OFF TO THE RACES

Trump’s Policies Are a Result of On-the-Job Training

As the president’s knowledge increases, his positions are drifting toward the mainstream.

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping reach to shake hands at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on April 7.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
April 17, 2017, 8 p.m.

The me­dia and crit­ics on the Left are hav­ing a field day at­tack­ing Pres­id­ent Trump’s rather nu­mer­ous and of­ten dra­mat­ic changes of heart on policy—wheth­er China ma­nip­u­lates its cur­rency, the ne­ces­sity of the U.S. Ex­port-Im­port Bank and NATO, and the U.S.’s stra­tegic pos­ture in Syr­ia. And then there is the ques­tion of wheth­er health care re­form is really easy or really hard.

The New York Times on Sunday ran an in­ter­est­ing graph­ic of Trump’s past and cur­rent state­ments on vari­ous is­sues. On NATO, the evol­u­tion star­ted on March 23, 2016, when he told Bloomberg Polit­ics, “I think NATO may be ob­sol­ete.” He re­it­er­ated the claim on April 4, 2016 to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, again on ABC’s This Week on Ju­ly 31, and to The Times of Lon­don on Jan. 16 of this year. But at a news con­fer­ence last week, he took a very dif­fer­ent tack. “I said it was ob­sol­ete,” he said. “It’s no longer ob­sol­ete.”

Trump re­peated the same pat­tern on China’s cur­rency. “They’re de­valu­ing their cur­rency to a level that you wouldn’t be­lieve,” he said in his cam­paign an­nounce­ment speech on June 16, 2015. “It’s im­possible for our com­pan­ies to com­pete.” In a cam­paign speech on Aug. 24, 2016, he said, “I am go­ing to in­struct my Treas­ury sec­ret­ary to la­bel China a cur­rency ma­nip­u­lat­or, the greatest in the world.” Less than a month ago, he pro­claimed, “When you talk about cur­rency ma­nip­u­la­tion, when you talk about de­valu­ations, they are world cham­pi­ons.” But 10 days later, on April 12, he told The Wall Street Journ­al, “They’re not cur­rency ma­nip­u­lat­ors.” But maybe things are more com­plic­ated. This past week­end, he tweeted: “Why would I call China a cur­rency ma­nip­u­lat­or when they are work­ing with us on the North Korean prob­lem?”

On the Ex­port-Im­port Bank, he was against it be­fore he was for it, telling Bloomberg Polit­ics last Au­gust: “I don’t like it. I think it’s a lot of ex­cess bag­gage. I think it is un­ne­ces­sary.” But by April 12 of this year, he pro­claimed to The Wall Street Journ­al that the bank is “a very good thing. And it ac­tu­ally makes money; it could make a lot of money.”

Crit­ic­al of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s policies on Syr­ia, on May 29, 2013, Trump tweeted, “Syr­ia is NOT our prob­lem.” An­oth­er tweet on Sept. 5, 2013: “Do NOT at­tack Syr­ia, fix U.S.A.” On Oct. 26, 2016, he told Re­u­ters: “What we should do is fo­cus on IS­IS. We should not be fo­cus­ing on Syr­ia.” But earli­er this month, after Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad’s mil­it­ary’s used sar­in gas on its own ci­vil­ians, Trump said, “To­night I ordered a tar­geted mil­it­ary strike on the air­field in Syr­ia from where the chem­ic­al at­tack was launched. … I call on all civ­il­ized na­tions to join us in seek­ing to end the slaughter and blood­shed in Syr­ia.”

After months of say­ing that the U.S. should pres­sure the Chinese to get North Korea in line, he then met with Pres­id­ent Xi Jin­ping and heard the Chinese per­spect­ive. “After listen­ing for 10 minutes, I real­ized it’s not so easy,” said Trump. “It’s not what you think.”

Then there was his edu­ca­tion on health care. At an Oc­to­ber cam­paign rally in Flor­ida, can­did­ate Trump said, “To­geth­er we’re go­ing to de­liv­er real change that once again puts Amer­ic­ans first. That be­gins with im­me­di­ately re­peal­ing and re­pla­cing the dis­aster known as Obama­care. … You’re go­ing to have such great health care, at a tiny frac­tion of the cost—and it’s go­ing to be so easy.”

But by Feb. 27, Pres­id­ent Trump was telling the na­tion’s gov­ernors, “Now, I have to tell you, it’s an un­be­liev­ably com­plex sub­ject. Nobody knew health care could be so com­plic­ated.”

But think about where Don­ald Trump was com­ing from. This is not a guy who ever spent days at­tend­ing sym­po­sia or read­ing white pa­pers from the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, or, for that mat­ter, the con­ser­vat­ive Her­it­age Found­a­tion or the liber­tari­an Cato In­sti­tute. This is not someone who over the years spent hours per­us­ing For­eign Af­fairs magazine or The Eco­nom­ist. Even The Wall Street Journ­al and The New York Times ap­pear to have got­ten curs­ory reads at best.

Pri­or to his elec­tion, it would seem Trump’s main source of in­form­a­tion was tele­vi­sion, spe­cific­ally cable news. While there are some very tal­en­ted journ­al­ists who have shows on cable, too many cable news shows have heavy ideo­lo­gic­al lean­ings to the right or left and serve only to en­ter­tain and to per­suade. You will rarely hear any of these hosts use the phrase “on the oth­er hand” to make a point that doesn’t sup­port their gen­er­al world­view.

Every 30 days or so since his elec­tion, Trump has more or less doubled or tripled his know­ledge and un­der­stand­ing of pub­lic policy, eco­nom­ics, and the way the world works. This policy stuff is a lot more com­plic­ated than it looked sit­ting on a Bar­caloun­ger with a TV re­mote in hand. In base­ball, it’s long been said that things look a lot easi­er from the cheap seats in the up­per deck. Be­ing the man­ager is hard. So is deal­ing with pub­lic policy.

Not on every is­sue, but on many, we are gradu­ally see­ing Pres­id­ent Trump re­vert to the mean, mov­ing from wild and simplist­ic po­s­i­tions to ones that fit with­in the con­fines of main­stream Amer­ic­an polit­ics. Amer­ic­ans voted for an out­sider, someone who would ap­proach the pres­id­ency with new eyes. On many is­sues, those eyes are grow­ing more in­formed, as policies gradu­ally move more to­ward the norm. But that’s what hap­pens.

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