A few months into Donald Trump’s presidency, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) defended the novice politician. “He’s new at government,” Ryan said in June 2017, “and therefore I think he’s learning as he goes.”
Almost two years later, Trump still hasn’t mastered many of the basics taught in Government 101.
In response to the House passing a $19.1 billion disaster relief bill Monday, Trump quickly tweeted his satisfaction and noted that “now we will get it done in the Senate.” Except the Senate had already passed the bill, something Trump himself acknowledged in a tweet. Trump deleted the tweet.
The mix-up is merely the latest example of Trump botching congressional procedure, the Constitution and other details about how the U.S. government works.
When he was talking about his tax cut bill in 2017, he said it was getting rave reviews, even though it hadn’t been introduced and most of the details were unknown. In April, he called on Congress to immediately return from recess and pass immigration laws, even though, again, no bill had been produced and even his top ally, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), said the process would take weeks. Before the 2018 election, he said Congress would pass a 10 percent middle-class tax cut by Election Day, except Congress wasn’t even in session until after the election and congressional GOP leaders were dumbfounded by the claim. The vote was never held.
Other Trump flubs have involved his apparent unfamiliarity with the Constitution or a disregard for its limitations. A few examples:
- He said he was looking at getting rid of birthright citizenship via executive action, even though it would require a constitutional amendment.
- He asked Congress for the line-item veto, even though it has been explicitly ruled unconstitutional. (Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and others suggested that there might be a workaround; we’re still waiting to see what that might be.)
- He has repeatedly said he would work to open up libel laws, even though that’s a matter generally determined by the states, not the federal government.
Trump has also sought to bend the Constitution’s impeachment clause to his will. He has repeatedly argued that the lack of an actual crime in the Russia investigation would exempt him from impeachment, even though the Constitution’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” is generally not understood to mean actual crimes.
There was also a time when he suggested he would try to block his own impeachment by going to the Supreme Court. He recently added, “I can’t imagine the courts allowing it.” Except impeachment is explicitly a prerogative of Congress, and there’s really no conceivable way the judiciary would stop it.
Perhaps all of these were to be expected from a man who, as a 2016 candidate, suggested that the Constitution had 12 articles and that two of the three main functions of the federal government were education and health care — despite neither appearing in the Constitution and conservatives generally believing those things should be left to the states.
Trump’s mistakes even stretch into what is currently his own top priority: his growing trade war. Trump has repeatedly suggested that the countries on which the tariffs are being levied pay the tariffs, even though they are borne by U.S. companies and consumers, as his own chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, recently conceded. Trump has also often suggested that trade deficits are bad because that means money is leaving the U.S. economy. But economists (again including Kudlow) have emphasized that’s not how it works. Reports indicate that nobody in the White House has been able to talk Trump out of these preconceived notions.
And that’s kind of the point. Trump seems not just unfamiliar with how government and the Constitution works, but also willing to ignore basic facts to sell his own spin. Many of these examples — including on trade, impeachment and the disaster relief bill — are very recent. It recalls that quote from former aide Sam Nunberg, who said that he tried to teach Trump about the Constitution during the 2016 campaign, but that he “got as far as the Fourth Amendment before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.”
Trump has never taken care to be strictly accurate in the things that he is saying. But his disinterest in how Washington works suggests a president who, despite his concern about his own reputation, isn’t terribly engaged in the nitty-gritty.