President Trump told a story on Friday that he seemed to think would highlight his fiscal responsibility and knack for negotiation. Instead, the anecdote suggested he barely reads the documents he signs.
Asked at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel whether he would attend the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem next month, Trump spun a yarn about how he came this close to approving a new facility that would have cost more than $1 billion, which was too much in Trump's eyes.
“I had my name half-signed,” he said. “Then I noticed the figure, and I just didn’t — I never got to the word ‘Trump.’ I had ‘Donald’ signed, but I never got to the word ‘Trump.’ ”
The president takes roughly 10 seconds to scrawl “Donald Trump.” His surname requires about 4 seconds. (Yes, I timed him.) In Trump's own telling, that is how close he came to authorizing a massive expenditure because he hadn't checked the cost before he began to write his name.
The good news is Trump caught himself. He proudly recounted the way he saved taxpayer dollars:
I called my ambassador, who's a great lawyer. And most people in business know David Friedman, he's the ambassador to Israel. ... And I said, “What's this 1 billion?” He said, “I can build it for $150,000.” I said, “What?” He said, “I can build it for $150,000, the embassy. We have a building. We have the site. We already own the site. We own the building. I can take a corner of the building, and for $150,000, we can fix it up, make it beautiful, open our embassy. Instead of 10 years from now, we can open it up in three months.”
And that's what we did. But I said, “David, let's not go from $1 billion to a hundred-fifty-thousand; let's go to three-, four-hundred-thousand.” And that's what we did. We'll take a piece of the building. It's going to be beautiful. And it'll be somewhat temporary, but it could be for many years because by the time they build it the other way, it's going to be many, many years. ...
But that's the way government works. They were going to spend $1 billion, and we're going to spend much less than a-half-a-million. Could've done it for much less, but I said, “Let's make it really nice.” So, that's what it is.
For the sake of clarity: The U.S. Embassy in Israel will relocate next month from Tel Aviv to the current premises of a consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, which will be renovated, as described by Trump. A new, permanent building is still expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, though casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major Republican donor, has offered to pay an unspecified share of the cost.
Had Trump told his story in broader strokes, the main takeaway might have been that he saved taxpayers a lot of money. But because he went into detail about his near-signature, he invited voters to worry about how carefully he reads what crosses his desk.