White House

Trump’s Know-Nothing Tour de Force

The president is winging it, even on an issue that risks his entire presidency.

Say anything.

Photographer: CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

I was going to write about something else today, but frankly I just can't work around what Donald Trump has said in multiple interviews released today. You should really see the full interviews, or at least the excerpts I'm linking to, but here's the gist:

  • He told the Economist he invented the use of "priming the pump" with regard to the economy. It's probably most associated with Franklin Roosevelt, and even if Trump meant "came upon it" rather than "came up with it" it's remarkable for anyone in his position to be that ignorant of normal economics usage. Then again, he's never shown that he knows anything about economics.
  • He spoke gibberish about aircraft carriers to Time magazine: "I said what system are you going to be–'Sir, we’re staying with digital.' I said no you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good." I know very little about aircraft carriers, but the people who do know this stuff confirm that he doesn't know what he's talking about. Not that he's wrong, mind you; he isn't coherent enough to be wrong.
  • Then he completely contradicted his own explanation on James Comey's firing to NBC News. The old story that Trump was reacting to a recommendation from the Department of Justice; the new story is that he was always going to fire Comey. 

Why does that fit in with the other two quotes? Because it demonstrates that Trump can't be bothered to even master his own talking points, even in something which could put his entire presidency at risk. Or perhaps he's intellectually incapable of doing so. Either way, the president talks and talks without showing any mastery -- any understanding -- of anything.

By the way: I didn't select out unusual passages from the Economist or Time interviews; indeed, one might argue that the pump-priming section is among the least incoherent sections. He's utterly incomprehensible when it comes to trade, for example, which is one area which he's talked about for decades and in which he has pretty deep strong views if not actual policies. He's certain that the U.S. is being ripped off in trade deals, but if he actually knows how, or even what those trade deals do, he's excellent at hiding any of that understanding from seeping into what he says.

Vox's Sarah Kliff has the same observations about Trump and health care, based on the Time interview. Trump, she points out, still doesn't seem to distinguish between arranging health care as an employer and designing a national health care system. And Kliff is generous to suggest Trump simply hasn't "familiarized himself with the details of the Republican health care plan." The blunt truth is that Trump has yet to demonstrate even a vague familiarity with its broad outlines.

Look: We have known this since the campaign, but every once in a while it's worth stopping and saying it. On issue after issue, Trump sounds like a student who vaguely recognizes a few phrases and is repeating them until the next student is called upon. 

Presidents don't need to know details, although it usually helps. But they certainly should have a pretty good grasp of the broad outlines of multiple policy areas. And they should also have a good sense of what they don't know -- so they're not overly influenced by what one deck officer or one foreign leader or, even, what one cabinet secretary tells them.  

It's absolutely terrifying that the President of the United States may not have that knowledge base. But it's worse if we pretend our way around it. 

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

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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