It wasn’t the most offensive thing Donald Trump has said as a presidential candidate, but when it comes to public policy, it was almost certainly the most ridiculous: the Republican frontrunner vowed earlier this month that, if elected, he would eliminate the national debt in eight years.
Specifically, Trump told the Washington Post that he wants to see the United States “get rid of the $19 trillion in debt.” Pressed for details, the GOP candidate said he “could do it fairly quickly,” eliminating the debt “over a period of eight years.”
Even by Trump standards, this was bonkers. He was effectively promising to deliver multi-trillion-dollar surpluses every year for eight years, even while approving massive tax breaks and increasing military spending. By any sane measure, the arithmetic made this literally impossible.
Last week, in an interview with Fortune magazine, Trump quietly pretended he never said what he said.
FORTUNE: You’ve said you plan to pay off the country’s debt in 10 years. How’s that possible?TRUMP: No, I didn’t say 10 years. First of all, with low interest rates, you can think in terms of refinancings, and get it down. I believe you can do certain things to pay off the debt more quickly. The most important thing is to make sure the economy stays strong. You can do it in smaller chunks. You can do it in larger chunks. And you can do it in refinancings.FORTUNE: How much of the debt could you pay off in 10 years?TRUMP: You could pay off a percentage of it.
Asked what percentage he had in mind, the GOP candidate added, “It depends on how aggressive you want to be. I’d rather not be so aggressive.”
In other words, what Trump said three weeks ago is pretty much the opposite of what he said last week.
Obviously, understanding why requires some speculation, but my suspicion is that Donald Trump was confused about the meaning of the words “debt” and “trillion.” Perhaps a member of his campaign operation helped set him straight.
Regardless, there is a larger pattern of Trump “altering his stated policy positions, sometimes sharply and rapidly,” often because he has no idea what he’s talking about.
The effects of this are limited in the Republican presidential primaries – Trump’s ardent backers don’t seem to care, and they’ll shift their own attitudes on a dime to bring themselves in line with their candidate – but in a general election, this will be worth watching. A mainstream audience may have a problem with the fact that it’s often impossible to know Trump’s actual beliefs on any given issue.