The Corner

Politics & Policy

Presidential Word Salads

There’s lots to marvel at in the partial transcript the New York Times released of reporter Michael Schmidt’s interview with President Trump yesterday. But I think my favorite part has got to be this little bit about health care:

But Michael, I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest C.P.A. I know the details of health care better than most, better than most. And if I didn’t, I couldn’t have talked all these people into doing ultimately only to be rejected.

Now here’s the good news. We’ve created associations, millions of people are joining associations. Millions. That were formerly in Obamacare or didn’t have insurance. Or didn’t have health care. Millions of people. That’s gonna be a big bill, you watch. It could be as high as 50 percent of the people. You watch. So that’s a big thing. And the individual mandate. So now you have associations, and people don’t even talk about the associations. That could be half the people are going to be joining up. … With private [inaudible]. So now you have associations and the individual mandate.

I believe that because of the individual mandate and the associations, the Democrats will and certainly should come to me and see if they can do a really great health care plan for the remaining people. [Inaudible.]

After reading this, it is advisable to take a moment to wonder at the absurdity of life, to offer a quiet prayer of thanks for the fact that any of us is still alive, and then to pursue—yet again, and surely not for the last time—that recurring question of our era: What in the world is the president talking about?

The first paragraph, in which we see him interrupting his own boasting with the realization that since no health-care bill passed he should probably stop saying he worked to convince Republicans to vote for one, is just comedy gold. The rest is a fascinating jumble. 

My best guess is that at some point President Trump was briefed by his staff about the executive order he signed in October that, among other things, instructed his administration to expand the scope of association health plans. The word salad we find here is what remained of that briefing (or maybe of a conversation with a knowledgeable AHP supporter, like Rand Paul) after it was minced and digested by the president’s mind into a mess of little unconnected proofs of his own acumen and prowess. 

Trump appears to believe that millions of people are joining such plans, but in fact his order has yet even to be translated into a proposed rule, so that it has had no practical effect so far. He describes his order (I take it) as “a big bill”—and this from the man who earlier in the same interview said “ I know more about the big bills. … [Inaudible.] … Than any president that’s ever been in office”. But maybe he just meant a big deal.  He suggests that half of some presumably significant group of people will join such plans, and that in combination with the zeroing out of the individual mandate these plans will somehow drive Democrats to make a deal on health care. 

I have no doubt these claims began as duly grounded and modest statements of fact in some policy discussion. But they have ended up as worse than nonsense—worse, I say, because the only function they are left to perform is to affirm the president’s belief in things that aren’t true. 

This is a narrow example of a broader pattern, of course. It doesn’t matter all that much if the president doesn’t really know anything about Association Health Plans. He’s got bigger problems to worry about. But it’s hard to deny that he seems to approach those bigger problems in the same general way, and that the broader pattern is therefore itself a very big problem, given the nature and demands of the modern presidency. A year into Trump’s term, we’ve had countless examples of this pattern, but every new one somehow manages to amaze.  

Yuval Levin — Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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