During his presidential campaign, Trump attacked the Labor Department’s official estimates of the number of jobs added each month as “phony” and “total fiction.” He said that Americans were living in a “false economy,” and repeatedly said that he believed that the U.S. unemployment rate is as high as 35 percent. (It is currently 4.7 percent.) Even after Trump won the election, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, repeated this claim at his confirmation hearing in January, saying, “The unemployment rate is not real.”
But as many expected, Trump has been a bit more upbeat about America’s economy since taking office. On Friday, many eagerly waited to see how Trump would characterize February’s stellar jobs report. He retweeted the Drudge Report’s take, which characterized the latest jobs report as “GREAT AGAIN.”
The White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, didn’t mince words at a press conference Friday afternoon when Eamon Javers, a reporter for CNBC, brought up Trump’s previous doubts about the report’s veracity. “Does the president believe that this jobs report was an accurate and a fair way to measure the economy?” Javers asked. In response, Spicer said, “I talked to the president prior to this, and he said to quote him very clearly. They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.”
Spicer quotes President Trump on jobs report: "They may have been phony in the past, but it's very real now" https://t.co/Fk4fANPazC— MSNBC (@MSNBC) March 10, 2017
While it’s normal for presidents to occasionally tout a particularly good jobs report as personal victories, that doesn’t make this reversal any less alarming. It reinforces the concern that the Trump administration is ready to call official government statistics fake when they reveal something positive about the economic policies of a Democrat, but real when the good news is reflective of Republican leadership.
There was also something odd about the way in which Trump’s shifted views were communicated. Spicer tweeted Friday morning that the report was "great news for American workers," but in doing so he broke a decades-old rule established by Ronald Reagan that government officials from the executive branch must refrain from commenting on government statistics until at least an hour after their release. The rule is meant to uphold the neutrality of these releases, but Spicer tweeted just 22 minutes after the jobs data came out.
There are plenty of reasons why it’s important that official government economic data doesn’t become politicized. Gene Sperling, a former economic advisor to Presidents Obama and Clinton (and a contributing editor at The Atlantic), detailed the reasons in a piece last month:
For every administration in the past four decades, any public comment from the president casting doubt on the legitimacy of the government’s jobs, GDP, or health reports would have been unthinkable, for a few reasons. One, it would have been considered unfair to career civil servants to even suggest, with no evidence or proof, that they were tampering with numbers. Two, it would have hurt global confidence in the United States to even imply that anyone in the government was in any way manipulating the government’s economic reports—doing so would risk pushing the U.S.’s reputation toward that of China, whose published economic numbers aren’t widely trusted.
Whether the Trump administration will approach future jobs reports from the Department of Labor with dismissal or acceptance is unclear, but it’ll probably have a lot to do with what the numbers are.