new president with the ceremonial signing of the guest book at Blair House, the White House guest residence, before he crossed Pennsylvania Avenue for coffee at the Executive Mansion with Obama, whose legitimacy as president he had questioned for years.

The greeting between the Obamas and the Trumps was camera-ready cordial, if stiff, as Melania Trump gave Michelle Obama a flat blue Tiffany box — its contents undisclosed — and stood for a photograph of the couples. Michelle Obama, one of Hillary Clinton’s most forceful surrogates during the campaign, kept the new president at arm’s length.

Donald Trump, who is as allergic to confrontation in private as he is bellicose in public, was surrounded on the inaugural platform at the Capitol’s east front by politicians of both parties whom he has derided, including Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. In the farther reaches of the crowd, some of his followers reprised his campaign rally chant of “lock her up.”

“Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition,” Trump said. “They have been magnificent.”

The tone then quickly shifted, as he excoriated both parties and vowed to wrench power from Washington elites. But later, he also playfully teased the top Democrats in the House and in the Senate, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the type of back-patting and banter that amasses chits on Capitol Hill and that Obama viewed with a whiff of contempt.

At the congressional luncheon, Trump basked in the ritualized speeches and formalized bonhomie of the city he had pilloried in his inaugural address. And he seemed genuinely excited when Schumer presented him with two framed photos of the inauguration.

Then it was time to make nice with the Clintons, in a show of new-president magnanimity that left many in the room wincing.

“There is something that I wanted to say because I was very honored, very, very honored when I heard that President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Clinton was coming today, and I think that’s appropriate to say,” said Trump, who, before the second presidential debate, appeared with several women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct.

“I’d like you to stand up,” he said to the former first couple. “I’d like you to stand up.”

Throughout the day, images and words often clashed, as is often the case with Trump. His America-in-decline speech, aimed at his base, echoed the dark, anti-globalist pitch he delivered at the Republican convention over the summer.

“He wants to redevelop the brand of the presidency of the United States,” Ruddy said. “He says the brand is tarnished. He’s a brand guy. His business was significantly about his brand. He built some buildings, he ran some casinos, but Trump was all about the Trump brand, and I think this is a brand job.”

But the presidency, as Trump himself emphasized Friday, is a job where performance matters.

The new president did little to tamp down expectations, telling the audience that “we will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining but never doing anything about it. The time for empty talk is over.”

Some of Trump’s most vocal supporters are intent on making sure he keeps his word.

“If he delivers, they are going to build a statue for Donald Trump that’s bigger and more impressive than the one they did for Lincoln at the memorial,” the conservative radio host Alex Jones said as he walked out of the inauguration ceremony.

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