Puerto Rico’s debt has been a major problem for years. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump supported a solution:
“We have to look at their whole debt structure … we’re going to have to wipe that out. You can say goodbye to that. I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that.”
It only took hours for White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney to knock down the whole idea. “We are not going to bail them out,” he said. “We are not going to pay off those debts. We are not going to bail out those bond holders.”
This is not normal. Presidents simply don’t make policy pronouncements only to have them overridden within their own administration.
Especially not from within their own presidential branch – the White House and other Executive Office of the Presidency agencies that work directly for the president. That’s where presidential influence is normally the strongest.
But Trump has become such a weak president that even his own budget director can treat public presidential words as basically irrelevant.
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Now, granted, with Trump it’s hard to tell whether this was a real presidential decision which was then rolled by his own staff – or if he just blabbed away without really meaning to be making policy at all. Of course, that’s the problem.
When the president says things because, say, he’s echoing some cable news show he just watched, then everyone learns pretty quickly not to care what he says, and he finds it hard to get taken seriously even when he really means it.
That’s why normal presidents are extremely careful about what comes out of the presidential mouth (or pen, or twitter account). It’s not because they aren’t willing to tell it like it is. It’s because skilled politicians treat everything they do as part of an attempt to fight for influence within the political system.
That’s also why normal presidents, who are certainly willing to bend the truth or even outright lie when it suits them for strategic reasons, won’t lie the way Trump does – gratuitously, transparently, and with no discernible purpose beyond making himself look good for the moment.
A politician who spins successfully can actually increase the respect others have for his or her professional skills. Trump, on the other hand, devalues his future words with clumsy, obvious falsehoods.
For example, when he apparently referenced a fictional story about a Puerto Rico truck driver strike (there is no strike, but Trump nevertheless said “We need their truck drivers to start driving trucks”), it only contributed to the notion that his words shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Even when Trump’s words are true, it’s remarkable how little thought he puts into them. Take his absolutely shocking decision to brag about low casualty numbers during his trip to Puerto Rico, in which he compared what was then the official death toll of only 16 to the much higher numbers from Katrina.
Any regular president would have been briefed before the trip to know that the number was certainly going to rise – in fact, it was revised to 34 later the same day – and that it’s still very possible it will wind up a lot higher, making the president’s braggadocio look foolish and out of touch.
And that’s just one day’s work.
It’s devastating for the president’s words to be devalued so badly. And the results are clear: The OMB director rolling him on Puerto Rico debt; the secretary of defense openly breaking with him on the Iran deal; the secretary of state reportedly calling him a moron.
And if that’s what he gets from the executive branch and even from the presidential branch, just imagine how little sway his words have on Capitol Hill or with foreign leaders.
He’s an exceptionally weak president, but that doesn’t mean Washington simply stops. Republicans still have congressional majorities and political nominees in executive branch departments, and that’s going to produce some results Republicans like and Democrats hate.
But increasingly it’s not Trump’s choices and preferences that will matter.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University. Reach him by email at email@example.com.