Trump has been in the political arena for five years, 7 percent of his life. Yet he is still Trump, so while some candidates might have quickly shifted into well-worn campaign patter, Trump did what Trump does.
“Well, one of the things that will be really great,” Trump replied. “You know, the word ‘experience’ is still good. I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that. But the word ‘experience’ is a very important word. It’s an — a very important meaning.
“I never did this before,” he continued. “I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington, I think, 17 times. All of a sudden I’m president of the United States. You know the story of riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our first lady and I say, ‘This is great,’ ” he continued, “but I didn’t know very many people in Washington. It wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan, from New York.
“Now I know everybody,” he said. “And I have great people in the administration. You make some mistakes like, you know, an idiot like [former national security adviser John] Bolton; all he wanted to do is drop bombs on everybody. You have to drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to kill people.”
Hannity jumped in to ask whether Bolton should be prosecuted over potential classified material in his recently released book.
Hannity did not say: Hey, wait, you didn’t articulate any priorities for your second term. Which, of course, Trump didn’t.
There’s a moment from 2015 that has stuck with me. Trump had just arrived at the Iowa State Fair in his Trump-branded helicopter, and he walked to a microphone to speak to reporters. His campaign was suddenly and unexpectedly leading the Republican nominating contest, and he was facing increasing pressure to demonstrate that he was a real contender who would do the things real contenders do.
He was asked about his dearth of policy proposals and told that voters were curious about what he had planned.
“Well, I think the press is more eager to see it than the voters, to be honest,” Trump replied. “I think the voters like me, they understand me, they know I’m going to do the job.”
He argued that drafting lengthy policy proposals only meant that they got pushed to the side once negotiations started.
“I don't think the people care” about such plans, he added. “I think they trust me. I think they know I'm going to make good deals for them."
There’s certainly truth to this broadly, as I wrote at the time. And it’s probably more true for Trump than for others that the specifics of what he wants to do matters less to his supporters than that he’s the one doing them.
His stated philosophy notwithstanding, his 2016 campaign ended up putting out a series of proposals for what he hoped to accomplish. His 2020 campaign, as his conversation with Hannity might suggest, has not.
What his campaign website says
If you go to Trump's campaign website, you're greeted with an array of options and information. At the top, jumping-off points for engagement: get involved, coalitions, events, news, about, “promises kept” and a Spanish-language option. Lower on the page, enticements to buy Trump gear and an awkward presentation of Trump's Twitter feed.
You’ll notice that the page lacks any sort of presentation of what Trump wants to do in a second term or even an obvious articulation of the issues he wants to address. As late as July 2016, his campaign’s issues page was a bizarre amalgamation of little video clips of Trump sitting in his Trump Tower office talking about things, so it’s not as though this is without precedent. But at least at that point, you got a sense for what he thought was important.
To do so on his current page, you have to click on “promises kept.” From there, you’re shunted over to a separate website, promiseskept.com. It leads with a brassy “Keep America Great!” exhortation, having apparently not been updated with the campaign’s current framing. Here, though, you can see the things Trump is focused on — or, rather, the things he was focused on during his first term. It’s a collection of 14 issue areas, all of which are explicitly backward-looking.
Click on “Regulation,” for example, and you're presented with pithy bullet points like this one:
Throughout 2017, President Trump has made good on his promise to cut red tape, and in doing so has re-energized the United States’ agricultural, energy, and infrastructure sectors by freeing them from oppressive and stifling regulations.
Several of the pages are seemingly incomplete. “Land and Agriculture” has only a few bullet points, including the signing of the 2018 farm bill, which “legalized the Production of industrial Hemp.” The pages include an interactive ticker of “Recent Achievements,” but those haven’t been updated in a while, either. As of writing, for example, this is the most recent offering in the “Government Accountability” section:
No update on how that turned out.
Only sporadically are there indications of what Trump hopes to do. The most obvious example is on Trump’s “Infrastructure” page. Passing a sweeping infrastructure bill has been Trump’s white whale, with his administration’s attempts to focus on the issue serving as a cultural shorthand for the various ways in which things have gone wildly sideways during his presidency.
So click on “Infrastructure” and you get a weird set of bullet points formatted differently than the other pages. The first one reads, “The program will use outcome-driven planning efforts and capital improvements to rebuild and modernize rural infrastructure” — as though you were expected to have done some reading beforehand about the referenced program.
The second bullet says that “strong rural infrastructure enhances regional connectivity, grows small business and increases employment opportunity for those living in rural communities.” Aha! The program must be about rural infrastructure? But the first bullet point said it “will” do those things, suggesting that it doesn’t yet exist? It’s all a bit murky.
