In a remarkable new interview with Fox & Friends’ Ainsley Earhardt, Donald Trump reminds us of what a fundamentally low situation the United States has landed in.
He lies, repeatedly (but he always does that), seems to accidentally admit to breaking campaign finance law, peddles bizarre conspiracies about the FBI, and goes off on an extended tangent about how the main investigative technique used in the United States to bring down organized crime operations should be illegal.
But beyond that, on several different occasions he shows us that when it comes to the core job of the presidency, he has simply no idea what he’s talking about. Even on his signature issue of trade, he can’t begin to describe the situation correctly — much less outline a coherent strategy for improving Americans’ economic well-being.
He’s hanging his entire hat on the reality that positive economic trends that began during his predecessor’s first term in office have continued — deciding that he deserves credit for events that plainly predate him.
As long as the economy holds up, the basic dynamics of polarization and culture war should keep him afloat with his base politically. That, in turn, is good enough to shield him from the rising waters of legal trouble and political scandal. But he has nothing coherent to say on substance about either the scandals surrounding him or his responsibilities as a policymaker.
Trump is against “flipping” witnesses
In the United States, prosecutors often build a case by arresting a low-level offender and then agreeing to leniency in sentencing if that offender will agree to cooperate and help provide evidence against his bosses. The point of the practice is to prevent crime bosses from being able to immunize themselves from prosecution by acting through intermediaries. We’ve all seen this on movies and television shows.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has experience with organized crime cases, and several of his deputies have worked complicated white-collar prosecutions. They are investigating using this tactic. Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, for example, are both cooperating with the prosecution.
Trump finds it outrageous.
“If somebody defrauded a bank and he is going to get 10 years in jail or 20 years in jail, but you can say something bad about Donald Trump and you will go down to two years or three years, which is the deal he made, in all fairness to him, most people are going to do that,” Trump said of his former personal attorney Michael Cohen. “And I have seen it many times. I have had many friends involved in this stuff. It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal.”
Then, speaking more like a character from The Sopranos than a president, he praises his former campaign chair Paul Manafort for refusing to rat. “One of the reasons I respect Paul Manafort so much is he went through that trial,” Trump said.
Trump seems to confess to campaign finance violations
Beyond flipping, Trump addresses Michael Cohen’s charges by repeatedly emphasizing that the hush money payments at the center of his guilty plea were not made with campaign funds. There’s just one problem: That doesn’t exonerate him.
In context, Trump appears to be trying to say that this proves his innocence, but the opposite is the case — you can’t just evade campaign finance rules by paying for your campaign expenses with non-campaign funds. If you could, the rules would be meaningless.
A couple things:— Robert Maguire (@RobertMaguire_) August 22, 2018
1) Trump emphasizes that the money didn't come out of the campaign, as though that would exonerate him. It doesn't. In fact, it's a central part of the violation.
2) He says he knew about the payment. Yet, in April, he said he had no knowledge of the payment. pic.twitter.com/Qmv40lJ5li
One thing that politicians sometimes get into legal trouble for is illegally using campaign funds for personal expenses. This is part of the case against Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA). The basic idea is that you’re not supposed to use campaign money as a personal piggy bank or slush fund.
A separate issue, however, is that while a private citizen is free to make a secret hush money payment to his former mistress if he likes, a political campaign is required to disclose what it’s spending money on.
If Trump had reported a cash payment to Stormy Daniels to the Federal Election Commission, that naturally would have raised questions about why he was paying her and somewhat defeat the purpose of making hush money payments in the first place. So what Trump and Cohen seem to have decided to do is avoid using campaign money, thus allowing them to avoid disclosure rules.
But just like lying on the disclosure form would be illegal and refusing to do the disclosure would be illegal, paying for campaign expenses out of a non-campaign account and then declining to report that as a contribution to the campaign is also illegal. Simply put, there is no legal way to spend money on your election campaign without disclosing that fact.
Trump claims that continuing trends prove he’s “done a great job”
Asked by Earhardt about the possibility that committing crimes could get him impeached, Trump says, “Well, you know, I guess it says something like high crimes and all — I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who has done a great job.”
What’s so great about it?
Well, Trump explains that “now the country is doing better than it’s ever done. We have the best economy we have ever had in the history of our country. More jobs today, literally today, we have more jobs. More people working in the United States than ever before in the history of our country.”
It’s true that there are more Americans employed today than there were at any previous time in history. But this was also true on Election Day 2016. Indeed, after employment bottomed out in the winter of 2009-’10, it has risen steadily for years, reaching a new all-time high in May 2014 and setting new records each subsequent month.
Trump certainly didn’t feel the economy was in great shape under President Barack Obama when employment hit a new all-time high in 2014 and then again in 2015 and then again in 2016. It’s nice that the steady growth path Trump inherited has not been disrupted by his antics, but if steady employment growth equals doing a great job, then the whole premise of Trump being in office in the first place makes no sense.
Which is for the best, because nothing he has to say about policy makes any sense.
Trump doesn’t understand his own signature policy issue
All presidents have their areas of focus and then other things they pay less attention to. For Trump, that area of focus is trade policy — something he discusses frequently, bucks congressional Republicans on, has been obsessed with for years, and appears to not understand at all. Here he is talking about this subject in the Fox & Friends interview:
Had Hillary and the Democrats gotten in, had she been president, you would have had negative growth. We picked up $10 trillion in worth.
China, by the way, has gone down $15 trillion, okay? And when I came, in China was a dominant force. Now, they like me very much. I get along great with President Xi [Jinping]. But I said we can no longer give you $500 billion a year on bad trade deals, and you see what’s happened over the last 90 days.
The reason I even waited was because of North Korea. I wanted China’s help on North Korea, otherwise I would have done it sooner. China has been a big help on North Korea. I said I have to get going now on trade. Last year China made $570 — we had a deficit with China $517 billion. No, not going to happen anymore.
The US trade deficit with China last year was $375 billion, not $517 billion, but what’s $150 billion between friends? Meanwhile, despite China’s “help” on North Korea, Trump’s deal with the Kim regime looks more and more like a total dud that hasn’t halted the DPRK’s work on missiles or nuclear weapons.
And so far this year, the trade deficit is running larger, not smaller, despite Trump’s efforts to wage trade war. This is because in spite of his obsession with tariffs, tariff rates don’t drive trade deficits — domestic savings dynamics do.
Trump’s actual signature policy change has been to increase the federal deficit substantially (which raises the trade deficit by encouraging borrowing from abroad) in order to finance a big cut in corporate tax rates (which raises the trade deficit by encouraging foreigners to invest in US stocks).
There’s nothing wrong per se with a growing trade deficit. But Trump’s bottom-line argument on his own behalf is that we should ignore his crimes because he’s been such a policy success story. His example of policy success is that he’s bringing down the trade deficit with China, when he’s in fact doing the reverse.
The good news for both Trump and the American people is that the steady growth in employment he points to, while by no means due to his policies, is at least very real. If the economy hits an actual bump in the road, we may wish we had a president who had some idea what he’s talking about.