Within 24 hours of becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump had reversed his positions on tax increases, paying down the debt, raising the minimum wage, and self-financing his campaign. It was a busy day.
In a Wednesday interview with CNBC, Trump said that the tax plan he released in September, which he had pledged would “provide major tax relief for middle-income and for most other Americans,” was only a starting point, and there could be middle-class tax increases in the future after all.
In an April interview with the Washington Post, Trump boldly promised to eliminate the country’s $19 trillion debt in a period of eight years without raising taxes. A campaign spokesman later suggested a Trump administration would sell off about $16 trillion in government assets to pay down the debt. (The General Accounting Office calculated the federal government’s reported assets at about $3.2 trillion as of September 30, 2015.)
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As CNBC gently put it, “such remarks by a major presidential candidate have no modern precedent.” For all of the flaws of the American government, it’s pretty good at paying what it owes on time; it has only failed to do so once since the Great Depression, and that was an accident. If the U.S. announced it would not repay a portion of the debt, banks and other institutions that currently lend the American government money at very low interest rates might raise those rates or stop lending entirely. Rates would then spike elsewhere in the economy, markets would crash, your 401(k) or IRA would get slaughtered, and more economic problems would follow. Perhaps even worse, global confidence in the country, the government, and the U.S. dollar would be severely shaken; the United States would join the ranks of Greece, Mexico, and Argentina in modern sovereign-debt defaults.
Trump later added in the interview that he wasn’t proposing a default, merely a renegotiation of what’s owed. But because the U.S. government is already contractually obligated to pay in full, the only leverage he would have over lenders would be the threat of default. And an American president or treasury secretary saying to lenders, “We’re on the verge of default, please let us pay you less than you’re due” would almost inevitably set off an economic panic.
But almost immediately after Clinton hit him on the issue, Trump joined CNN’s Wolf Blitzer to declare that he had changed his mind, and was now considering a minimum-wage hike. “I’m actually looking at that, because I’m very different from most Republicans,” he said. “I mean, you have to have something you can live on. What I’m really looking to do is get people great jobs so they make much more money than that.” Blitzer pressed Trump on whether his comments meant he was open to raising the minimum wage, and Trump said that was the case.
Until very recently Trump argued that any candidate taking donations was effectively beholden to his donors.
Finally, on Thursday, Trump’s campaign confirmed earlier reports that Steven Mnuchin will serve as its national finance chairman, declaring Mnuchin “brings unprecedented experience and expertise to a fundraising operation that will benefit the Republican Party and ultimately defeat Hillary Clinton.” Throughout the primary, Trump proudly claimed he was financing his own campaign, though that was never quite true. As of April 21, 2016, Trump had given $36 million to his campaign in a mix of loans and donations and raised about $12 million from donors.
It’s not shocking that Trump concluded outside money would help his general-election campaign; both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama spent more than $1 billion in 2012. But up until very recently, Trump argued that any candidate taking donations was effectively beholden to his donors, and that he was thus the only uncorrupted man in the field. He cut an entire ad to make his point.If Trump really has a $10 billion net worth as he claims, then it would be easy for him to stick to his guns, self-funding the campaign all the way through November. Instead, he’s apparently concluded that donations only corrupt candidates in a primary. Or maybe he’s just unwilling or unable to pay his way to the finish line now that he’s the nominee.
It is, of course, unsurprising that Trump would change his tune on a dime, adopting whichever stances he deems politically convenient at a given moment. He did the same thing before he had the nomination sewn up, and he’s sure to do it again over the next six months. What remains to be seen is whether his supreme mutability will catch up to him eventually — whether voters will notice his complete lack of principle and punish him for it. Stay tuned.
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.