The last time President Donald Trump sat down with a nonpartisan journalist, he revealed to NBC News’s Lester Holt that his administration had been lying about why he fired FBI Director James Comey. The real reason, Trump revealed, was an effort to stymie the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election. That compelled the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller whose team has caused all sorts of trouble for Trump ever since. Consequently, Trump has spent the past few months sequestered with friendly journalists conducting softball interviews.
Yet precisely because the softball format leads to such easy questions, Trump’s frequent inability to answer them reveals the depths of his ignorance better than any tough grilling possibly could.
Perhaps as a result, during Wednesday night’s interview on Fox Business, Lou Dobbs took a different approach. His questions weren’t softballs, they were downright sycophantic and often featured the interviewer attempting to supply Trump with the answers.
Dobbs’s very first question, if you can call it a question, is this: “In nine months in office, you’ve already accomplished more in the way of job creation. The move in the equities markets has been extraordinary and record setting. All of the indexes, at or near record levels. You have accomplished so much in that nine months. And yet, as you say, we need tax reform. You’re meeting resistance from within your own party. You’re meeting resistance from the Democrats. How do you move from here?” And the interview concludes with Trump — the President of the United States — telling Dobbs that “it’s an honor” to be able to speak with him.
In between, of course, you get Trump’s usual mishmash of gibberish, lies, and misstatements.
Trump is impressed that China also has a president
One of the more remarkable exchanges in the interview starts when Dobbs decides that instead of asking a question, he’ll just editorialize that critics of Trump’s China policy are mistaken. Trump cuts in to explain that he has an excellent relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping because Xi also has the title of “president.”
Trump is, obviously, hideously unpopular around the world. That makes it difficult for democratically elected leaders to engage in the same level of Trump flattery as a dictator (or Fox Business host), which may have given Trump a poor impression of the various prime ministers of Europe and the Commonwealth.
Trump then reveals that he’s not even sure what the itinerary is for his upcoming trip to China, “And we’re going to Beijing and other places, wherever he’d like to take me. And we’ll be spending two days there.”
Trump can’t maintain focus on anything
Trump is a famously meandering speaker but it’s striking that rather than returning time and again to his top priorities, he actually gets sidetracked from his own signature issues. Dobbs, who became an anti-immigration fanatic before it was cool, tries to get Trump to talk about GOP congressional leaders’ doubts about the border wall, asking “How in the world are we going to be able to deal with all of these issues if you — if you cannot bring the Republican party together?”
Trump responds with a long digression about prescription drug pricing:
Trump has, of course, been complaining about this problem for years. But his administration has never endorsed any of the many pieces of legislation (mostly backed by Democrats) that would address it. Nor has he appointed people to health policy jobs who agree with him about drug pricing. Which is perhaps why Trump then takes a hard pivot to the unrelated issue of opioid addiction.
And if Trump is hazy on his personal policy priorities he manages to be, somehow, even more out to sea on the GOP legislative agenda.
Trump has no idea why his tax plan is good
On tax reform, Dobbs offers Trump a nice, lazy pitch right over the plate: “What do you expect the impact to be for working men and women, the middle class, those who aspire to be in the middle class?”
Now I don’t work in the Trump administration, but unlike Donald Trump I have taken the time to familiarize myself with the Trump administration’s briefing materials. So I can tell you the answer is supposed to be that the GOP tax plan will help the middle class in three big ways.
First there’s a doubling of the standard deduction. Second there’s an increase in the Child Tax Credit. And third, the corporate income tax cut is supposed to produce an inflow of global investment capital that spurs job creation and raises wages by an average of $4,000. Back during last weekend’s interview with Maria Bartiromo, Trump at least remembered about the higher wages, though he forgot the number and said it was $5,000. With Dobbs, though, he’s a mess.
Trump actually forgets to sell his tax plan in any way, pivoting instead to Mexico.
Trump, of course, has not proposed any policies that would enact any such penalties.
Trump can’t discuss anything in policy terms
One of the odder things to ever happen in a presidential interview is Dobbs attempting to ask Trump a question about his choice to chair the Federal Reserve. Trump is so unable to either discuss this in policy terms or else demurely decline to speculate that he ends up reversing roles and asking Dobbs what he thinks. Then they get so buddy-buddy that Dobbs decides to crack a joke Trump doesn’t seem to understand about how maybe he’ll get the job himself.
From independent reporting, Trump seems genuinely torn between the idea of reappointing Yellen, tapping Jerome Powell (a Republican who’s currently on the Fed board), and picking John Taylor, a monetary economist who a lot of back-bench Republican politicians are excited about.
Yet Trump is unable to process this in any kind of policy terms. Taylor and Yellen have a fundamental disagreement about how monetary policy should be conducted, while Powell’s views are less clear but at least seem to be similar to Yellen’s. Trump’s only take is that Yellen must be good because the stock market is up, but maybe he’ll fire her anyway in order to leave his own mark.
At his best, Trump echoes inaccurate industry talking points
At one point, Trump does actually break with habit and try to explain a policy idea of his in some detail — letting companies who’ve stashed profits in foreign tax havens bring the money back to the United States at a discount tax rate.
To Trump’s credit, while none of this is true, it is a more or less accurate summary of the talking points used by the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups agitating for a tax cut. They would like you to believe that Apple and Microsoft have giant piles of cash sitting around in strongboxes in Ireland and the Cayman Islands and that a repatriation break will flood the United States with cash.
The reality, as Adam Looney, who used to run tax analysis at the Treasury Department, explains is that money owned by US companies’ foreign subsidiaries isn’t actually located in foreign countries. What they do with the money is buy dollar-denominated bonds of various kinds.
He examined big companies’ financial statements and concluded that “of the 15 companies with the largest cash balances — companies that hold almost $1 trillion in cash — about 95 percent of the total cash was invested in the US.” What a repatriation holiday would let these companies do is pay the cash out to their shareholders as dividends. Great news if you happen to own tons of stock, but nothing useful for the normal person.
All that said, Trump really is faithfully replicating industry talking points here, which is a lot better than he does on other issues.
Replacement-level Republicanism, minus competence
The truly striking thing about Trump, nine months in, is not the awe-inspiring scale of accomplishments that Dobbs claims to see.
It’s that after an extraordinarily contentious primary season in which Trump put forward many profoundly heterodox policy ideas, we have a president in the White House whose strongest performance comes when giving a decent rendition of Chamber of Commerce talking points on one aspect of a corporate income tax cut.
There’s no actual plan here to cut prescription drug prices. There isn’t even any talk any more of “terrific” health insurance programs that will “cover everyone.” Trump’s not pretending any more than he’s going to raise taxes on the rich, he’s not talking about $1 trillion infrastructure investments, and he’s certainly not burning the midnight oil coming up with a Trumpian policy agenda.
He’s just kind of bopping along with more vulgarity and corruption and less discipline and policy knowledge than a normal president.
Meanwhile, a Republican Party that’s no longer really divided on policy is tearing itself apart between a faction that can see the plain reality in front of them and a majority group that, like Dobbs, insists on pretending that their party’s unpopular and not-very-able leader is in fact a leader of world-historical proportions.