President Trump is not a policy wonk. And if there’s a Hall of Fame for understatement, that sentence is a first-ballot entrant.
On the campaign trail, Trump waved away detailed policy proposals as something the “press wants” and about which voters don’t care — an attitude that, frankly, was pretty on-the-money. But there is a reason that the media like detailed policy proposals: They illustrate that candidates have detailed policies that they hope to enact, and knowing what those policies are both helps to inform the public and serves as a touchstone after elections. Trump entered office unburdened by past policy positions because he was elected without having to reveal any, just like his tax returns.
But that meant that he was also elected without having to do much homework on the issues that he would certainly face as president. And twice this week — a week during which the White House has been desperate to rebut suggestions that Trump has only a loose grasp on his presidency — he has been publicly revealed as not knowing what he’s talking about.
The most recent example was on Thursday morning. During his “executive time” — those times when he’s sitting around watching Fox News and tweeting — he likely watched a negative report about an impending reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Why “likely watched”? Because as Media Matters’s Matthew Gertz notes, he tweeted the actual chyron from Fox when he decided to publicly state his opposition to the measure.
There was just one problem with this: The Trump administration supports the FISA renewal. It sent out a statement from the press secretary to that effect on Wednesday night, less than 12 hours before Trump’s tweet. And so, a few minutes later, the White House got Trump to do a little cleanup.
Again, this is the second time in three days that Trump has publicly demonstrated an unfamiliarity with a critical policy issue.
The first time came on Tuesday, when, during a televised meeting with congressional leaders, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Trump if he would support a “clean DACA bill” — that is, a renewal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Admissions program that didn’t include any ancillary funding or policy components. It was a proposal that ran counter to Trump’s rhetoric, which has centered on getting money for a border wall as part of any deal.
Trump’s reply didn’t reflect that.
“Yeah, I would like to do it,” he said — forcing House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to intervene and clarify his position. When the White House first released a transcript of the day’s conversation, Trump’s initial agreement with Feinstein was excluded.
Earlier that morning, the New York Times’s David Brooks had written a much-discussed column arguing that critics of Trump should separate out the president’s own behavior and comments from the hard work that his team was doing on conservative principles. Brooks drew a bright line between the two, but never implied that Trump himself was not part of the White House team that was getting things done. The meeting later that day and Trump’s tweets on Thursday suggest that he might not be — or, perhaps, that he is to his White House what the Queen of England is to decision-making in Britain: He’s there, and he weighs in on it, but it happens largely outside of his grasp.
It’s not like this is an emergent trend this week. There have been two major policy pushes undertaken by the White House that bore no resemblance to what Trump said he wanted to see from those policies during the campaign.
The first was the health-care fight in the spring and summer, during which Republicans in Congress advocated a policy that would dump millions from the ranks of the insured — after Trump pledged to cover everyone. It would also have raised costs over the short term (until the more expensive patients dropped coverage because they couldn’t afford it). This, too, ran counter to what Trump had said. Yet he championed it, fervently. It was only after the House bill passed that he disparaged it as “mean.”
The second effort was his push for a tax overhaul. This, too, was driven on a policy level by Republicans on Capitol Hill. Trump pledged repeatedly to bolster the middle class and to infuriate his rich friends. Instead, he signed into law a bill that made temporary and modest reductions in middle-class income tax rates and permanent cuts to the rates paid by businesses. On top of that, the bill included a number of other reductions that benefited business, including businesses like the ones that still benefit Trump in the private sector. Trump assured everyone repeatedly that the bill would hurt him when it came time to pay his taxes, but no expert analysis reinforces that.
Was Trump lying? Or did he not know what the bill does?
Even in the earliest days of his administration, this divide between what was happening in the White House policy machine and what Trump knew was happening was apparent. Two weeks after he took office, the Times reported that Trump was angry to learn that he’d signed an executive order putting then-adviser Stephen K. Bannon on the National Security Council. That same month, his State Department (not for the last time) publicly disagreed with Trump’s opposition to an agreement with Australia to resettle a number of refugees.
For the Republican establishment, a president who goes along with what’s presented to him isn’t the worst thing in the world. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seem to have learned quickly that Trump wasn’t likely to pick out a sub-bullet of their policy proposals for clarification or amendment. This indifference to policy and general acquiescence was one reason that the establishment found him more palatable than Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) early in the primary process.
The problem is that having the most powerful person in the world only vaguely aware of how he’s wielding that power is, for lack of a better word, embarrassing. It’s also confusing. The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes reports that House leaders reacted to Trump’s initial tweet on FISA by considering pulling the vote.
Again, it’s important to remember the context of the week. The release of the book “Fire and Fury” last week left Trump and his team scrambling to rebut the insinuation that his ability to lead was compromised. That was a central reason for the meeting on Tuesday: Show the media and the American people a dealmaking president who was in command of what was going on.
The meeting didn’t necessarily show that. And Trump, left to his own devices — meaning his own phone and its Twitter app — showed again on Thursday morning that he is still the guy he was in 2015: More interested in reacting angrily to what he sees on TV than understanding the nuances of policies his administration is erecting like scaffolding around him.