In just a single interview with Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev and Jennifer Jacobs Monday, President Donald Trump dropped that he would “certainly consider” raising the federal gas tax, and that he would be “honored” to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “under the right circumstances,” and that he was “looking at” breaking up big banks “right now.”
Any one of those remarks coming from any past president’s lips would be a monumental news story, let alone all three in a single interview.
But they’re from President Trump. So there’s a high probability that they mean nothing at all.
“We’re deeply accustomed to the words of the president of the United States having meaning. But this is a president for whom the words really have no meaning,” Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 campaign, told me in an interview last month. “Instead, officials under him explain in context what US policy is. Meaning, watch what he does, not what he says.”
In the past, presidents have chosen their words carefully, using their public statements to strategically signal which policies the administration is seriously considering or adopting. Indeed, because the president’s words were so very carefully chosen, they were often used to effectively set policy for the rest of the government.
That is no longer the case. When Trump makes public statements about policy, they often mean little. Sometimes he’s bluffing, as with last week’s threats to withdraw from NAFTA or demands that the government funding package include money for his border wall. Sometimes he genuinely might not know what he’s talking about, as with his latest remarks on the House health care bill.
And sometimes he’s just bullshitting. When the president is asked about some policy topic, his default response is to say he’s “considering” it. This often results in breathless headlines that are followed up with no discernible action, such as the president’s vows to bring drug prices down or his statements that he’s open to comprehensive immigration reform.
The commonality here is that it’s now clear that Trump’s statements on policy do not signal the culmination of a serious policy and political debate inside the administration. Indeed, they might not signal much of significance at all. So the best approach when Trump says something unusual in an interview is probably to wait and see whether it’s followed by actual substantive action from the administration or Congress.