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Donald Trump’s CPAC speech is a reminder that he’s not really in charge of his White House

He riles up crowds, but nothing he says actually matters or reflects administration policy.

President Donald Trump Addresses Conservative Political Action Conference Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on Friday, President Donald Trump announced a policy idea that at a normal time, from a normal president, would have dramatically moved financial markets. But of course, nothing of the sort happened.

He said that unless he can get Mexico and Canada to agree to sweeping changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement that would eliminate the US-Mexico bilateral trade deficit, he “will terminate the deal and we’ll start over again.”

Specific companies that depend on the ability to easily import goods from Mexico to the United States should have seen their share prices plummet while firms that compete with Mexican imports should have seen prices soar. Instead, it was a blah day on financial markets, with the Dow up slightly and no particularly surprising moves from individual companies.

Trump has been president for more than a year now, with NAFTA talks proceeding in a desultory way unrelated to any actual policy change. The economy continues to grow at roughly its Obama-era pace, but corporate America is now enjoying a surge of deregulation and tax cuts that powered enormous stock market growth in 2017. Business loves Trump (as Trump himself likes to say), and corporate America just shrugs off his various pronouncements on trade policy. Trump also promised to eliminate the bilateral deficits with China and Vietnam, and nobody in the business world took note.

Whether it’s because he’s a liar or just because he’s ineffectual, this rhetoric has nothing to do with the actual conduct of the Trump administration. And Trump’s CPAC speech was filled with such moments — moments that would be blockbuster news from a normal president but that are largely irrelevant given Trump’s marginal role in the Trump administration. He’s a Potemkin president who riles up crowds at rallies but has no real role in governing the country.

Trump misdescribes almost all his major initiatives

“Piece by piece by piece, Obamacare is just being wiped out,” Trump said while talking about health care. “The individual mandate essentially wipes it out.”

Eliminating the individual mandate most certainly does not wipe out the Affordable Care Act, which is exactly why the Trump administration is taking several subsidiary steps to deregulate the insurance industry and allow for the comeback of skimpy health insurance plans that offer little coverage and don’t protect people with preexisting health conditions.

But Trump says the opposite: that “people are getting great health care plans” under his changes, which are, in fact, aimed at making people’s health plans worse. The biggest policy change the Trump administration is making on health care, however, is big regulatory changes that will make it harder for people to get Medicaid — an idea that was totally missing from the health section of the speech.

“We have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal,” said Trump, “one of our great natural resources.” In fact, US coal consumption dropped in 2017 as natural gas and renewables continue to displace it, and Trump’s own Federal Energy Regulatory Commission appointees killed Trump’s proposed bailout of US coal plants.

This all eventually looped back to immigration, where Trump claimed, in total defiance of the facts, that “Democrats have totally abandoned DACA.” In reality, of course, Democrats tried to strike a deal with Trump to offer a legislative fix for immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in exchange for border wall funding. Trump himself agreed to the deal, only to have it scotched by Chief of Staff John Kelly, working with conservative members of Congress. But here’s Trump at CPAC promising the crowd, “We’re going to have the wall or they’re not going to have what they want.”

Trump is unaware — or incapable of saying — that it’s his own staff that’s blocking this deal. He’s a peripheral player in his own presidency.

Trump doesn’t seem to know what his aides say for him

Perhaps the most telling moment of the entire speech came at the end, when Trump offered a desultory announcement of new sanctions on North Korea:

I appreciate everything you’ve done. I do want to say, because people have asked, North Korea, we imposed today the heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country before. And frankly, hopefully something positive can happen. We will see. Hopefully something positive can happen. But that just was announced, and I wanted to let you know. We have imposed the heaviest sanctions ever imposed.

Trump appears unable to describe either the actual contents of the new sanctions or what policy goals the sanctions are intended to advance. He doesn’t even appear to be particularly supportive of the new policy, just saying blandly that “hopefully something positive can happen.” Most strikingly of all, he says that the new policy “was just announced” when he himself just announced it.

Foreign policy is where the president’s discretionary authority is at its maximum. Yet it’s clear on that this crucial issue — as on everything else — Trump is essentially a peripheral player in the Trump administration and even in the Trump White House.

Somebody decided on this new policy, and they presumably did it for some reason, but Trump neither knows nor cares. I, too, hope something positive can happen. But if a time comes when the United States needs strong leadership from the Oval Office, we’re not going to get it.

Trump’s immigration talk has nothing to do with his policies

Trump’s description of immigration more broadly is out of step with his own White House too. He thinks the legal immigration system should work. He started with the usual inaccurate description of the diversity visa lottery that he wants to kill, paired with an inaccurate description of the family unification visas that he wants to kill, and then explained that “we have got to change our way” in favor of a “merit system.”

The way he described the merit system is that “we need workers now” because “all these companies are coming into our country.”

What kind of workers and how many? Trump didn’t say specifically, but he offered some illustrative examples:

We have got to change our way. Merit system. I want merit system. You know what is happening? All these companies are coming into our country, they’re all coming into our country, and when they come in, we need people that are going to work. I’m telling you, we need workers now.

I don’t want people that are going to come in and be accepting all of the gifts of our country for the next 50 years and contribute nothing. I don’t want that. You don’t want that. I want people that are going to help and people that are going to go to work for Chrysler, who is now moving from Mexico into Michigan. And so many others. And Apple, by the way. And Foxconn in Wisconsin. They’re going to need 25,000 workers. I want people that can come in and get to work and work hard; even if it means a learning period, that is fine. But I want people that are going to come in and work.

Trump’s view, in other words, is that we need a large number of immigrants to come to the United States and perform semi-skilled jobs at places like a Chrysler plant. Trump is even willing to see these new immigrant workers be people who require extra job training to qualify for their positions.

That’s a view of immigration policy that’s very much in line with the business-GOP nexus reflected in the policies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and the comprehensive immigration reform bills of 2013 and 2007. But it’s not at all in line with the policy perspective of the Trump administration, which wants to cut the total volume of legal immigration in half and reserve those slots for college graduates and people with high-paying job offers.

There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with the Trump administration’s immigration agenda (I disagree with it too), but it’s awfully strange for Donald Trump to disagree. Except it happens on all kinds of fronts.

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