That bizarre attempted explanation left just about everyone scratching their head and asking an incredible question: Does the president of the United States know how health insurance works? And what planet do you have to be on to believe that a year of private health insurance costs roughly the same as three cups of coffee from Starbucks?
Trump aides have, in the past, said that the president didn’t know the difference between Medicare, the program for people over 65, and Medicaid, the program for low-income and disabled people. One Republican senator who met with Trump during the 2017 push for a GOP health-care bill came away with the impression that Trump “did not have a grasp of some basic elements of the Senate plan,” according to the Times. That is terrifying: Trump is again seeking to fundamentally alter a system that provides health care to tens of millions of people — without even a basic understanding of how the system functions.
It’s not just health care either. We have plenty of evidence that the president is ignorant about basic facts even in relation to his core priorities. He thinks NATO members pledged to pay 2 percent of their gross domestic product into some sort of fund — like a centralized military piggy bank — when, in fact, they pledged to spend that proportion on domestic defense spending. On multiple occasions, Trump has made statements suggesting that he believed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be the same person as his predecessors Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. He didn’t realize the effects of the government shutdown until he shut down the government. And Trump believes that his renegotiated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement has already become law when, in fact, it has not.
Given these obvious and consequential gaps of knowledge, why haven’t journalists asked Trump a point-blank question such as “What is Medicaid?” or “Can you name the countries that border Syria?” Those are not questions that are unfair for a president. An inability to answer them would be a worrying data point that voters deserve to know.
Instead, Trump gets questions that are asked in such a way that allow him to wiggle out of it. He’s a deflection artist. If you ask “President Trump, what are your thoughts on immigration?” he goes straight to his favorite, tired talking points. That allows him (and us) to avoid the disturbing reality staring us in the face: The president doesn’t have a clue about core aspects of his job. And it is the responsibility of the media to make that clear to the American public.
We need more “gotcha” questions for people in positions of power.
All of us have been in social situations where you are chatting with someone and you realize, with horror, that you don’t know their name. Most of the time, you can fake it and avoid using their name. But the game is up as soon as the person suspects you don’t know their name. You can’t respond to a question like “what is my name?” with incoherent ramblings. You can’t change the subject. At a minimum, it forces you to guess. And if you get it wrong, it’s embarrassing.
For too long, Trump has avoided being embarrassed by his ignorance.
Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson became a laughingstock during the 2016 campaign when he asked “What is Aleppo?” while he was fielding a question about Syria. Trump likely has no clue what Aleppo is or where it is, either, but he is savvy enough to never showcase that ignorance, dancing around his blind spots, faking it and hoping for the best. Journalists have allowed him to dance to the tune of their open-ended questions for too long.
Of course, presidents are not meant to be walking encyclopedias. It wouldn’t matter that much if Trump, responding to a random inquiry, couldn’t name, say, the capital of Mozambique. But if he was proposing an invasion of Mozambique, he really ought to know that information. The same is true of the health-care debate: if he wants to gut funding for Medicare and Medicaid, as his budget proposes, he should be able to show that he knows what the programs are, how many people they affect, and how they operate.
As the 2020 race heats up, voters deserve to know whether candidates for the most powerful job in the world have a basic understanding of how the world works. Journalists should not seek to embarrass candidates for the sake of it — but if a president, a senator or a senior government official repeatedly makes statements that suggest a worrying gap in their understanding of facts that political science students could answer, polite questions should be replaced with pointed ones.