At various points in his presidency, Donald Trump has promised health care for “everybody,” endorsed allowing young undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States, and rejected tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. Meanwhile, his administration has increased the rolls of the uninsured, cracked down on immigrants, and backed a tax bill that slashes rates for large corporations and rich shareholders.
Trump has a long history of casual dishonesty. But it remains striking that his pledges and promises as president are treated as essentially disposable—empty rhetoric, with no bearing on the policies and practices of the actual Trump administration or the broader Republican Party. When Trump speaks, he’s speaking only for himself. In a real sense, his words don’t actually mean anything. His public presence is defined by the text he posts on social media, which dominates the public conversation, even though those words are effectively detritus with little bearing on the course of his administration.
On health care, Republicans simply ignored Trump’s calls for more and cheaper coverage, producing bills that would have dismantled the Affordable Care Act and put Medicaid on the path to oblivion. The same was true on tax cuts, where White House officials worked with Republican lawmakers to produce a bill that did the opposite of what Trump promised.
So Republicans were well-prepared for what came on Wednesday, when during a televised forum on gun violence with lawmakers from both parties, President Trump endorsed a genuinely radical position in the gun debate. “Take the guns first,” he said, responding to Vice President Mike Pence’s explanation of laws that require a court order before police can confiscate weapons from someone deemed dangerous. “Go through due process second.”
If Barack Obama had taken this position after the Sandy Hook massacre, conservatives would have erupted in outright rebellion and Republicans would have begun impeachment proceedings. They would have done this because, to both allies and opponents, Obama’s word mattered. A large chunk of the 2012 presidential campaign, for instance, was spent litigating Obama’s words as they related to foreign policy. Mitt Romney routinely slammed the president for going on an “apology tour,” and Republicans later castigated Obama when he supposedly failed to make good on an off-hand comment about a “red line” in Syria.
The reaction among Republicans on Wednesday was more muted. Some expressed amazement at the president’s remarks. “I thought it was fascinating television and it was surreal to actually be there,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn. Others reacted with contempt. “We’re not ditching any constitutional protections simply because the last person the president talked to today doesn’t like them,” said Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska in a statement.
It’s now conventional wisdom that Trump’s remarks have little bearing on what actually happens in Congress. Despite Trump’s stated preference for some action on gun control, neither Paul Ryan nor Mitch McConnell feel any obligation to act. Ryan has been uniformly hostile to any new push for gun legislation, and the next item on the Senate’s agenda is banking reform. The president spoke, and it didn’t matter.
For Democrats, the meeting on Wednesday was déjà vu. At a televised forum on immigration in January, President Trump backed a plan for giving legal status to young unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States. “We can do DACA and start comprehensive reform the following day,” said Trump, emphasizing his interest in doing a deal as quickly as possible. “We will take an hour off and then start.”
Of course, nothing emerged from this event. The president’s own administration didn’t even bother to heed his words. Trump’s lead adviser for immigration, Stephen Miller, scuttled any deal that would address the status of young unauthorized immigrants with a proposal that called for large cuts to immigration and draconian new measures for border security.
Traditionally, what the office of the president lacks in formal powers it makes up in with the ability to set an agenda. As the only elected representative of the nation at large, when the president speaks, people usually listen. Effective presidents use their rhetoric to set priorities, mobilize allies, put pressure on opponents, move public opinion, and attempt to work their will on Congress and the federal government.
To the extent that Donald Trump is effective, it’s because he has jettisoned most of his campaign agenda in favor of the goals and priorities of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, which currently controls all the levers of power in Washington. What Trump has not been able to do is use presidential rhetoric to his advantage. Instead, what we have is a president whose words are virtually worthless, ignored by allies as well as opponents. The same Donald Trump who lost money managing casinos has turned a once valuable resource, presidential rhetoric, into something like fool’s gold. Although, it’s not all worthless. On Friday, the president announced new tariffs on aluminum and steel imports, declaring on Twitter that “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.” World stock markets plunged in response. Sometimes the world does listen when Trump speaks. Just not with the results that he wants.
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