Trump the Ignorant

Whenever I watch or read about an interview with Donald Trump, I find myself thinking the same thing: is this guy just woefully ignorant? It still surprises me. He never sounds informed or well-rehearsed. He does not sound as if he’s been digesting the briefings he’s been getting, or that he’s learned from the meetings he has with policy-makers. He doesn’t come across as someone who is figuring it out on the job or as someone who has access to information that normal people don’t. He just sounds under-informed and happily ignorant.

The impression I get from listening to Trump speak or reading what he says is the exact opposite of the impression he wants people to come away with. Trump pitched himself as a knowledgeable person. He said he was a man who didn’t need to consult with foreign policy professionals because he has a “good brain,” a person who could skip intelligence briefings because he is “a smart person,” and as someone who knew “more than the generals.” Each of those statements was absurd at the time, and the more he talks in public, the more absurd they become. Trump may possess some kind of instinctive intelligence, but he appears to lack even basic knowledge on a stunning array of subjects relevant to his job.

This is a big deal. The president should know things. The president is asked to weigh in on a wide array of important issues. When the president lacks information, he should utilize the vast resources at his disposal to help him gain some footing. When he speaks, he should know what he is talking about. It should go without saying that making decisions from a place of ignorance is something presidents should avoid doing, but that seems to be what Trump is doing.

Trump seems incapable of talking fluently about most issues, even when he is the one steering the conversation. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Trump turned a question about the Democratic filibuster of Neil Gorsuch into a discussion about former national security advisor Susan Rice’s alleged wrongdoing during the 2016 campaign. This is a subject that you would expect Trump to know a lot about. He brought light to the controversy last week, has a vested interest in wide dissemination of its supposedly nefarious details, and has access to the intelligence that would prove his claims true or false. If anyone should know the details of the story, it’s Trump. In the interview, though, it’s not clear that he knows much about the story at all.

GLENN THRUSH, White House correspondent: Why do you think Democrats feel the need to oppose Gorsuch? What do you think the politics is?

TRUMP: Well, I think that some of it had to do with the election. They thought they were going to win. You know, winning the Electoral College is, for a Republican, is close to impossible and I won it quite easily. And I think they are still recovering from that, but they are recovering now. I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story. I think it’s a massive, massive story. All over the world, I mean other than The New York Times.

HABERMAN: We’ve written about it twice.

TRUMP: Huh?

HABERMAN: We’ve written about it twice.

TRUMP: Yeah, it’s a bigger story than you know. I think —

HABERMAN: You mean there’s more information that we’re not aware of?

TRUMP: I think that it’s going to be the biggest story.

THRUSH: Why? What do you think —

TRUMP: Take a look at what’s happening. I mean, first of all her performance was horrible yesterday on television even though she was interviewed by Hillary Clinton’s P.R. person, Andrea Mitchell [the NBC News journalist]. Course you’ve been accused of that also.

HABERMAN: Mostly by you, though.

TRUMP: No, no, no. Mostly by a lot of people. So you know, we’ll see what happens, but it looks like it’s breaking into a massive story.

THRUSH: What do you think are — what other shoes are there to drop on this?

HABERMAN: Yeah, what else could we learn on this?

TRUMP: I think you’re going to see a lot. I think you’ll see a lot.

Notice that Trump does not offer any details. It’s not that he merely fails to offer anything new; he does not even highlight known details. He successfully directs the conversation onto her, but seems unable to drive any sort of talking points about her, other than that it’s a “massive story.” Later, when the interview returns to Rice, he is again unable to say anything of substance about the story:

HABERMAN: Sir, if you could give us more information about Rice. If the administration would give us more information —

TRUMP: No, you have a lot of information. No, you have so much information.

HABERMAN: If you would have given it to us last week, we would have written it. Would you declassify some of the information so that —

TRUMP: I don’t want to talk about that.

HABERMAN: No? O.K.

TRUMP: No. I just don’t want to talk about that. It’s such an important story for our country, for the world. What took place.

HABERMAN: Why not talk about it then? With all due respect.

TRUMP: At the right time, I will be.

THRUSH: One last thing on that. Have you actually seen intelligence that leads you to believe that people other than Susan Rice are involved.

TRUMP: I don’t want to comment on anything about — other than to say I think it’s a — I think it’s truly one of the big stories of our time.

THRUSH: Do you think she might have committed a crime?

TRUMP: Do I think?

THRUSH: Yeah.

TRUMP: Yes, I think.

