For all the frequency of his communication and his victory, you’d think President-elect Donald Trump would easily make himself understood. “Blunt talk” was his strength, we were told. Since the election, however, never have so many aides, nominees and supporters have had to clarify so frequently, so much of what the president-elect says (either in interviews or tweets).
Both Vice President-elect Mike Pence and U.N. Ambassador nominee Nikki Haley on Wednesday had to assure us that Trump didn’t mean that NATO was obsolete when he said NATO is, well, “obsolete.” Health and Human Service secretary nominee Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) had to explain that health-care insurance for “everybody” doesn’t mean actual coverage; in the Trump administration that means “access” for everybody to some type of coverage. When Trump said he had a health-care plan ready to go, he really meant Price would come up with something. Pick a topic and almost every Trump pronouncement gets reinterpreted or dumped. Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway seem to do nothing but explain what Trump meant to say.
The act, frankly, has gotten old. Trump says what he means; the problem remains that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. His impulsive, vague notions about putting America first were sufficient in the campaign to beat a rocky opponent (with help from James Comey and WikiLeaks). Since then, Trump apparently has not bothered to learn much about the world or even what certain phrases (“health care for everybody”) mean in the context of grown-up policy discussions. Either that, or he really does intend to destroy NATO, enable Russian President Vladimir Putin, create universal guaranteed health-care insurance, slap tariffs on China, etc. You see the optimistic interpretation remains that he lacks the requisite knowledge and/or the language skills to explain policy positions.
The downside from this “style” (some would say, malady) — chaos, confusion, unintended provocation, political infighting and total dysfunction — seems to be obvious to almost everyone outside Trump’s orbit. He uses the excuses (too frequently to the point of parody) that the media lie about what he said or get it wrong or don’t say what he really said. Only Sean Hannity buys that sort of thing. Recording accurately and holding him to account for his statements drive Trump up the wall — and onto Twitter where he can attack others instead of explaining with a modicum of detail what he believes. He doesn’t believe much of anything we suspect. (If he could replace Obamacare with single-payer national health care he’d be delighted for he’d get credit for “repealing and replacing Obamacare.”) That is why he doesn’t know what to say; if all you want is the victory lap at the end, you’d take virtually any position to get there. (Think John Kerry and the JCPOA.)
Let’s consider how this works in practice. Take Russia’s conduct in Syria. Haley, Jim Mattis and others will say Russia committed war crimes and has been of negligible assistance in fighting the Islamic State. So does Haley push for a U.N. resolution condemning Russia for war crimes? Does Mattis go to allies to say we need to limit Russia’s role in the Middle East? Do Republican members of Congress push for an anti-Russian sanctions bill — only to find out Trump would veto it (!). Someone has to set policy and give underlings marching orders; that person usually would be the president. Right now Trump will not or cannot perform that function.
How then will everyone know what Trump “means” — what is official policy on which hundreds if not thousands of smaller decisions can be based? Maybe Trump will abdicate that role to Pence, who will tell us what Trump is “really” thinking. Trump’s thinking, however, is so muddled that Pence cannot or should not be Trump’s literal translator. Maybe Pence should just, you know, run everything. When Pence says NATO will endure, Russia is an aggressor, Medicaid expansion will (or will not) continue or other meaty policy pronouncements, the Cabinet and rest of the government can take that to the bank. What alternative do we have — Cabinet officials and advisers doing and saying whatever they want, risking that the president will undercut them at any moment?
Our choices then boil down to: Pence (or someone else) effectively taking over the agenda-making function of the president (Trump can hold rallies and cut ribbons, a crude version of the queen of England’s role) — or total chaos. Too bad the voters did not elect for president someone who can actually do the job of president. It would have made things so much easier.