Trump’s wild mood swings and often intemperate words would cause panic in a normal administration. Indeed, they did at the beginning of Trump’s presidency as leaders at home and abroad looked to them to ascertain what the new leader planned to do. Used to normal politicians who aim to present a consistent image, observers and policymakers struggled to make sense of a president who reveled in creating turmoil.
Verbal turmoil is still the president’s chief rhetorical calling card. But it’s clear that actual policy is usually determined elsewhere. Economic policy, for example, is usually governed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council. Trade policy comes from U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, immigration policy from White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and judicial appointments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the White House counsel’s office. Trump even backed down to others over his threats to intervene in the Mueller investigation. Trump often sends contradictory signals via tweet, but the people in charge of the details usually win out.
The same is often true of foreign policy. Trump may talk about better relations with Russia, but under the guidance of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the United States is aggressively trying to thwart Russian ambitions. A nuclear weapons deal with North Korea is no closer today than it was before Trump tweeted his way to a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He badly wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but it remains unclear if and when they will come home despite a preliminary deal with the Taliban. Trump’s words are not a good guide to future U.S. policy.
He has followed the same pattern during the coronavirus outbreak. Trump went along with the recommendations of his public health advisers in March despite his clear reluctance. One could argue that he was slow to recognize and respond to their warnings, but so, too, was almost every other Western leader. Most countries were slow to pick up on the danger and slower still to order the measures needed to combat it. Their responses were also characterized by denial, lockdown and chaos. Like Trump, they ultimately chose to go along with public health advice, play catch-up and create macroeconomic policy on the fly.
Trump has continued to defer in the past week, too. He clearly would like to reopen the economy, but he’s backed down in the face of a staff that values safety first and a public that worries more about reopening too soon than about economic hardship. Indeed, his tweets about “liberating” states led by Democratic governors who have issued strenuous lockdown orders appear to be more a way to vent his frustrations and talk to his base than a signal that policy might soon change.
This pattern is not surprising in hindsight. It’s a truism that one cannot direct what one does not understand. Trump has never shown an interest in the details of policy or governance, and thus has no basis upon which to guide his staff or even set consistent directions for them. He’s like a rotisserie baseball player who suddenly becomes the Yankees’ general manager, incapable of providing regular direction to the scouts and other personnel who actually do the work.
Trump does know a lot about one aspect of the job: public relations. He’s arguably the best marketer of our generation and instinctively understands what each part of his coalition needs to hear to stay on board. He knows that many Republicans right now think the lockdowns have gone on long enough. He’s giving these people words that tell them he’s with them in spirit while he gives his staff and the governors control over the actual policy. It’s quite the tightrope act, but it’s in line with how he has run his entire presidency.
Ronald Reagan kept a sign on his desk during his presidency that said, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.” The Trump administration follows this dictum with a slight variation: There’s no limit to what the staff can do so long as Trump gets the credit. That’s the way Trump wants it, and in the current crisis, we should be happy the experts seem to understand it.