Tuesday turned out to be a busy day for President Trump. He poked another U.S. ally in the eye, questioned the loyalty of American Jews, backpedaled on gun legislation and undercut the denials of his advisers on the economy. It was just another normal day in the Trump administration.
Take Tuesday’s quartet case collectively, and it portrays an administration and White House in chaos, lacking in systematic policymaking. It portrays a president who changes his mind whenever it suits him, whose statements shift with the moment, and who uses words carelessly and sometimes destructively. It forms a pattern of dissembling, of deliberate or unknowing falsehoods as well as efforts to divide already divided Americans from one another.
Adding to the chaos and confusion, the president went at it all again Wednesday with another lengthy press availability. He took back some of what he said Tuesday and reinforced other things, leaving observers — no doubt including his own advisers — to wonder what and how he thinks about the issues before him.
On Sunday, as he was preparing to return to Washington, Trump was asked about reports that he was interested in having the United States purchase Greenland from Denmark. The president confirmed those reports and said there were strategic reasons to be interested in that kind of a deal. But he played down the idea that this was an urgent issue on his agenda. “It’s not number one on the burner, I can tell you that,” he said.
Roll forward 48 hours, when he tweeted that he was scrubbing his upcoming visit to Denmark because Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen had “no interest in discussing the purchase of Greenland.”
That caught Carla Sand, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, by surprise, as she had tweeted earlier in the day: “Denmark is ready for the POTUS . . . Partner, ally, friend.” By Wednesday morning, she was trying to assure everyone that Trump “values & respects [Denmark] and looks forward to a visit in the future.”
Rufus Gifford, who was ambassador to Denmark under Barack Obama, offered a more caustic view of the decision to cancel the visit. “He is a child,” he wrote in a tweet.
In his conversation with reporters Wednesday, the president indicated he had canceled the trip because he was upset with the Danish prime minister’s dismissal of the sale of Greenland, calling her reaction “nasty” and adding, “You don’t talk to the United States that way, at least under me.”
On Sunday, Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro, two of the president’s economic advisers, appeared on talk shows with the message that all was well with the economy, despite unsettling signs in previous days. Kudlow pleaded for optimism about the future. Navarro assured viewers that China is absorbing the full cost of the trade war that has been stalemated for some time.
The president buttressed those statements with comments about the strength of the U.S. economy, which many economists say could be slowing down. Trump also said he is prepared for anything. Other administration officials dismissed any cause for concern.
On Monday, The Washington Post’s Damian Paletta reported that, with concerns rising about a possible recession, administration officials were discussing options, including a cut in the payroll tax. A White House official publicly denied the report.
On Tuesday, in the Oval Office, the president made that denial inoperative, confirming that in fact, administration officials were considering a cut in the payroll tax, along with other possible changes, including in the capital gains tax. “Payroll tax is something that we think about, and a lot of people would like to see that,” he said.
On Wednesday, he took it back: “I’m not looking at a tax cut now; we don’t need it. We have a strong economy.” Despite the claim of a strong economy, he once again pushed Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell to cut interest rates, saying, “If he does it, you’ll see a rocket ship; you’ll see a boom.”
After the horrific shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, the president made a point of saying he was keenly interested in doing something about guns. He spoke specifically about expanding background checks for firearm purchases, an idea that has overwhelming support among Republicans, independents and Democrats.
He had climbed this hill before, after previous mass shootings, only to roll back down, so there was plainly skepticism about whether he would ever follow through, particularly as he had married the idea of background checks with an immigration policy overhaul. Internally he faced resistance to moving forward on gun legislation.
In recent days, his language changed as he indicated that the current background checks were working. On Tuesday, in a telephone call he initiated with Wayne LaPierre, CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, Trump made clear that those background checks are no longer in his sights. That news was first reported by the Atlantic’s Elaina Plott.
On Wednesday, he denied that he had indicated to LaPierre that background checks were no longer on the table. “I have an appetite for background checks,” he said, without explicitly saying what changes he supports or how far he is willing to go to get a bipartisan agreement. But he hedged, suggesting that Democrats could want more than he’s prepared to give.
At his Oval Office photo opportunity with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on Tuesday, the president renewed his feud with Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) over their planned trip to Israel that was blocked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
U.S. support for Israel has long been a bipartisan enterprise, but that bipartisanship has been strained in recent years. Those strains have grown as Trump has used his full embrace of Netanyahu to advance both policy and political goals.
The controversy over Tlaib and Omar’s visit and their posture toward Israel has taken it to another level, and the president has sought to brand the entire Democratic Party with their criticism and their support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Most of what he said Tuesday was a repetition of previous comments about the two lawmakers and about two other first-term congresswomen, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).
Toward the end, however, he veered into dangerous territory. “Where has the Democratic Party gone?” he said. “Where have they gone where they’re defending these two people over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
Trump allies characterized what he said as a poor choice of words, but those words, whether deliberately chosen or spoken without any sense of historical context, brought quick and strong condemnations as echoing anti-Semitic stereotypes used in the past. Whatever the motivation, they are now words spoken by a president of the United States sitting in the Oval Office.
Asked Wednesday what he meant, Trump left no ambiguity. “In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people,” he said, “and you’re being very disloyal to Israel.”
After the past two days, there is only one thing to say: Be braced for the rest of the week.