As America continues to ponder whether President Donald Trump is obstructing justice by firing his FBI director in order to stymie an ongoing inquiry into his team’s various bizarre links to the Russian government, the Economist delivered an interview with the chief executive that reminds us of the original and most basic horror of the Trump administration: The president of the United States has no idea what he’s talking about.
And while Trump’s own answers are so bizarre and meandering that it seems overwhelmingly likely he is speaking nonsense out of ignorance rather than rank dishonesty, the performance of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin as his squire in the interview is disturbing on an entirely different level. Much as Trump has turned the political appointees at the Justice Department into facilitators of his lies about Jim Comey, Mnuchin acts as an enabler rather than a provider of adult supervision.
Trump, ignorant, will say something stupid. Then Mnuchin, better-informed, will back him up by saying something blatantly false. The good news, such as it is, is that in Trump’s own telling, the president can be easily manipulated by foreign governments who dupe him into avoiding rash actions.
Trump makes tons of random false claims
The sheer volume of things that Trump says over the course of the interview is mind-boggling, and practically beyond counting. At times he appears to be willfully lying in pursuit of some political agenda, or at least repeating a half-remembered partisan talking point. But he also asserts that nobody had heard of Mike Pence before he was chosen to be Trump’s running mate, when Pence has in fact been well-known in American political circles for years.
- Trump says that Ireland “never raised their taxes” during the Great Recession, when in fact Value Added Tax, gas tax, and alcohol taxes went up and the government also imposed a new carbon tax and moved to close some corporate tax loopholes.
- Trump says we “always lose” in NAFTA arbitration cases, when in fact that United States has a better won-loss record in such disputes than either Canada or Mexico.
- Trump says we run a $15 billion trade deficit with Canada, when in fact last year we ran a trade surplus.
- Trump says Reagan’s 1986 tax reform proposal increased the deficit, when it did not.
- Trump says we’re “the highest taxed nation in the world,” when in fact the United States has lower taxes than every developed country except Chile, Mexico, and Korea.
At times it’s difficult to know where exactly misstatements end and free associating nonsense begins. The Economist asks Trump why his tax plan is so tilted toward wealthy families and he (falsely) says that it isn’t “because they’re losing all of their deductions.” This wouldn’t change the fact that the plan is regressive even if it accurately characterized the plan, which it does not, since the plan in fact maintains several deductions.
The Economist then rightly asks him how something like eliminating the estate tax could fail to benefit the rich, and Trump appears to enter a fugue state:
I get more deductions, I mean I can tell you this, I get more deductions, they have deductions for birds flying across America, they have deductions for everything. There are more deductions … now you’re going to get an interest deduction, and a charitable deduction. But we’re not going to have all this nonsense that they have right now that complicates things and makes it … you know when we put out that one page, I said, we should really put out a, you know, a big thing, and then I looked at the one page, honestly it’s pretty well covered. Hard to believe.
Rather than bring Trump back down to earth, his aides stand by to enable his nonsense.
Trump aides guide him toward dishonesty
A signature moment in the interview comes after Trump gives a long, rambling answer on China in which he appears to say that he dropped his campaign pledge to designate China as a currency manipulator as part of a deal on North Korea:
Now, with that in mind, he’s representing China and he wants what’s best for China. But so far, you know, he’s been, he’s been very good. But, so they talk about why haven’t you called him a currency manipulator? Now think of this. I say, “Jinping. Please help us, let’s make a deal. Help us with North Korea, and by the way we’re announcing tomorrow that you’re a currency manipulator, OK?” They never say that, you know the fake media, they never put them together, they always say, he didn’t call him a currency [manipulator], number one. Number two, they’re actually not a currency [manipulator]. You know, since I’ve been talking about currency manipulation with respect to them and other countries, they stopped.
At this point Mnuchin chimes in to try to clarify the president’s rambling with an answer that’s crisp, precise, reflects well on the president, and is totally false: “Right, as soon as the president got elected they went the other way.”
