Being president of the United States is hard work. It’s important work, and Donald Trump has proven time and again he’s much too lazy to do the job. Not too lazy in the sense of sleeps in too much — he’s clearly happy to maintain a frenetic pace of activity when doing things that engage him, like tweeting or doing television or phone interviews — but too lazy in the sense of being unwilling to put in the time and repetition necessary to master new things.
That is the unescapable message of the interview he conducted with David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times that’s published today on their website. It’s an interview that demands to be read in full, because the full context is much more horrifying than the one headline featured where Trump suggests he would unilaterally abrogate America’s NATO commitments to the Baltic countries and possibly spark a third world war.
The problem with Trump is not just the specific things he says but the casual way in which he says them and the comical “logic” that ties them together. Most of all, it’s the repetition — the fact that it keeps happening without Trump showing any capacity for growth or any interest in doing the work that would make him better at answering questions. For better or worse, Trump is now the GOP nominee, and there are hundreds of professional Republican Party politicians and operatives around the country who would gladly help him become a sharper, better-informed candidate.
It doesn’t happen because he can’t be bothered. It’s terrifying.
Trump doesn’t know what an alliance is for
Trump does not appear to have any understanding of the general purpose of military alliances.
Here he is speaking not just of NATO but of the general American practice of forming security alliances with foreign countries — a practice he seems to think should be replaced by an imperial regime in which America extorts cash tribute from countries under our thumb:
TRUMP: If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich. Then if we cannot make a deal, which I believe we will be able to, and which I would prefer being able to, but if we cannot make a deal, I would like you to say, I would prefer being able to, some people, the one thing they took out of your last story, you know, some people, the fools and the haters, they said, “Oh, Trump doesn’t want to protect you.” I would prefer that we be able to continue, but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth — you have the tape going on?
SANGER: We do.
HABERMAN: We both do.
One thing that’s particularly remarkable about this passage is that Trump specifically acknowledges that he’s talked about this before, with these very same two reporters, and that his remarks were not well-received. That earlier interview took place in on March 26, so Trump has had almost four months to devise a better-informed answer.
He just didn’t bother.
Trump doesn’t seem to know what a trade deficit is
Things like the US defense commitment to Taiwan or the future of NATO are things that a lot of pointy-headed elites in Washington care about, but they’re not gut-level voting issues to most people. Trade policy, however, is a frequent political hot button. It’s also a signature Donald Trump policy issue — one on which he’s reverse traditional Republican Party policy setting the stage for a possible realignment.
So it’s alarming to realize that his ignorant view of military alliances is actually specifically grounded in a baffling view of trade policy. He explains to Sanger that defense commitments to foreign countries might make sense if they lead to trade surpluses:
SANGER: We were talking about alliances, and the fundamental problem that you hear many Republicans, traditional Republicans, have with the statement that you’ve made is that it would seem to them that you would believe that the interests of the United States being out with both our troops and our diplomacy abroad is less than our economic interests in having somebody else support that. In other words, even if they didn’t pay a cent toward it, many have believed that the way we’ve kept our postwar leadership since World War II has been our ability to project power around the world. That’s why we got this many diplomats ——
TRUMP: How is it helping us? How has it helped us? We have massive trade deficits. I could see that, if instead of having a trade deficit worldwide of $800 billion, we had a trade positive of $100 billion, $200 billion, $800 billion. So how has it helped us?
These two things simply have nothing to do with each other.
I would say that I am puzzled as to what Trump could be thinking, but it’s quite clear he’s not thinking at all.
Later in the interview, Haberman asks Trump a specific question about an issue Trump has discussed extensively in his campaign — the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And Trump has nothing at all to say:
HABERMAN: What kind of change could you make in terms of Nafta without fully withdrawing from it? How could you?
