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The Weeds: Trump’s speech to Congress suggests a game of “talking points telephone”

Vox’s Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Sarah Kliff try to talk policy details from Trump’s address.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Before news broke Wednesday night that further called into question the Trump administration’s connections to Russia, President Donald Trump was enjoying the best news cycle of his presidency. His first official speech to Congress was largely praised by TV pundits. As the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker reported, even some in the White House seemed surprised by how well the speech was playing.

Though Trump may have toned down some of his rhetoric, he gave no indication that he would moderate any of his more controversial views. The speech, as a White House source told Bloomberg, was “nationalism with an indoor voice.”

Trump’s speech was also notably short on policy details. On this episode of The Weeds, Vox’s Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Sarah Kliff try to parse out the policy implications of Trump’s speech. Specifically, they think about what Trump’s address might mean for the ongoing debate over Obamacare repeal and replace, as well as immigration policy. (You can listen to the episode at the link below, or subscribe to the show on iTunes here.)

Here’s an excerpt of Sarah and Matt on the difficulty of translating Trump’s rhetoric to policy:

SARAH KLIFF: [The speech] almost reminds me of something I feel like I’ve seen a number of times with Trump and policy, where a lot of times it seems like he’s gotten the talking points on Republican issues but hasn’t fully digested them. The most clear example I remember of this was “insurance across state lines,” when there was this rambling — I think it was in one of the debates — and he kept talking about the “lines.” And someone had clearly at some point been like, “these are state lines, and this is the plan we want,” and he kind of got halfway there on it.

It feels like talking points telephone, where you kind of hear the ideas, and I feel like it might be indicative of a lot of what to expect from Trump on policy when you zoom out of it. A lot of times it gets confused because he’s not someone who comes from a policy background; he’s not surrounded by a lot of policy people. Neil Irwin had a great piece in the Upshot today talking about the wonk gap that’s happening right now. And one of the reasons policy seems to be moving a bit slower now than it did under Obama is you just have a lot fewer people thinking about serious proposals on the issues they’re trying to move on.

So when I look at the space between the two things we heard about on immigration, it reminds me of this larger policy gap that seems to still exist and speaks to why you see different viewpoints within a few hours and why you see slow movement on basically everything.

MATT YGLESIAS: Trump has, to some extent, inverted the relationship between speechmaking and policy development. I don’t want to be more of an old fart than I am, but both the Obama administration and the Bush administration would workshop within the presidential branch of government and out in the agencies what it is they wanted to do. And there was, like, a huge iceberg of white paper and stuff like that, that would be digested by the speechwriting team and boiled down into a sentence or a paragraph or two paragraphs, and then through background briefing calls with journalists, we would redecipher for the public what was below the waterline for this whole speech.

You can’t prove the negative, but they are not doing the kind of background briefing that would suggest there is any ice under the waterline.

Show Notes: