“Where do you stand on that issue of federally mandated busing?” the reporter asked. Trump said he would unveil a policy on the subject in about a month.
Later, another reporter tried to nail him down: Is busing a viable way to integrate schools?
“Well, it has been something that they’ve done for a long period of time,” Trump replied. “I mean, you know, there aren’t that many ways you’re going to get people to schools. So this is something that’s been done.” He later added, “I think if vice president Biden had answered the question somewhat differently, it would’ve been a lot — it would’ve been a different result. Because they really did hit him hard on that one. So — but it is certainly a primary method of getting people to schools.”
As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, Trump seems to be suggesting that the debate is over . . . whether children should take buses at all? Which, of course, it isn’t: It’s whether the government should try to ensure diversity at schools by busing students to different facilities than the ones they’re attending.
Trump’s tweet that Biden fared poorly in the debate got some coverage, and his comment during the same news conference that Sen. Harris (D-Calif.) “was given too much credit” for hammering Biden on the issue did as well. But it’s worth taking those assessments with a grain of salt because Trump apparently didn’t even know what they were arguing about.
It's worth remembering that Trump's track record in political debates is not particularly robust. Even fairly generous assessments of the general election debates in 2016 had Hillary Clinton winning all three, generally by a wide margin. Debating Trump on issues of policy nuance or fact is often like debating Mickey Mantle about cricket: He may be familiar with some of the terms, but that's probably as good as it will get.
In December 2015, Trump and the other leading Republican candidates for the party’s 2016 nomination debated in Las Vegas. One of the moderators was conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who asked Trump about the nuclear triad, the military’s three-pronged system for launching nuclear strikes by plane, submarine and missile. Which of the three was Trump’s priority, Hewitt asked without delineating the options?
Trump hemmed. But did he have a priority, Hewitt pressed?
"I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” Trump said.
Hewitt turned to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who then explained the concept to viewers — and to Trump.
To some observers, this seemed deadly to Trump’s chances, exposing his ignorance on a concept of significant importance to the presidency. But, of course, it wasn’t much of a roadblock at all, partly because many Americans didn’t know anything about it, either.
That’s probably the same thing that will happen with another of Trump’s responses in Saturday’s news conference. He was asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dismissal of Western liberalism — the embrace of individual rights and democratic elections that undergirds the American and Western European political systems. Trump, however, apparently understood the question to have been about Putin somehow disparaging Democrats (liberals) in California (the American West).
To most Americans, Trump apparently included, this isn’t a completely irrational jump to make. If you had never heard of Western liberalism, you piece together the puzzle and perhaps similarly assume that the subject is San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. But Trump isn’t most Americans. He’s the guy now in charge of that mystical nuclear triad and — especially by now — should presumably be familiar with the terms of the political debate.
Yet, stubbornly, he isn’t. He’s often indifferent to knowing what others are talking about, particularly if it hasn’t been covered on “Fox and Friends.” When he does want to talk about something, he’s generously indifferent to accuracy.
We can turn again to that news conference in Japan. He was asked why he maintained a friendly posture with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite the prince’s having ordered the brutal murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year.
Well, the murder was horrible, Trump said, but people (excluding the crown prince) were being prosecuted. He then defended maintaining a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“They’ve been a terrific ally,” Trump said of Saudi Arabia. “They’re creating millions of jobs in this country. They’re ordering equipment, not only military equipment, but $400 billion worth of — and, actually, even more than that over a period of time — worth of different things.”
We’ve fact-checked this before. Both the number of jobs (touted as “tens of thousands” by the White House in the past) and dollar amount (which stems from nonexistent agreements) are wildly off the mark, as Trump should surely know by now. Our fact check was in October, so he’s had eight months to set things straight. Yet here we are.
The extent to which the Saudis bolstering American jobs is a defense against a senior government official allegedly ordering the dismemberment of a member of the American press is another point entirely, of course.
The truly remarkable aspect to all of this is that the bar Trump faced in December 2015 as the Republican primaries approached and even into the 2016 general election should have been much lower than it is now. Trump got a pass on the nuclear triad and won the nomination; fair enough. Clinton easily bested him on policy in the presidential debates, but he won the presidency — in part on the strength of his indifference about the nuances of Washington rhetoric.
As president, Trump continues to be blithely unaware of the broader political conversation but shows little hesitation about weighing in on it anyway. He’s repeatedly been shown to be offering incorrect information but is utterly disinterested in doing anything about it. For this, he pays no political price beyond his ongoing failure to gain any new support from anywhere.
It’s not a huge stretch to assume that Trump will lose the 2020 presidential debates as surely as he lost to Clinton, regardless of whom he runs against. Debates are about tone and tag lines as much as policy and informed opinions, of course, and Trump does fine on the former. But this week, from the first part of the Democratic debate on Wednesday to Saturday’s news conference, highlighted just how stark the differences are between the approaches taken to political argument by the two parties’ presidential candidates.
In 2016, Trump’s style won out.