The President Who Doesn't Understand His Own Positions

Donald Trump came out strongly against reauthorizing an intelligence bill his White House backs—the third time in a week he has been at odds with his staff and even his own stated views.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Singed by aides’ and former aides’ portrait of a president not equal to his job, Donald Trump has spent the last few days trying to demonstrate that he’s on top of things.

The results have been mixed. The president was able to garner some positive reviews for his session with congressional leaders on Tuesday—though as one of those reviewers, Peter Baker of The New York Times, acknowledged, “The bar, of course, was historically low given that Democrats and even some Republicans have been describing him as so unstable that he should be removed from office.”

But at the same time—in that Tuesday meeting, over the weekend at Camp David, and on Twitter Thursday morning—Trump has demonstrated that he continues to have no functional grasp of policy, including the putative positions of his administration. He demonstrated this Thursday with regards to the FISA Amendments Act, which Congress is preparing to reauthorize before it expires. But reformers, including libertarian-leaning Republicans like Representative Justin Amash and Senator Rand Paul and Democrats like Representative Zoe Lofgren and Senator Ron Wyden, have sought new privacy safeguards in response to the revelations produced by Edward Snowden.

Like most White Houses of both parties, the Trump administration has sought the widest possible power for the executive branch and the intelligence community. The official White House line has been that the president supports reauthorization but opposes reform efforts. Wednesday night, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders released this statement:

The Administration strongly opposes the “USA Rights” amendment to the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act, which the House will consider tomorrow.  This amendment would re-establish the walls between intelligence and law enforcement that our country knocked down following the attacks of 9/11 in order to increase information sharing and improve our national security.  The Administration urges the House to reject this amendment and preserve the useful role FISA’s Section 702 authority plays in protecting American lives.

Then the president woke up Thursday, tuned in to Fox, and blew up the administration’s position for almost two hours.

During a segment on Fox and Friends, pundit Andrew Napolitano made a plea for Trump to veto the law. If Napolitano’s name rings a bell, it’s because Trump credited or blamed him for the unsubstantiated claim that Obama had “tapped [Trump’s] wires.” That claim was false, never backed by any evidence, and Napolitano was suspended from the air following it. But Trump believed it and has continued to say so, and on Thursday, Napolitano repeated the claim, using it to argue Trump should reject the reauthorization.

“His woes began with unlawful foreign surveillance and unconstitutional domestic surveillance of him, before he was president of the United States,” Napolitano said. (There is no evidence for any of this.) “Mr. President, this is not the way to go.”

The nap-napping of U.S. policy was successful. At 7:33 a.m., Trump tweeted his opposition to the bill:

The missive came during a period that Axios reported has become known as “executive time”—the stretch when Trump lounges around the White House private residence, sans aides and mostly watching television, before starting his workday. This is often when he sends his most outlandish tweets. Then, almost two hours later, and after already tweeting about a different topic (another story he’d seen on Fox and Friends), Trump walked back the comment at 8:14 a.m.:

The immediate reaction to the Fox and Friends story, the lag between the two tweets, and Trump’s history of anemic interest in policy all suggest a simple chain of events: He was persuaded by the segment, then staffers had to explain to him that he was contradicting the official White House position, leading to the clumsy-clean-up tweet. The implication, made before and reinforced Thursday, that the president can be induced to swing his stance on key policy fights based on a single segment on cable news has potentially wide-reaching implications for American policy—including for lobbyists, special interests, or foreign countries seeking to influence the government. The walk-back shows that some such moves can often be undone quickly, but that won’t always be the case.

That doesn’t even get into the spurious wiretap accusation, which Trump has refused to quit making even though he has offered no evidence to support it, and his own Justice Department has said it is not true. There’s no small irony that he continues to lodge the accusation against Barack Obama in the same week he calls for stricter defamation laws.

This is at least the third time in the last week that the president has demonstrated his weak grasp on policy. During Monday’s meeting with leaders of both parties, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein floated the idea of a “clean” extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—in other words, a bill with no other provisions attached. Republicans oppose a clean extension because they want to extract concessions from Democrats, such as spending on border security in exchange. Trump readily agreed to Feinstein’s idea of a clean extension, only to have House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy awkwardly interrupt him and remind him of his own stated view. Within minutes, as my colleague Russell Berman wrote, Trump was saying something completely different. The meeting was intended to showcase Trump’s competence, and while some of the press coverage may have been what the White House wanted, the reality was it also showed Trump’s serious limitations.

Another curious case unfolded at a GOP retreat at Camp David over the weekend. Trump told assembled congressional leaders on Friday that he did not believe that public-private partnerships, the central mechanism for his administration’s (supposedly) forthcoming infrastructure bill, would work. The following day, economic adviser Gary Cohn presented the outlines of a plan, including the public-private partnerships, as the administration’s approach, as though nothing had happened. White House officials told The Washington Post that Trump is indeed skeptical of the partnerships.

The phenomenon of Trump contradicting aides, especially on foreign policy and especially Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is at this point familiar, and has created chaos—and worries of more to come—on the world stage. As the last week demonstrates, domestic policy is no less susceptible to the problem.

This creates extensive challenges. Foreign leaders have long since realized Trump is a pushover who can easily be rolled in face-to-face meetings, eroding U.S. authority on the world stage. Republican leaders in Congress have desperately sought guidance from Trump on major initiatives, both to make sure he will not attack them and in the hopes that his leadership will help patch over divides within the party. The meager legislative accomplishments of this Congress speak to Trump’s inability to offer that guidance. Democrats seem fitfully interested in trying to make deals with Trump, but that’s impossible too, as Jonathan Chait wrote Wednesday: “It’s hard to make a deal with a president if the president doesn’t understand anything about the deal beyond his belief that deals are good.”

What, then, is the administration’s policy on any given question? Is it the stance that that White House lays out in background briefings, fact-sheets, and official statements? Or is it the stance that the president offers? In any ordinary administration, the answer would clearly be the president, since he’s the top official—though in any ordinary administration, such cleavages would never become public. But since nearly no one, and certainly not his own aides, takes Trump seriously on policy, his statements no longer get the presumption of authority, especially when he is liable to reverse himself two hours later. And if foreign leaders, members of Congress in both parties, and voters cannot tell what the U.S. government’s policy is, the government effectively has no policy at all.