Analysis

Trump’s Most Stubborn Misconceptions

From trade and immigration to NATO and Amazon, there are some mistakes the president won’t stop making.

President Trump speaks at the White House on March 22 before signing a Presidential Memorandum imposing tariffs and investment restrictions on China.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
April 5, 2018, 8 p.m.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” That quote dramatically filled the screen at the opening of the 2015 movie The Big Short. It was attributed to Mark Twain. Others have credited—wrongly—Will Rogers, Artemus Ward, and even Yogi Berra. Its actual origin seems to be the writings of humorist Josh Billings in the 1870s. Billings, of course, never met Donald Trump. But a review of Trump’s troubles and the private grumblings of those who have tried to brief him suggest the quote aptly captures the president’s first 14 months in office.

No one can be surprised that Trump, with no experience in public life and little command of public policy, would struggle with policy arcana. But few could have anticipated how resistant he would prove at accepting facts offered by his own briefers. From the workings of Congress to limitations on presidential power, from operations of alliances to international trade law, from the substance of court rulings to the capabilities of fighter planes—the president consistently has tossed aside his briefing books and clung tenaciously to his own beliefs.

Gary Cohn, his former chief economic adviser, viewed his efforts to educate the president on tariffs as “Groundhog Day tutorials,” Axios reported. Just this week, Trump demonstrated his stubbornness when he lashed out at those who challenged his statements on the Postal Service as “fools, or worse,” tweeting flatly, “I am right.”

Here is a look at 10 areas where the experts have failed to sway the president and he has stuck with beliefs “that just ain’t so.”

A trade war will not be “good and easy to win.”

This declaration by President Trump came on March 2 despite repeated attempts by Cohn to educate him on past trade wars and past tariffs. Four days later, Cohn quit in frustration. China’s announced retaliations this week against Trump’s tariffs are just the start of what Cohn predicted. Trump is also learning that a trade war will target many of his own voters. In Ohio, the sixth-ranked state in soybean production, there are 23,000 soybean farmers producing $5.3 billion worth of the crop each year. Those farmers fear that China, now the largest buyer of U.S. soybeans, will simply switch to Brazilian soybeans. Ohio corn growers also note that Mexico is their largest corn market. Ohio farmers are huge beneficiaries of trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement in particular, a fact Trump repeatedly disputes.

NAFTA is not the “horrible, horrible, embarrassing deal” he claims, and some of the biggest beneficiaries voted for Trump.

A year ago, Trump said he was “all set to terminate” NAFTA but was talked out of it at the last moment. What turned him was a map Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue showed him highlighting the areas of the country that would be hardest hit by the end of the trade pact. To Trump’s surprise, it showed most of those areas were in counties that went for him heavily in 2016. No place better demonstrated that reality than Texas, the state with the most exports to Mexico. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 387,067 jobs in Texas are dependent on those exports. The map worked for a while, but now Trump has returned to his own beliefs, leading to his tweets this week complaining that “Mexico is making a fortune on NAFTA” and his statement that “NAFTA is in play.” In response, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott countered with facts and pleaded publicly for NAFTA to be preserved, crediting it with a 13 percent increase in Texas exports to Mexico and claiming that a million jobs in the state exist because of NAFTA.

The facts about Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service are not as clear as Trump claims.

Amazon brings out the stubbornness in Trump. In a flurry of tweets, he has targeted the online behemoth, blaming it for the USPS losing money and demanding Amazon pay more for the packages delivered by USPS. As fact-checkers like PolitiFact have noted, the president “might have a point” that the postal service could charge Amazon more. And some of the details are unknown because USPS’s deals with private shippers are considered proprietary and kept secret. But Trump is definitely wrong that Amazon is to blame for overall USPS losses. Package delivery showed the biggest revenue increase and was responsible for keeping the overall losses lower. He also is wrong when he claims Amazon is “not paying internet taxes.” The company pays sales taxes on its products sold in the 45 states that have sales taxes. But the company does not collect sales taxes for many third-party vendors.

Trade deficits are not the evil Trump thinks they are.

