It’s not exactly a news flash at this point that Donald Trump isn’t very fluent on questions of public policy, but his interview over the weekend with Fox Business Channel’s Maria Bartiromo is really a sobering reminder of the levels of ignorance and dishonesty that the country is dealing with.
Bartiromo is an extraordinarily soft interviewer who doesn’t ask Trump any difficult questions or press him on any subject. That makes the extent to which he manages to flub the interview all the more striking. He’s simply incapable of discussing any topic at any length in anything remotely resembling an informed or coherent way. He says the Federal Reserve is “important psychotically” and it’s part of one of his better answers, since one can at least tell that he meant to say “psychologically.”
By contrast, it’s often hard to make any sense at all of Trump’s words. Asked whether he plans to tie an infrastructure plan to his tax plan, Trump says, “I was thinking about tying it, but there’s too many honestly.” Too many what? He then continues: “You lose a few votes, you gain a few votes. I don’t want to take any chances ’cause I feel we have the votes right now the way it is.” There is, of course, no tax bill at the moment, so there’s no way Trump has the votes for it.
It’s a funny interview in many ways. Along with being comically ignorant, Trump for some reason keeps referring to Chief of Staff John Kelly as “elegant.” But the prospect of a president of the United States who’s incapable of talking about any of the many issues he oversees in a reasonable way is also pretty scary.
Trump doesn’t know anything about any issue
As a table setter, here is Trump attempting to tout a report by his own Council of Economic Advisers arguing that cutting the corporate tax rate to 20 percent will raise the average American household’s wages by $4,000:
And I think that there’s tremendous appetite. There’s tremendous spirit for it, not only by the people we’re dealing with in Congress but for the people out there that want to see something — $5,000, almost. It can be $5,000 average per individual — per group. And so I’m really looking forward to it. Let’s see what happens.
Of course $4,000 and $5,000 are different amounts of money, as you will swiftly learn if you attempt to give someone $4,000 to discharge a $5,000 debt. And individuals aren’t households. Trump seems to have kinda sorta caught himself on this one and corrected himself from “per individual” to “per group.” But of course there are all kinds of groups.
That is Trump’s grasp of his administration’s analysis of his own No. 1 policy priority — he can’t remember either the amount of money involved or the unit of analysis. A bit later, Trump shows a similar grasp of detail in describing his view of the bipartisan health care legislation from Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN):
Well, I’ve — I have looked at it very, very strongly. And pretty much, we can do almost what they’re getting. I — I think he is a tremendous person. I don’t know Sen. Murray. I hear very, very good things.
I know that Lamar Alexander’s a fine man, and he is really in there to do good for the people. We can do pretty much what we have to do without, you know, the secretary has tremendous leeway in the — under the Obama plans. One of the things that they did, because they were so messed up, they had no choice but to give the secretary leeway because they knew he’d have to be — he or she would have to be changing all the time.
And we can pretty much do whatever we have to do just the way it is. So this was going to be temporary, prior to repeal and replace. We’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Trump has no information about, interest in, or knowledge of the substance of the bill. Instead, he judges it entirely on the basis of his personal impressions of the legislators involved. Except while he vouches that Alexander is “a fine man,” he hasn’t bothered to get to know Murray at all, even though she’s the top Democrat on the committee with jurisdiction over health care and health care was his main legislative initiative for the first nine months of his administration.
Bartiromo keeps ineptly trying to cover for Trump
Another signature quality of the interview is that since Trump is actually totally incapable of answering softball questions, Bartiromo has to try to lead him by the nose to delivering on-message propaganda. Trump, however, is not that cooperative with this agenda.
Cutting taxes on the rich, for example, is unpopular. So the White House’s plan to get tax cuts on the rich passed is to lie about it and pretend they’re actually proposing a big middle-class tax cut. Bartiromo tries to get Trump to say that, but he keeps getting distracted by his desire to tell a name-dropping story about the owner of the New England Patriots:
BARTIROMO: If the top earners pay 80 percent of the taxes, why are you so afraid to cut taxes on the top earners?
TRUMP: I think this, look, you know, I am very happy with the way I’ve done part of this in my civilian life, all right.
BARTIROMO: Of course. This is not about —
TRUMP: Other people — well, it’s about me representing rich people.
TRUMP: Representing — being representative of rich people. Very interesting to me Bob Kraft was down. He was very nice. He owns the Patriots. He gave me a Super Bowl ring a month ago. And he —
BARTIROMO: Well, Putin took his —
TRUMP: Which was very nice. That’s right. But he left this beautiful ring, and I immediately give it to the White House and they put it some place, and that’s the way it is.
