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.
Read: Taking Trump seriously, not literally
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.