President Donald Trump likes to spin his finger in a circle and make a whirring noise when he’s making fun of wind turbines as a source of renewable energy. But it was the President’s policies that were spinning this week as he retreated from a number of bold pronouncements, policy ideas and nominees.
If you’re keeping score:
- The border with Mexico will not be closed.
- Republicans will not soon present a replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
- He doesn’t actually think the Mueller report on Russian election interference should be publicly released.
- His nominee to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement is his nominee no longer.
What’s on display is a President who just says things that pop into his head or announces policies via Twitter – then must find ways to retreat from them or make them real.
Did he ever really believe he would close the entire border with Mexico, or was it just bluster? After the utter disappointment of failing to repeal Obamacare, for which Trump still carries a festering grudge, did he sincerely think it would get another vote?
That Trump often says incorrect things about issues big and small has been well-documented. Just this week, for some mystifying reason, he repeated his untrue contention that his father was born in Germany. But his credibility, such as it is, faces new questions as the week draws to a close.
For example, declaring the US would close its southern border had wide implications that caused consternation in many quarters. But Trump has now retreated from the closure threat and subbed in a threat for new auto tariffs on Mexico a year from now. Should the Mexican government take that seriously? And should Americans believe that Trump can deliver on a new health care plan after the 2020 election? What is his credibility on any policy proposal if they don’t seem to be much more than thoughts that suddenly occur to him?
Here’s a closer look at a week of flip-flops.
Full retreat on health care
Trump is no stranger to bold pronouncements, but this week found him rebuked, uncharacteristically, by the actions and words of Republicans in the Senate.
When the President overruled his attorney general and health and human services secretary to endorse a Texas judge’s decision a few months ago that the entire Affordable Care Act should be invalidated, it underlined the fact that Republicans don’t have a plan to replace Obamacare at the moment and the party had largely given up on it even as the GOP sought new ways to starve and undermine the law.
Trump promised the public that a new plan would be forthcoming and Republicans would be the “party of health care!”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, broke it to the President that no such plan would get a vote on Capitol Hill since the Democrats who now control the House have very different ideas about how to fix the problem of unaffordable health insurance.
Trump retreated late Monday in a tweet.
“The Republicans are developing a really great HealthCare Plan with far lower premiums (cost) & deductibles than ObamaCare. In other words it will be far less expensive & much more usable than ObamaCare. Vote will be taken right after the Election when Republicans hold the Senate & win back the House. It will be truly great HealthCare that will work for America,” he said.
A staggered retreat on closing the border
A similar dose of truth-telling appears to have made him retreat from repeated threats to close the border with Mexico, which almost everyone in government said would be an economic disaster.
McConnell said it would have a catastrophic impact, but while he told Trump no, essentially, on health care, on the border wall he simply expressed his desire.
“Closing down the border would have potentially catastrophic economic impact on our country, and I would hope we would not be doing that,” he said Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Trump said he didn’t mind the economic impact.
“Security is more important to me than trade,” the President said during an appearance in the Oval Office. “So we’re going to have a secure border.”
But on Thursday, he twice changed his tune, first giving Mexico an ultimatum.
“We’re going to give them a one-year warning, and if the drugs don’t stop or (are) largely stopped, we’re going to put tariffs on Mexico and products, in particular, the cars … and if that doesn’t stop the drugs, we close the border,” Trump said.
Later that day he seemed to be laying the groundwork to back off his earlier threat to shut the border.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have to close the border because the penalty of tariffs on cars coming into the United States from Mexico, at 25%, will be massive,” the President said.
Business leaders and lawmakers are still nervous about tariffs. And as Trump hopes to finalize his new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, it’s a serious and legitimate question: Is this tariff threat real or just part of an effort to mask his retreat?
Giving one nominee the unexpected boot and sticking by other picks
It wasn’t just policy on which Trump was pivoting when, as he left Washington on his way to California for a visit to the border on Friday, he announced to reporters that he was pulling his nominee to lead the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Ron Vitiello. While the health care and border retreats were caused by Trump running into political and economic realities, this one had his allies confused.
“We’re going in a little different direction. Ron’s a good man, but we’re going in a tougher direction. We want to go in a tougher direction,” Trump said.
He didn’t mention the very difficult confirmation fight acting director Vitiello had faced. But the move was announced so quickly that it caught the Department of Homeland Security off guard and leadership at ICE thought the move was a clerical error Friday morning.
On the other hand, Trump wants to nominate Herman Cain to a powerful spot on the Federal Reserve Board, and the President made clear to reporters that his people would have to figure out how to make it happen. Cain, a former business executive and a 2012 Republican presidential hopeful whose campaign was troubled by allegations of sexual harassment, has no direct monetary policy experience.
“I’ve recommended Herman Cain,” Trump said Thursday. “A terrific man, a terrific person. He’s a friend of mine,” the President told reporters in the Oval Office. “I’ve recommended him highly for the Fed. I’ve told my folks that that’s the man and he’s doing some pre-checking now and I would imagine he’d be in great shape.”
Trump is also standing behind his pick for another open Fed seat, Stephen Moore of the conservative Heritage Foundation, a former CNN analyst. Moore seems likely to immediately push for interest rate cuts urged by Trump, which has set off alarm bells on Wall Street. He has also faced criticism for failing to pay spousal and child support, according to The New York Times, and $75,000 in taxes.
A switch on the Mueller report
Before Attorney General William Barr boiled down special counsel Robert Mueller’s nearly 400-page report on Russian election interference into a four-page summary that was very beneficial to Trump – though it did not exonerate him on the issue of obstruction of justice – the President said the whole report should be released.
But now that Barr’s summary of the report is public, Trump has evolved over the past two weeks and doesn’t see the need for full disclosure.
Barr is working on a redacted version of the full report that scrubs out certain material that is classified or comes from grand jury information. Nearly every page is thought to have redactions, according to the Justice Department. Democrats are already moving in the direction of a subpoena to see the full report, even though the attorney general has not yet released Barr’s version.
“It’s a 400-page report, right? We could give them 800 pages, and it wouldn’t be enough. They’ll always come back and say it is not enough,” Trump said Tuesday.
That Trump makes bold pronouncements he can’t deliver on is nothing new. That’s how a complete ban on Muslim people entering the country ultimately became a targeted ban on some people from certain countries.
That he sours on some people without explanation while sticking blindly with others has been a theme of his hiring and firing at the White House.
That he would say he supports something unexpected and then actively work against it has been at the heart of several of his positions on the Mueller investigation and on transparency. He said he would happily give testimony in person for the investigation and then his legal team fought very hard for him not to. He promised to release his tax returns once he wasn’t being audited, but it’s doubtful he ever will.
But the increasingly rapid pace of flips and spins, of the time it takes to go from bold Trump statement to complete retreat, has exposed a continuing problem for his presidency:
Nobody – not voters, policymakers, heads of state or his own staff – knows when they can trust what he says.