The Education of Donald J. Trump

A president with so little knowledge about policy and so few ideological commitments can be pragmatic but also volatile and easily influenced.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, President Trump made a remarkable admission. He was describing his conversations with President Xi Jinping of China, whose nation he had insisted could solve the North Korean nuclear standoff easily if only it set its minds to it. Xi argued otherwise, Trump recalled:

He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, you’re talking about thousands of years … and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that not—it’s not so easy. You know I felt pretty strongly that they have—that they had a tremendous power over China. I actually do think they do have an economic power, and they have certainly a border power to an extent, but they also—a lot of goods come in. But it’s not what you would think.

The anecdote is telling for a couple reasons. Many people have said Trump is ignorant on policy issues, but in this case Trump himself fessed up to having had no real understanding of the history of the Korean peninsula. In fact, he knew so little that in just 10 minutes, his own view of the conflict was turned around.

The message this sends to foreign leaders is that Trump is not well-versed in the issues about which he confidently pontificates, but that he can quickly be persuaded to come around to their view—hardly the strength Trump promised he would bring to the White House. The Chinese government seems to have grasped that Trump was a blank slate, pushing for a face-to-face meeting between the two men early in Trump’s term so that Xi could help set the agenda and terms for their relationship.

Trump’s tendency to take up the position of the last person with whom he spoke on a given issue has been widely noted. Xi’s claim that North Korea is an intractable problem is a widely held one, and North Korea bedeviled Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton, too, but it’s disconcerting that a foreign leader could so quickly dazzle Trump. The combination of little knowledge and practically no ideological commitments also makes the ongoing battle between factions in Trump’s White House much higher stakes than they might otherwise be.

Trump’s about-face on China and North Korea is just one of several headspinning reversals over the last week. As I wrote today, many of those changes in position seem to reflect a simple transition: Before, Trump didn’t know the facts of what he was talking about; now he does. He insisted time and again, over the course of nearly two years, that China was nefariously devaluing its currency, but now he realizes that since 2014 Beijing has actually been spending heavily to prop it up. He used to think the U.S. should avoid engagement in Syria; now that he’s seen evidence of chemical-weapons use and barrel bombs, both of which Bashar al-Assad was already using when Trump was against intervention, he has changed his mind. He used to think Russia could help solve the Syrian problem; now he understands that Vladimir Putin is one of Assad’s two most important patrons.

These reversals are notable because, despite common skepticism of campaign promises, politicians usually try to do most of what they said once they enter office. Even in a mass-media era where the winner of most presidential elections is the candidate with the most winning personality, presidents continue to view their mandate as based in their policy priorities—partly because it might be discouraging to think otherwise, and partly because their core supporters demand it.

Take Barack Obama, who expended massive political capital early in his term on passing a huge overhaul of the health-insurance system. As a matter of policy and justice, this may have been wise, but as a matter of politics, it stank: Even as public opinion turned sharply against reform, the White House kept its foot on the gas. The blowback helped doom Democratic control of the House of Representatives, and the resulting law was consistently unpopular—until, that is, Trump tried to repeal it.

Vast learning is neither sufficient nor necessary to be a successful president. Some of the commanders-in-chief with the most impressive academic resumes turned out to be mediocre or even bad presidents. Besides, all presidents face some sort of learning curve. Bill Clinton’s plans to allow gays to serve openly in the military quickly crashed on the shoals of political reality. George W. Bush’s denunciations of “nationbuilding” as candidate gave way to two huge nationbuilding efforts after September 11. Obama signed an executive order ordering the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay on his first day but never actually followed through. Nonetheless, the scope of Trump’s recent reversals, and his frank admission of not knowing the facts, sticks out.

Trump has not reversed all of his major promises, of course. He still continues to promise to build a wall on the Mexican border, though it’s increasingly apparent that won’t be the 50-foot-high concrete colossus he’d promised. Other priorities, like renegotiating NAFTA, have been quietly shifted over to the back burner.

The president seems to recognize that in voting for him, supporters were voting for Trump the man—or perhaps more accurately, Trump the brand—rather than for his policy platform, which was spotty, flimsy, and sometimes contradictory. Indeed, when confronted with his ignorance during the campaign, he bragged that he could easily learn everything he needed to know in just a few days.

But reckoning with his policy ignorance could be liberating for Trump. Freed from any imperative to actually follow through on some of his more ideological but less widely popular promises, Trump might pursue policies that were both more popular and more productive. This is a dynamic already seen on Obamacare repeal, and after all, when voters praised Trump as a “dealmaker,” weren’t they really saying they wanted a pragmatist rather than an ideologue? The rest was just rhetoric.

But this also carries clear risks. When you don’t know things, you are more likely to make errors. This is even more dangerous when, as Donald Rumsfeld could have taught Trump, you don’t know what you don’t know. You’re easily susceptible to the influence of others, too.

I have argued that the Clinton White House, which struggled through a chaotic start, offers a useful analog for the Trump administration. But the interpersonal feuds within the Clinton administration were largely about jockeying for individual position and proximity to the president. The conflict between various Trump aides—notably, strategist Steve Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and senior adviser Jared Kushner—could matter much more, because the stakes are not simply their own advancement and the ability to nudge the president slightly in one direction or another. Bannon, who is reportedly on the outs at the moment, offers a starkly different worldview, including his espousal of white nationalism and fondness for Putin, than does Kushner, who seems to resemble a corporate Democrat in many ways, or Priebus, a mainstream Republican. With a president this untutored on the issues, today’s West Wing intrigue threatens to be tomorrow’s major U.S. policy shift.