The unselfconscious display of gaping, consequential holes in his general knowledge
The transcript is full of illustrations, but here are three I would note:
- The “Cornhusker Kickback.” Right at the start of the interview, Trump explains why it’s so hard to get health-care bills passed, using an example from the original passage of Obamacare:
Trump: It was good. We are very close. It’s a tough—you know, health care. Look, Hillary Clinton worked eight years in the White House with her husband as president and having majorities and couldn’t get it done. Smart people, tough people—couldn’t get it done. Obama worked so hard. They had 60 in the Senate. They had big majorities and had the White House. I mean, ended up giving away the state of Nebraska. They owned the state of Nebraska. Right. Gave it away. Their best senator did one of the greatest deals in the history of politics. What happened to him?
What Trump appears to be talking about is something known by its critics as the Cornhusker Kickback. In order to get the vote of the very conservative Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, of Nebraska, the Obamacare architects agreed on a special favor that spared the state of Nebraska, uniquely, some of the costs of expanding Medicaid. This was legislative deal-making in its classic form, and the conservative press roundly criticized it (and it became so controversial that it was ultimately bounced from the final deal).
But does it sound as if Trump has any idea what the deal actually involved? “They owned the state of Nebraska.” What? “Gave it away.” Huh? “Their best senator did one of the greatest deals in the history of politics”—well, that is sort of right, as concerns Ben Nelson getting favors for his state (until the kickback was revoked), but it seems to reflect Trump’s habit of classifying everything as a good or bad deal with no regard for its substance.
- What insurance is. This is Trump’s description of the challenge of figuring out coverage for pre-existing medical conditions:
Trump: So pre-existing conditions are a tough deal. Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan. Here’s something where you walk up and say, “I want my insurance.” It’s a very tough deal, but it is something that we’re doing a good job of.
The most charitable explanation for what he is trying to say is that Trump has confused the way medical insurance works, including the preexisting conditions question, with the way life insurance works, especially when people buy so-called “whole life” policies. His description—low initial payments, “you’ve got a nice plan” by retirement age—would make sense if talking about whole-life plans, which indeed were more popular when he was a young man. It has no apparent relationship to the subject on which he’s trying to oversee a congressional deal. No other president of my lifetime could have made a comparable error, on a comparably important topic, while in office. Gerald Ford, for all his stumblebum image, was a Yale Law School graduate and veteran of legislative details. George W. Bush, often so ineloquent in public, worked hard as governor of Texas and afterward to master legislative arguments and complications.
- Oh, that Napoleon. This error doesn’t matter. But it probably did to the man Trump thought he was doing so much to impress, President Macron of France:
Trump: Well, Napoleon finished a little bit bad. But I asked that. So I asked the president [Macron], so what about Napoleon? He said: “No, no, no. What he did was incredible. He designed Paris.” [garbled] The street grid, the way they work, you know, the spokes. He did so many things even beyond. And his one problem is he didn’t go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities, and they froze to death. How many times has Russia been saved by the weather? [garbled]
Trump: Same thing happened to Hitler. Not for that reason, though. Hitler wanted to consolidate. He was all set to walk in. But he wanted to consolidate, and it went and dropped to 35 degrees below zero, and that was the end of that army.
Forget the wartime talk and “finished a little bit bad” and the rest of this shorthand version of history. What Trump obviously didn’t know (even now), as Macron probably realized as he was talking to him in Paris, is that there were two different Napoleons—the one who conquered Europe and “finished a little bit bad,” and the other one, his nephew Louis-Napoleon, who as president and then emperor of France in the mid-1800s commissioned the redesign by Haussmann that gave Paris its grand current look.