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Decoding Trump for Congressional Republicans

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Twice in recent days, Donald Trump has made seemingly off-the-cuff remarks about policy that took his Republican allies in Congress by surprise. Over the weekend he told the Washington Post that he was in the final stages of drawing up a health plan that would provide “insurance for everybody” but with “much lower deductibles” than the Affordable Care Act. He also opined to the Wall Street Journal that a key provision of the Republican plan to reform business taxation was “too complicated.”

I’ve got four thoughts about these comments and what they might tell us about how a Trump administration will govern.

One: Trump’s remarks weren’t well-informed. If Trump’s people are working on a health-care plan, it’s news to congressional Republicans, think-tank experts on health care, and even some of Trump’s own people. Trump also makes it sound as though his health plan will involve no trade-offs: Everyone will pay less for more benefits. No plan can live up to that promise.

Trump didn’t appear to understand the business-tax issue he discussed. Congressional Republicans want to change the corporate-income tax and apply it to imports but not to exports, in the same way that many countries apply value-added taxes to imports but not to exports. That’s what they mean by “border adjustment.” Trump said that he doesn’t like hearing those words because “usually it means we’re going to get adjusted into a bad deal.” He seems to think that this tax policy involves making deals with other countries. It doesn’t.

Two: Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks sometimes exhibit good political instincts even if they’re not very knowledgeable. Making sure that the people now covered by Obamacare continue to have coverage under a replacement is not a high priority for some congressional Republicans. Trump has consistently suggested that it should be. That seems right as a matter of both policy and politics.

Three: The extent to which these remarks should be taken as statements of Trump administration policy isn’t clear. Would Trump veto Republican health-care legislation that doesn’t meet his specifications? If Republicans keep pushing border adjustments on business taxes, will he even keep criticizing the idea?

Some of Trump’s fans have popularized the notion that his words should be taken “seriously but not literally.” It’s not terribly useful guidance for congressional Republicans trying to work with him.

So far, nothing Trump has said on health care seems to have had much effect on congressional Republican plans. Representative Devin Nunes, the California Republican who has led the charge for business-tax reform, said he will keep working on it with the Trump administration -- and keep advocating border adjustment. “This would be the most transparent, simple system that you could possibly create,” he said.

If Trump continues to speak about policy in a loose, freewheeling way and doesn’t follow up on what he says, congressional Republicans will decide that they don’t have to take his words more seriously than he does.

Four: If Trump does mean what he says, he could cause major problems for congressional Republicans. The border-adjustment plan, for example, is a crucial part of their agenda. It would raise a lot of revenue that they would use to finance the tax cuts they want. If Trump nixes the idea, they will have to start over from scratch. Many Republicans would also draw the lesson that months and even years of policy development can be undone if Trump happens to see or hear something about it he doesn’t like.

In a way, Trump’s presidency will put Republicans in Congress in the same position as corporate executives. Both groups have a lot to gain, but members of each are also subject to unpredictable and potentially damaging rhetorical blasts from him. On Inauguration Day, figuring out just what “seriously but not literally” means is going to become a much higher-stakes endeavor.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Ramesh Ponnuru at

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