In reality, Chinese undervaluation of its currency came to an end way back in 2014, and Trump waged his entire campaign on the basis of a false premise. It is to his credit that he is making the right policy decision rather than sticking by his wrong talking points, but it’s extremely troubling that his top advisers on the subject appear to be winning the argument by spinning the president with flattering lies rather than accurate analysis.
At another point, Trump is giving a rambling answer about his tax returns and musing. Hope Hicks needs to cut in to remind Trump that he’s supposed to be pretending there’s an audit issue.
Mr President, can I just try you on a deal-making question? If you do need Democratic support for your tax plan, your ideal tax plan, and the price of that the Democrats say is for you to release your tax returns, would you do that?
I don’t know. That’s a very interesting question. I doubt it. I doubt it. Because they’re not going to … nobody cares about my tax return except for the reporters. Oh, at some point I’ll release them. Maybe I’ll release them after I’m finished because I’m very proud of them actually. I did a good job.
Hope Hicks [White House director of strategic communication]: Once the audit is over.
President Trump: I might release them after I’m out of office.
A president who can’t even follow his own flim-flam narratives naturally also can’t track important policy debates or speak clearly about underlying concepts.
Trump thinks he invented fiscal stimulus
Perhaps the most bizarre exchange in the interview comes as part of an aside in discussions about revenue neutrality in tax reform. Trump explains that he is an advocate of priming the pump through fiscal stimulus, and also suggest that he invented this term a few days ago and is surprised his interlocutors are familiar with it:
But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?
It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll … you understand the expression “prime the pump”?
We have to prime the pump.
It’s very Keynesian.
We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?
Priming the pump?
Yeah, have you heard it?
Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just … I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.
This is actually a metaphor for the idea that budget deficits can stimulate a depressed economy that has been in wide circulation for about 80 or 90 years. Here is a cartoon from the New Deal era satirizing Franklin Roosevelt’s pump priming efforts:
Trump himself has been using the phrase for longer than Trump seems to remember.
Trump keeps describing foreigners getting over on him
Last but by no means least, in Trump’s own narrative of his own presidency he’s kind of a sucker who keeps being manipulated by foreign leaders.
Here, for example, is Trump explaining why he didn’t pull out of NAFTA after all:
Now at the same time I have a very good relationship with Justin [Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister] and a very good relationship with the president of Mexico. And I was going to terminate NAFTA last week, I was all set, meaning the six-month termination. I was going to send them a letter, then after six months, it’s gone. But the word got out, they called and they said, we would really love to … they called separately but it was an amazing thing. They called separately ten minutes apart. I just put down the phone with the president of Mexico when the prime minister of Canada called. And they both asked almost identical questions. “We would like to know if it would be possible to negotiate as opposed to a termination.” And I said, “Yes, it is. Absolutely.” So, so we did that and we’ll start.
We have a problem because we have a ridiculous provision in NAFTA that we have, you know, to go on the fast track. Fast track is the slowest track I’ve ever seen. To go on the fast track you have to give notice. Well we gave notice 70 days ago. It’s called a cooling-off period, OK? But that’s not the way life works because when they call and they want to make a deal, I don’t want to have to wait a hundred days. So I put the papers in almost 70 days ago, to get the approval for fast track in Congress. And they still haven’t given me approval. And the reason they haven’t is because our trade negotiator, who, as you know, the provision goes with your negotiator. It doesn’t go from the time you put it in, it goes with your negotiator. So he just got approved. He’ll be in sometime, I guess next week?
So the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Canada call Trump up, one immediately after the other, raising identical points. They get him to agree to a renegotiation rather than a withdrawal. And then it turns out that lots of technical legal details mean that the actual renegotiating has to be delayed for a while.
Trump, somehow, does not see that the upshot of this story is that he has been manipulated. Indeed, according to reports in the Canadian press, the reason the manipulation was so effective was that members of the White House staff reached out to Trudeau to tell his team how to talk Trump out of withdrawing from NAFTA.
It’s hard to know what to say about this beyond the obvious: Regardless of the topic, the president has basically no idea what’s going on. And his staff has given up on trying to bring him up to speed. Instead, they take advantage of his ignorance to try to sell him on selective misinformation — or flattery from foreign leaders — to park policy outcomes where they would like to see them.