Trump Time Capsule #76: Brains Trust

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Donald Trump embraces his status as an outsider to the world of politics and policy. He says that once in office, he would attract “all the best people.” He could make the great deals, and then they could work out all the little details.

This week he announced a group of these best people, including a former lieutenant governor of New York named Elizabeth “Betsy” McCaughey.

For those who have followed national policy debates over the past generation, this is not an encouraging sign. McCaughey has been a central, causal factor in two of the major failures of public information and decision-making since the early 1990s. Thus selecting her sends a signal roughly comparable to announcing a famous anti-climate-science figure as an environmental advisor or an anti-vaccine activist for counsel on public health.

Tierney Sneed of TPM has more of the background here. The two big points:

  • Nearly 25 years ago, when Bill and Hillary Clinton were trying to pass their health care reform plan. Betsy McCaughey made her name with a completely inaccurate, but politically damaging, misrepresentation of the plan. You can go back to an Atlantic article I wrote about this in 1995 for the details. In essence: in her “No Exit” essay for The New Republic, McCaughey invented and propagated the myth that the health care bill would criminalize buying any health care outside the government program. That was flat-out false, but proving that it was false took time—and by then the damage had been done. (More after the jump.)
  • During the Obamacare debates seven years ago, McCaughey more or less single-handedly created the myth that the bill would set up “death panels” to determine whether ailing patients were worth keeping alive. Also false. Also damaging.

More on McCaughey’s background from me here, and in a series of posts from 2009, during the “death panel” controversy, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Unlike some of the other Trump words or deeds recorded in these chronicles, the decision to involve McCaughey in a campaign is not unprecedented. After her burst of prominence in the Clinton-era health-care wars, McCaughey was recruited to be George Pataki’s running mate in his campaign for governor of New York in 1994. The two soon fell out, and by the time Pataki ran for re-election in 1998, McCaughey ran against him—first in the primary for the Democratic nomination, and after she lost there, as a Liberal party candidate for governor. But Trump’s selection of her now shows something about his up-to-dateness on these issues and his ability to judge and attract talent.


Update: Similarly on Trump’s instinct for talent, consider his spokesperson, Katrina Pierson, saying today on CNN that the U.S. “was not in Afghanistan” until Barack Obama took office and decided that the U.S. should wage war  there.


From “A Triumph of Misinformation” in 1995, about McCaughey’s fallacious “No Exit” article in The New Republic:

“The law will prevent you from going outside the system to buy basic health coverage you think is better,” McCaughey wrote in the first paragraph. “The doctor can be paid only by the plan, not by you.” … The “doctors in jail” concept soon turned up on talk shows and was echoed for the rest of the year.

These claims were simply false. McCaughey’s pose of impartiality was undermined by her campaign as the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor of New York soon after her article was published.

I was less impressed with her scholarly precision after I compared her article with the text of the Clinton bill. Her shocked claim that coverage would be available only for “necessary” and “appropriate” treatment suggested that she had not looked at any of today’s insurance policies. In claiming that the bill would make it impossible to go outside the health plan or pay doctors on one’s own, she had apparently skipped past practically the first provision of the bill (Sec. 1003), which said,

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed as prohibiting the following: (1) An individual from purchasing any health care services.”