What’s particularly remarkable about both Trump’s campaign website and the Promises Kept one is that there’s very little mention made of things that Trump otherwise talks about with some regularity. Searching each site for mentions of “coronavirus” or “preexisting conditions” doesn’t yield any particular thoughts about or success stories centered on those issues — except in the campaign’s “media” section. It is only the media that cares about such details, after all, so those topics are almost exclusively relegated to news releases and not presented to potential voters.
What he’s said in the past
It's not the case that Trump has never articulated plans for his second four years in office. He has at times thrown out random things that he insists he'll get done.
In May, he promised that Republicans would “replace Obamacare with great health care at a lesser price, and preexisting conditions will be included and you won't have the individual mandate” — promises Trump has been making annually since before being elected. Last July, he told reporters that he would “leave that for the beginning of my second term."
He has repeatedly hinted at the need for a Republican president for things like future Supreme Court justices, hinting a few times that from 2021 to 2025 there might be “a couple of more” appointments to be made. More exotically, in April 2017 he made another second-term promise: Perhaps we could go to Mars.
At the Values Voter Summit last October, Trump made a vague appeal to the need for continuity, comparing his first-term efforts to a new plant.
“You seed the plant, you put that plant in, but those roots have to gain,” he said. “That's why we need the next four years. We have to have — those roots, they have to grab on. That's why we need them."
This actually gets fairly close to his actual pitch: Let me keep doing the things I do as president. Let me keep combating the liberals and let me keep ripping through the status quo. Let this plant bloom. That’s where Trump’s heart is, of course, in the loosely articulated power of the presidency, and not in what that power can be engaged to produce.
What he says now
Last Saturday, speaking at his first major campaign rally since the coronavirus pandemic emerged, Trump actually outlined a second-term agenda in broad terms. But as he did so, he couldn't help but interject with asides and defenses and attacks.
“A vote for Republicans is a vote for better schools, better jobs, safer families and stronger communities for all Americans,” he said, introducing the section of his prepared speech that was meant to make the case for another four years. “There is no limit to what we can together achieve with four more years."
“With your help, we will lift millions of our citizens from welfare to work, dependence to independence, and poverty to prosperity,” he continued.
I’ll interject here to note that transcripts of Trump’s speeches don’t convey the way in which he obviously reads the room and reacts to it. Most politicians understand that speeches are given in part to establish a record to which they can refer. Trump, though, can’t stand to see the audience bored and can’t introduce a thought without ensuring that it’s framed the way he wants. So after talking about lifting Americans to prosperity, he had to add that it was China’s fault that things weren’t currently great.
“That’s what’s happening,” he said, deviating from the prepared comments. “That’s what’s happening and that was happening at a level that nobody ever thought they’d see. It was happening before this covid came in. It was happening at a level that nobody believed possible, and then China sent us the plague.”
Then on to other issues.
“We will protect Medicare and Social Security for our great seniors, and we’ll always protect patients with preexisting conditions, always, always,” he said. (His administration this week urged the Supreme Court to throw out the preexisting condition protections included in Obamacare.) “We will appoint more judges to interpret the Constitution as written. We will end deadly sanctuary cities, we will finish the wall, which has now 212 miles built.”
Another riff: The wall is beautiful and it was hard to build and there’s “something wrong” with Democrats, etc.
“We will elect a Republican Congress to create a fair, safe, sane and lawful system of immigration that puts American workers first,” he continued. “We will revitalize our cities and we will build gleaming new roads, bridges, tunnels and airports all across our land."
“We will enact new trade deals that result in more products proudly stamped with that beautiful phrase, ‘Made in the USA,’ ” he went on — then a riff: those words are beautiful, plants are coming back, etc.
“We will become the world’s premier pharmacy, drugstore and medical manufacturer,” he continued, adding that this was already happening. “We will never hesitate to kill America’s terrorist enemies."
A riff about the Islamic State.
“We will launch a new age of American ambition in space, and the United States will be the first station to land on Mars,” he continued.
A riff about the recent launch of a SpaceX rocket.
“We will defend privacy, free thought, free speech, religious, liberty, and the right to keep and bear arms,” he said.
An aside about how the recent protests had reinforced the need for people to own guns.
“Above all, we will never stop fighting for the sacred values that bind us together as one America,” he concluded. “We will support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. We uphold the principle of equal justice under the law.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what a second term of Trump will offer: the same general promises from his first time interspersed with the same rhetoric and self-promotion.
It’s worth noting that the transcript of Trump’s speech in Tulsa includes only one point at which the audience began chanting “Four more years.” It wasn’t when Trump got done hazily explaining what he wanted to do over that period of time.
It came after his 14-minute riff about why criticism of how he walked down a ramp at West Point was unfair.