Trump fundamentally does not understand trade deficits and surpluses, viewing them as an indicator of which country is smarter and repeatedly suggesting he thinks the country with a trade surplus somehow has a pot of money to show for it. That is clear when he suggests Mexico can pay for a border wall out of its trade surplus. His new economic adviser Larry Kudlow has told him that a trade deficit “is not a reflection of a bad economy.” His “staff have tried to change them, but he’s held these views for more than 30 years, is impervious to facts, and not likely to change them,” said William Reinsch, the former president of the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington.

NATO is not funded the way Trump thinks it is.

It should have surprised nobody that Defense Secretary James Mattis gazed downward and barely responded on Tuesday when the president tapped him on the arm and urged him to “confirm” that “many billions of dollars” have flowed into NATO that wouldn’t have if “crooked Hillary Clinton” had been elected. Mattis did not enthusiastically confirm his claim because it is not true and it is not how the Western alliance is funded. Despite being briefed repeatedly both in his campaign and in the White House, Trump continues to conflate the NATO goal, set in 2014, of having all members pay 2 percent of their GDP on defense by 2025 with member “dues” to run the alliance. Countries that meet the 2 percent goal are spending that on their own defense and are not paying it to NATO, despite what the president repeatedly states. Earlier, he has claimed Germany owes “vast sums of money to NATO.” There is some direct funding of NATO based on a formula that has the United States paying 22 percent of the “principal budgets”—not the 80 percent Trump claims. Germany is not in arrears on this. Trump persists in his NATO claims despite his own briefings, repeated fact checks, and even former NATO ambassador Ivo Daalder pointedly tweeting, “Sorry, Mr. President, that’s not how NATO works.”

Stealth planes are not invisible.

On at least three occasions, the president has marveled that the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jet is “invisible.” He said, “It’s stealth. You cannot see it.” Another time, he said, “You can’t see it. You literally can’t see it. It’s hard to fight a plane you can’t see.” Unfortunately, that literally is not true. Through design and the use of radar-absorbent materials, stealth planes are difficult to see on radar. But they are not invisible to other pilots.

The diversity lottery does not work the way Trump states.

There may be no U.S. government program that the president misrepresents and misunderstands more than the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. On Jan. 9, he gave his version: “Countries come in and they put names in a hopper. They’re not giving you their best names. … They’re giving you people that they don’t want. And then we take them out of the lottery. And when they do it by hand—where they put the hand in the bowl … what’s in their hand are the worst of the worst.” All that is wrong. The countries do not run the lottery or propose names; the lottery is not done by hand; and the “winners” do have higher qualifications than other immigrant groups. The system was designed in 1990 to let more Irish immigrants into the United States. It is merit-based, with applicants needing a high school education and at least two years of experience in a field approved by the U.S. Labor Department. And there are background checks. The computer then allocates 50,000 immigrant visas from an approved 100,000 chosen from 10 to 20 million applications each year.

Congress can’t give Trump the line-item veto he demands.

When he signed the omnibus spending bill, he said, “I’m calling on Congress to give me a line-item veto for all government spending bills.” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin repeated that call. The problem is that the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that a line-item veto is unconstitutional—something the White House and Mnuchin continue to ignore. Mnuchin insisted Congress could just “pass a rule.” In reality, it would take a constitutional amendment.

Trump is demanding changes to a nonexistent law.

The president promised “a strong look at our country’s libel laws” to give him recourse when somebody says something “false and defamatory” about him. The problem, as the ACLU pointed out in January, is that he wants to “change federal libel laws that don’t exist.” Libel law is a state matter. “There is no federal libel law,” the ACLU noted. A second problem is that the Supreme Court has ruled in First Amendment cases that the recourse he wants would be unconstitutional.

He doesn’t seem to understand what DACA is.

This week, Trump contended that refugees marching in Mexico were trying to cross the U.S. border to “get onto the DACA bandwagon.” On Sunday, he tweeted, “NO MORE DACA DEAL.” But the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would not cover anybody crossing the border today even if it were still in place. DACA applicants must have arrived in the United States before age 16, have lived in the country since 2007, and been younger than 31 in June 2012. No new arrival could meet those conditions.

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