It’s important to note that Trump is the one who has been driving the Rice story. We are talking about it because he tweeted about it. It would serve him well to be able to spin the story by emphasizing supposedly damning details or by pushing the narrative that his campaign was being victimized by the Obama administration. He doesn’t, even though he is given clear and repeated opportunities to do so. Now, that doesn’t prove that he’s telling lies about Susan Rice; it’s just weird. Why wouldn’t he seize the opportunity? It’s as if he heard about the story and knows it’s supposed to be good for him, but hasn’t actually read any of the actual reports or digested any of the news segments dedicated to it.

This inability to offer up details in the face of questions is a pattern with Trump. I used the Rice story above to illustrate, but the extent to which Trump is under-informed is obvious whenever he is asked to comment on just about anything. The longer he is made to speak about a subject, the less informed he sounds. Here is a non-exhaustive list of examples: 

– He has said frequently China is devaluing its currency, but it is propping it up.

– In July of last year, he said Vladimir Putin would not go into Ukraine; in 2014, Putin annexed Crimea (Trump seemed not to know that Crimea was a region within Ukraine).

– On February 22, Trump said that Republicans were pursuing healthcare before tax reform because “statutorily” they had to. No such statute exists.

– During the April 5 interview with the Times, Trump commented on New York’s recent opening of the Second Avenue subway, saying it cost “12 billion” dollars and was built without a destination in mind; the project actually cost less than half of 12 billion dollars, and was built to go where the plans dictated.

– On March 18, Trump tweeted that Germany and other NATO allies owe “vast sums” to NATO and the United States; in fact, NATO allies are not obligated to pay the U.S. any money.

– During a press conference in February, Trump stated that his electoral margin over Hillary Clinton was “the largest since Ronald Reagan,” a claim that isn’t even close to being true.

– On March 8, Trump said of the ill-fated American Health Care Act, “This will be a plan where you can choose your doctor. This will be a plan where you can choose your plan,” even though there were no provisions within the bill that fulfilled those promises.

– In defense of his ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump said on multiple occasions that “bad people” were “pouring in,” when in fact the process for attaining a visa or coming to the United States is quite extensive.

In all or some of these instances, it’s possible Trump is just lying, but I think it’s more likely he’s ignorant. He’s speaks of things about which he knows little, and makes factual errors in the process.

Everyone does this from time to time, but the frequency at which Trump does it suggests he doesn’t care that he is making errors. Being seen as credible, keeping his facts straight, sounding informed – it just isn’t important to him.

We’ve been assured that Trump is a “big-picture” guy. He’s supposed to be akin to a good manager who sets the agenda and tone, but then lets the people under him do their jobs. Good managers, though, do tend to know a good deal about what their team is doing. A manager at tech firm would not be expected to supervise every line of code being written, but she would be expected to know why the code was being written, what goals the programmers were aiming for, and probably would be expected to have an opinion about the best course of action whenever a difference in opinion arose. By these measures, Trump has not, as President, demonstrated good managerial skills.

The recent rise and fall of the AHCA was illustrative. Trump threw his support behind a bill that broke all of his campaign promises about healthcare, and oversaw negotiations during which he could not effectively negotiate because he did not know what was being traded. In public, he offered no detailed defense of the law or any of its key provisions, he gave no indication of parts of the law he was keen on, and really seemed uninterested in the whole process.

Trump does not bear full responsibility for the bill’s failure. It was so unpopular, and the two sides were so far apart, that it’s unlikely that he could have gotten it through even if he had been up to speed. Still, though, his basic ignorance of healthcare policy, which has been readily apparent since the campaign, hurt the bill’s chances and helped to scuttle it within a few week’s time.

Again, this is not good. The president should know what he is talking about. It is in the country’s – and his own – interest for him to know what he is talking about. Trump, though, hasn’t bothered. He displayed a stunning knowledge deficit throughout the campaign, and never did anything to remedy it. Not in preparation for interviews, for speeches, or in preparation for more than a dozen televised debates. He didn’t do anything to correct it. He didn’t care.

All of this connects to Trump’s apparent belief that what matters in public discourse is not who is right or wrong, but whose proposition sounds better. Under this theory, he can feel free to say whatever he wants, because the point is the sale, rather than the strength of your argument. This goes against the image of Trump as a bold truth-teller who keeps his promises. I would argue that all the information we have about Trump points to him being a man who will say anything in order to sell a product. Those who put their trust in him will likely be disappointed.

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