As Frankfurt notes, these situations are an occupational danger for people in prominent jobs:
The production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.
One can see this happening on cable TV on an hourly basis, as professional talkers are asked to talk about topics in which they have no expertise. Politicians tend to be made of slightly more prudent stuff, and when they get a question on an unfamiliar subject, they’ll offer some sort of vague nonresponse or vow to get back to their questioner later, often without any intent to follow through. Trump, who often acts more like a pundit than a president, is happy to follow the talking heads here as well.
In June, the president visited the United Kingdom, where his ambassador had recently created a controversy by saying the National Health Service should be opened up to American companies in a post-Brexit bilateral trade deal with the U.S. A reporter asked Trump whether he agreed. The president first tried to play it off—“I can’t hear him. What?”—until Prime Minister Theresa May threw a lifeline to her counterpart, who did not know the initialism NHS. “It’s a question about the National Health Service,” she explained. Trump jumped right in:
Look, I think everything with a trade deal is on the table. When you—when you’re dealing in trade, everything is on the table—so, NHS or anything else. There are a lot—a lot more than that. But everything will be on the table, absolutely. Okay.
Another of Trump’s tells for bullshitting is the promise of a forthcoming plan in some short, defined period. In 2017, Axios compiled a list of Trump promising to do things in two weeks’ time, often in response to questions for which he was unprepared. From that vantage point, his more modest promises on the busing plan—he’d release it in four weeks, or in a couple of months—represent a sort of growth.
But such promises remain politically risky. Even if Trump initially had no intention of releasing most of these two-week plans, his claims often elicit later questions from the press, chiefly, “Well, where’s the plan?” That, in turn, leads Trump to push out half-baked, hasty policy announcements on everything from tariffs to transgender troops.
Sometimes Trump’s instinct to bullshit makes the press his unwitting accomplice. During the 2016 presidential campaign, a reporter asked Trump whether he was proposing a registry or database of Muslims. The candidate at first answered noncommittally: “We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely.” By later in the same day, the question had become his policy: “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases. We should have a lot of systems,” he said. When another journalist asked how that was different from Nazi registries of Jews, Trump replied, “You tell me, you tell me. Why don’t you tell me.”