The Trump White House is flailing for many reasons. One problem is general incompetence and bad management. Another is the lack of unity in the Republican Party. Another is Trump’s own tendency to make unforced errors. And there are the looming investigations.
But it’s becoming ever clearer that one common thread to so much that has gone wrong is Trump’s utter lack of knowledge about policy.
Beyond the broadest issue-related slogans, the president seems to not really understand either what he actually wants to change or how to go about it. As National Review editor Rich Lowry writes in a perceptive piece:
No officeholder in Washington seems to understand President Donald Trump’s populism or have a cogent theory of how to effect it in practice, including the president himself. ... Trump, for his part, has lacked the knowledge, focus or interest to translate his populism into legislative form. He deferred to others on legislative priorities and strategies at the outset of his administration, and his abiding passion in the health-care debate was, by all accounts, simply getting to a signing ceremony.
Indeed, because Trump was so uninterested in policy details, he ended up being yoked to a bill that not only proved to be horrendously unpopular but also violated several of his own campaign promises.
Trump doesn’t seem to have deliberately set out to put together a bill that would send premiums for older, poor Americans skyrocketing and cause tens of millions to lose coverage. Instead, he delegated the job of writing the health bill to Paul Ryan and Tom Price, and didn’t know the issue well enough to realize how badly trusting them could work out for him.
A report on the failure of the health bill from the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, Ashley Parker, and Philip Rucker last week contained this remarkable anecdote:
Shortly after House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) unveiled the Republican health-care plan on March 6, President Trump sat in the Oval Office and queried his advisers: “Is this really a good bill?” ... Even as he thrust himself and the trappings of his office into selling the health-care bill, Trump peppered his aides again and again with the same concern, usually after watching cable news reports chronicling the setbacks, according to two of his advisers: “Is this really a good bill?”
The president’s lack of comfort in discussing the bill’s details — to the point where it wasn’t even clear he understood what it did — was widely apparent, and it hurt his efforts to sell the bill to reluctant Republicans in Congress. One Freedom Caucus source told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza that Trump was “in over his head” and “seems to neither get the politics nor the policy of this.” Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) left a conference meeting with Trump saying the president gave “no details” on policy and only said the GOP would have “political problems” if it failed.
Finally, this is an issue beyond just the health bill — it’s helping exacerbate the White House’s already messy decision-making and management problems, per the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman. A major story of the White House so far, Haberman tweeted Friday, is “how impossible it is for decisions to get made, partly because POTUS has little clarity on what he wants to do, per several officials.”
She continues: “Decisions get made and POTUS agrees, then something happens and he questions why he wasn't fully briefed the first time, then goes [with] a rival camp that wants something different.” The end result, she writes, is a “death battle over who can move the president in a game of inches.”
It’s difficult to see how this problem gets solved. As Lowry writes, it is at least possible to imagine a savvy and practical implementation of the more “populist” aspects of Trump’s agenda. But, for now at least, that’s not the president we have.
Explaining the tweets
Our daily politics news roundup will check in on several other big stories, so here’s a look at what else is in the news.
On Friday morning, the president tweeted this:
Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 31, 2017
Translation: Trump is referencing reports from Thursday night that his fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has offered to testify in the Russia investigation in return for immunity from prosecution. (Investigators haven’t taken him up on his offer so far.)
More broadly, Trump is yet again trying to downplay several investigations into his associates and Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, of which there are at least three (from the FBI, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the House Intelligence Committee).
The background: There’s a lot of potentially shady stuff involving Flynn. He discussed the topic of President Obama’s sanctions on Russia with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition, but told Vice President-elect Mike Pence that the topic never came up. He was paid more than $65,000 by Russia-linked companies for speeches he gave in 2015. Also, it turns out he had been working as a foreign agent for Turkish government interests during the 2016 campaign.
We don’t know exactly why Flynn believes he’s in legal jeopardy, but his offer of testimony in exchange for immunity suggests he thinks it’s at least possible that he is. So depending on what he knows and is willing to testify to, this could be a highly significant development in the investigation. (However, again, no one’s taken him up on it just yet, with the Senate Intelligence Committee telling him the topic was “wildly preliminary,” per NBC News.)
Normal or not normal? To put it mildly, it is highly unusual for a president to condemn an active FBI investigation into his associates as a “witch hunt.”
Trump policy reads
- “Trump administration stops disclosing troop deployments in Iraq and Syria”: “Earlier this month, the Pentagon quietly dispatched 400 Marines to northern Syria to operate artillery in support of Syrian militias that are cooperating in the fight against Islamic State, according to U.S. officials. That was the first use of U.S. Marines in that country since its long civil war began. In Iraq, nearly 300 Army paratroopers were deployed recently to help the Iraqi military in their six-month assault on the city of Mosul, according to U.S. officials. Neither of those deployments was announced once they had been made...” —W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
- “Making sense of Trump’s order on climate change”: “Contrary to numerous reports, President Donald Trump’s executive order on climate change does not come even close to eliminating President Barack Obama’s legacy with respect to greenhouse-gas reductions. Most of that legacy, involving dramatic emissions cuts in the transportation sector and from household appliances, remains intact. Nonetheless, the order is massively important and, in some respects, reckless...” —Cass Sunstein, Bloomberg View
- “After calling NAFTA ‘worst trade deal,’ Trump appears to soften stance”: “Mr. Trump has often said that the United States could abandon NAFTA altogether if renegotiating it is not possible. But the hawkish rhetoric of the campaign has given way to more measured statements on trade from the administration that track more closely with the stance of many congressional Republicans, who are avid promoters of free trade and deeply skeptical of policies they view as restrictive or protectionist.” —Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Alan Rappeport, New York Times
- “The art of the denial: The US visa process is already maddeningly subjective. Trump could make it even tougher”: “The federal government has vast, nearly unchallengeable power to deny individuals visas to enter the US. And the process by which it determines whether someone deserves a visa provides plenty of opportunities for subjective judgments or straight-up profiling. As a matter of law and policy, visa denials are a wide-open door the Trump administration can push on. Without any sort of top-down mandate from Trump or [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson, the administration could very easily, but quietly, make it a lot harder for a lot of people to come to the United States.” —Dara Lind, Vox