An old line about Ronald Reagan is that you never had to guess what he believed. You knew what he wanted to do—knew what he wanted you to do—and so he didn’t have to micromanage every detail.
If Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, then Donald Trump might best be called confusing communicator. Whether it’s guns, immigration, or (now) tariffs, you never really know if he will do what he says he will do.
Yes, I know that (unlike almost every other issue) Trump actually has a long history of supporting protectionist tariffs. It’s one of his rare instances of consistency. This much is true. But does that give you any confidence that he will actually implement the plan he laid out last week? As recently as…Monday morning, he hinted that he might change his tune if a new NAFTA deal is signed.
It’s not a great thing that we cannot take what the president says to the bank—even, as was the case last week, when he very publicly (and unequivocally) announces a set policy decision.
This is not normal; We have been trained to assume a president means what he says and says what he means. Trump’s wavering has all sorts of negative consequences. It makes him an unreliable negotiating partner with his foreign and domestic adversaries. And it constantly places his staff and advisors in awkward positions. After all, how can you come across as competent and knowledgeable when you don’t really know what your boss wants to do—or wants you to do?
The most recent incident involves Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has become something of a buffoon of late. Defending Donald Trump seems to be a thankless and corrupting endeavor, and one of the many pitfalls is that it is almost impossible to come across as eloquent or even coherent. Take, for example, Ross’s inability to answer the simplest of questions about Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum from “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd on Sunday:
CHUCK TODD: So this is going to happen this week for sure? The way he said it, 25%, 10%?
SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS: Whatever his final decision is is what will happen.
CHUCK TODD: Meaning this isn't a done deal.
SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS: I didn't say that. I just said what he has said he has said. If he says something different, it'll be something different. I have no reason to think he's going to change.
There was more, but you get the point. What he basically said was that President Trump will do what he said he would do—unless he changes his mind. The problem, of course, is that this means there is zero reason for Ross to have been a guest on the show—other than, that is, to provide “content” for NBC. After all, the premise of having an insider on as a surrogate is that you might glean something of meaning from the interview. Ross has essentially destroyed this façade.
He might as well have said, “Your guess is as good as mine, Chuck” or “Let me be honest, I have no idea what’s going to happen,” or maybe something closer to the actual truth: “Having me on your show is pointless, Chuck, since I work for a capricious and mercurial boss who does not delegate authority and thus cannot empower anyone to speak on his behalf.
The good news for Ross is that he clearly doesn’t realize how silly he looks. One almost admires this quality—this lack of self-consciousness. It must be liberating—and clearly helpful for someone attempting to survive this administration.
It is clear that Ross has lost the ability to be introspective, based on his decision to go on TV last week, in front of what appeared to be a yacht in the background, and hold up a can of soup. And basically declare, as some have said, “Let them eat soup!” And—as an alleged billionaire, mind you— tell the American people that this 25% steel tariff means we will only have to pay a few hundred extra dollars to purchase a car.
Since Ross does not need or deserve our sympathy, the people I feel most sorry for are the comedy writers and satirists at places like Saturday Night Live. How can they be expected to churn out political comedy when the people they parody have already become a parody of themselves?
Ross’s TV segment can only be explained by theorizing that he was trying to steal the “out-of-touch Marie Antoinette championship belt” from Steve Mnuchin and Louise Linton.
For humiliating himself on national TV, and (most importantly) for losing compete touch with real America, Wilbur Ross is the new undisputed champion.
Donald Trump might not be consistent about much, but his streak of corrupting and humiliating those who try to work for him remains unbroken.