TRUMP: You’ve got to be fair to the country. Everyone is leaving. Carrier just announced they’re leaving. Ford is building a massive plant. So I have a friend who builds plants and then I have to go. I have a friend who builds plants, that’s what he does, he’s the biggest in the world, he builds plants like automobile plants, computer plants, that’s all he does. He doesn’t build apartments, he doesn’t build office space, he builds plants. I said to him the other day, “How are you doing?” He goes, “Unbelievable.” Oh, great, that’s good, thinking about the United States, right, because he’s based in the United States. So I said, “Good, so the country is doing well.” He said, “No, no, not our country, you’ve got to see what I’m doing in Mexico.” He said: “The business there is unbelievable, the new plants we are building. People moving from the United States.” That’s what he does. One-story plants. You understand?
People have been arguing about NAFTA since George H.W. Bush was president. There are vast armies of policy expert veterans of clashes over NAFTA and other trade deals who could have worked with Trump to devise an answer to this very basic question.
He just didn’t bother.
It gets worse
Laughably unprepared for the most basic, obvious questions, Trump turns out to also be unprepared for non-obvious questions. Here, for example, are his thoughts on cyber attacks from abroad:
SANGER: We’re under regular cyberattack. Would you use cyberweapons before you used military force?
TRUMP: Cyber is absolutely a thing of the future and the present. Look, we’re under cyberattack, forget about them. And we don’t even know where it’s coming from.
SANGER: Some days we do, and some days we don’t.
TRUMP: Because we’re obsolete. Right now, Russia and China in particular and other places.
SANGER: Would you support the United States’ not only developing as we are but fielding cyberweapons as an alternative?
TRUMP: Yes. I am a fan of the future, and cyber is the future.
He is a fan of the future.
Trump can’t admit when he doesn’t know
Next, as a prank, Sanger asks Trump about something genuinely obscure:
SANGER: President Obama, as you probably know, as you probably read, is considering a no-first-use pledge before he leaves office for nuclear weapons. We don’t have one right now. Some other nations do, some don’t. Would you consider that stabilizing?
TRUMP: Depends on who we are talking about, it depends on who we are talking about. I would only make that commitment as the agreement is being signed. I wouldn’t want to play my cards. I don’t want to say that.
This is, in some ways, the worst of them all.
I cover politics for a living. I had no idea that President Obama is considering making a pledge that the United States will only use nuclear weapons against another country that has already used nuclear weapons first. I’ve read nothing about this. I don’t know why he’s considering doing this now, I don’t know what the arguments for or against doing it are, and I don’t know which countries have made such a pledge in the past or why.
Trump, I gather from his answer, hasn’t done any of this either. But he won’t admit it.
This is a deadly sin in a president. It’s a very big, very complicated job, and the person doing the job also has to spend a lot of time on routine political work, meet-and-greets with sports championship winners, attending international conferences, and other things that don’t involve studying detailed briefing books. Stuff is going to come up that you don’t know anything about. And you need to be willing to admit it so someone can help you.
Ignorance on the scale Trump demonstrated on the NAFTA answer is an awful look for a candidate. It’s a signature issue of his campaign, and he ought to have something to say about it. But ignorance of something like the nuclear no-first-use pledge is eminently forgivable. He just needs to say he is sorry but he hasn’t yet had a chance to study that in detail yet, but he’s building a great team of advisers and is looking forward to discussing the matter with the professionals at Strategic Command when he’s in office.
Trump hasn’t done the work — and won’t
There is a certain routine and rhythm to a successful American presidential campaign. It starts with a person who, necessarily, only has relevant experience in certain aspects of the job of presidenting. Opponents and skeptics in the media raise questions about his preparedness to handle this, that, or the other thing.
And the candidate, as he gains steam and picks up support, takes specific, concrete steps to address those weaknesses. He meets with advisers who have worked at high levels of government before or who are acknowledged as academic experts. His campaign issues policy papers and delivers “major addresses” on a growing range of subjects.
Trump just hasn’t done this stuff.
He didn’t do it back when nobody was taking him seriously, he didn’t do it back when he’d emerged as a frontrunner most of the party leadership was uncomfortable with, he didn’t do it pre-convention when he was trying to solidify party support, and now he’s not doing it as part of the general election. It would require, at this point, a truly heroic leap of faith to believe that he’s going to do it after he’s president — after he’s proven all the fools and the haters wrong.
He can’t be bothered. And it’s frightening.