BARTIROMO: That’s great.
TRUMP: He said to me — he’s a good man. He said to me you have to do us all a favor, give the tax decrease to the middle class, we don’t need it. We don’t need it. We don’t want it. Give it to the middle class. And, I’ve had many people, very wealthy people, tell me the very same thing. I’ve had very few say I want more, I want more.
Then Trump meanders off message and admits that what he’s really backing is a huge tax cut for rich business owners:
TRUMP: So that’s a big factor, but we have so many things that are going to be so great; bringing the corporate tax down maybe is the most important. And we have a lot of most important, but bringing it down from 35 down to 20 percent, that’s a massive — that’s the biggest that we’ve ever done.
BARTIROMO: It’s a big deal in the corporate rate for sure.
TRUMP: That’s a big deal for companies; that’s a big deal for investment. I think one of the other ones is expensing, you know when you write something off in one year as opposed to, you know, over many years, I think that’s going to be tremendous.
Trump undermines his own “tough on Iran” policies
In a really striking moment, Trump seems to repudiate his own policy toward Iran, disavowing any interest in getting foreign countries to crack down on trade with a country that he’s accused of all manner of misdeeds:
BARTIROMO: Do you think they're going to get Europeans to support you in terms of sanctions, in terms of not selling technology to Iran?
TRUMP: Honestly, I told them. They're friends of mine. They really are. I get along with all of them. Whether it's Emmanuel [Macron] or whether it’s Angela [Merkel], I get along — I really like those people.
I told them, just keep making money. Don’t worry about it. We don’t need you on this. You just keep making money. When Iran buys things from Germany and from France and from the various — by billions of dollars, even us, they were going to buy Boeings. I don’t know what's going to happen with the deal.
We'll see what happens with the deal, but — but when they buy those things, it's a little harder for those countries to do something. Would they do it if I really was insistent? I believe they would.
I told them just keep making money. Don’t worry. We don’t need you on this one.
The reality is that precisely because the United States has been sanctioning Iran since the embassy crisis in 1980, the vast majority of the incremental leverage that was applied to the Iranians over their nuclear weapons program came from sanctions imposed by European and other foreign nations. It’s unlikely that the US could persuade those countries to go back to their pre-deal sanctions just because Trump has decided he doesn’t like the multilateral deal. But if you disavow any intention of getting Europeans to sanction Iran, there’s absolutely no point to the whole exercise.
And of course it’s no surprise that Trump can’t get any of his policy analysis right, since he keeps misstating very basic facts.
Trump gets all kinds of facts wrong
Sometimes Trump’s factual errors are just a little bit of puffery.
Bartiromo says, “You see the job creation, as well this year,” to which Trump replies, “It’s been fantastic.” In reality, job creation this year — while okay — has been somewhat slower than job creation in 2016 or 2015.
He also gets numbers wrong, like when he says, “If we pick up one point on GDP that’s $2.5 trillion if you think of.” The right number would be $185 billion, so Trump missed the mark by a couple of trillion bucks — which is a lot of money even for a rich guy.
Trump also brags of last quarter’s 3.2 percent GDP growth that “we haven’t been there in a long time; it’s been a long time.” In fact, we had a stronger growth quarters in Q1 of 2015, Q3 of 2014, Q2 of 2014, Q4 of 2013, and Q3 of 2013. There’s nothing particularly unusual about it, in other words.
Trump, however, compounds his vague misstatement with some extra detail, saying, “As you know, the previous administration didn’t hit it for the year for eight years,” which isn’t remotely true, before reiterating, “In eight years it didn’t hit it at all.”
He says the trade deficit with Mexico is “almost $70 billion a year” when the right number is $55 billion, and that “there is hardly a country” with which the United States runs a trade surplus. “I can name two,” Trump concedes. The Census Bureau, however, has a full top 10 list, starting with Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and Belgium but also featuring Australia, Brazil, Egypt, and the United Kingdom.
Trump claims to “have made more progress against ISIS in the last nine months than in the last eight years,” when ISIS is only about four or five years old.
This is how we live now
Over the course of the interview, Trump also claims to be working on a major infrastructure bill, a major welfare reform bill, and an unspecified economic development bill of some kind.
Under almost any other past president, that kind of thing would be considered a huge news-making get for an interviewer. But even Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.
On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course.
Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.