Chris Wallace’s question for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wasn’t complicated, or at least it shouldn’t have been. “Is accepting oppo research from a foreign government right or wrong?” the Fox News Sunday host asked.
Yet it had the nation’s top diplomat sputtering. “Chris, you asked me not to call any of your questions today ridiculous. You came really close right there. President Trump has been very clear,” Pompeo said. “He clarified his remarks later.”
Of course, had Donald Trump been very clear the first time he had addressed the subject, the president wouldn’t have needed to clarify anything later on. Trump’s answers have been a confusing mess; he even contradicted himself in a long interview with George Stephanopoulos last week:
Okay, let’s put yourself in a position: You’re a congressman; somebody comes up and says, ‘Hey, I have information on your opponent.’ Do you call the FBI? I’ll tell you what: I’ve seen a lot of things over my life. I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI. In my whole life. You don’t call the FBI.
When Stephanopoulos noted that FBI Director Christopher Wray, whom Trump selected in 2017, had said a campaign should call the FBI, Trump replied, “The FBI director is wrong. Because, frankly, it doesn’t happen like that in life.”
A few moments later, Trump offered a different answer. “I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen,” he said, though he added, “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI. If I thought there was something wrong.” He half-reversed course immediately, saying this sort of thing happens so frequently and that the feds can’t handle it: “The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it. But you go and talk honestly to congressmen, they all do it; they always have. And that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.”
On Friday, Trump called in to Fox & Friends, where, as a birthday present, the hosts allowed him to offer yet another answer in an attempt to clean up the mess he’d created with Stephanopoulos.
“You have to look at it, because if you don’t look at it, you’re not going to know if it’s bad,” Trump said. “How are you going to know if it’s bad? But of course you give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that. But of course you do that.”
The president added, “You couldn’t have that happen with our country. And everybody understands that,” conveniently glossing over the fact that this is not a hypothetical: People with connections to the Russian government offered damaging information to Trump’s own campaign in 2016, and his campaign didn’t report it to the FBI.
To sum up: Trump wouldn’t call the FBI; he would look at the info and also call the FBI; the FBI wouldn’t be interested; and of course he’d call the FBI. No wonder Wallace was confused by Trump’s answers.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s supporters often praised him for his blunt speech—for “telling it like it is,” even if the way he did that was unsavory or gauche. His straight talk, against the purported mush-mouth of Hillary Clinton, set him apart. In fact, Trump is even less direct than many politicians, with a habit of offering every possible answer so that his actual views are opaque. Trump’s defenders have asked that the media take him “seriously, not literally,” but his panoply of answers makes it impossible to do either.
On a few core issues, Trump is clear. Immigration? He’s against it. Tariffs? He likes ’em. Iran? Bad hombres. But on many other issues, the president doesn’t have strong impulses, nor does he have much interest in sifting through evidence and doing the homework.
Instead, he’s just looking for the right answer. But what makes an answer the right one often depends on the setting. Sometimes it’s the one that will quiet a political firestorm. Sometimes it’s the one that will incite one. Sometimes it’s what will please his interviewer, or piss her off. Sometimes it’s whatever the crowd wants to hear. He’s constantly reading the room, and if he gets it wrong, he’ll happily try something else.
One vivid example of this came during the presidential campaign, when Trump was asked about abortion. Trump has taken multiple positions on abortion over the course of his life, ranging from calling himself “very pro-choice” in 1999 to making opposition to late-term abortions a staple of his more recent speeches. He was not well versed in the prevailing (though not unanimous) pro-life view that while abortion should be illegal, women who get abortions should not be punished. Asked whether women should be prosecuted for abortions, Trump told Chris Matthews, “The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment,” adding that “people in certain parts of the Republican Party and conservative Republicans would say, ‘Yes, they should be punished.’”
In fact, most pro-life Republicans reacted with horror. The next day, the Trump campaign issued a clarification—Washingtonese for flip-flop—to say what he had really meant was that doctors who perform abortions should be punished. What does Trump really believe on the topic? Who knows? Maybe nothing.
But he does believe unvaryingly in the importance of gaining attention. He told The New York Times editorial board that he used “Build the wall” chants at campaign rallies whenever the crowd started to seem bored. Toward the end of his campaign, his advisers tried to persuade him to use a new slogan, “Drain the swamp.” Trump hated it—he thought it was corny. But when he saw that crowds responded, he was happy to embrace it.
There are other reasons Trump may give multiple, conflicting answers. That approach often confers a measure of plausible deniability. On foreign interference, he told the Fox & Friends crew, “I actually said at the beginning—I think I said I’d do both.”
And it allows him to offer various talking points—sometimes points that contradict one another—simultaneously. The president demonstrated this over the weekend, when he claimed that a news report was both a treasonous betrayal of national security and false, even though logically it could only be a threat if it were true. It’s not that Trump can’t see the contradictions, but rather that they don’t matter. He’s committed to the idea that the press fabricates stories and also to the idea that the attacks on him are treason, and he’ll try both and see what sticks.
Other politicians have their own variations on this tendency to pander. Bill Clinton took full advantage of polling to allow him to tell the populace what it wanted to hear. Barack Obama offered a studied vagueness that allowed him to be all things to all people, or at least many things to many people. Trump’s say-everything approach is just a typically Trumpian, maximalist twist on the same idea. When pressed on the plain contradictions, the president’s aides and minions typically fall back on the same don’t-believe-your-lying-eyes defense that Pompeo did: “The president has been very clear.”
The rub is that there’s not always a “right” answer, as the foreign-interference question demonstrates. If Trump says that going to the FBI is the right thing to do, he’s both implicitly condemning his son’s and son-in-law’s behavior and also slamming the door shut on his own solicitation of foreign help in 2020. If he says he wouldn’t go to the FBI, he gets pilloried and contradicted by his own top officials. He can try to say “Maybe,” but that’s actually an answer that gives the worst of both worlds. As a result, he’s been caught in a loop, cycling through the same set of defenses since summer 2017: There was no collusion. Actually, collusion is normal. Everyone does collusion. There was no collusion.
No matter how many times he tries, Trump can’t find the right answer. What about that isn’t clear?