U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement from the Roosevelt Room next to the empty chairs of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (L), D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R), D-California, after they cancelled their meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, on November 28, 2017.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Trump is an unreliable narrator about his own presidency

Updated

Six weeks ago, Donald Trump published a tweet that appeared to include a policy pronouncement. After complaining about California’s approach to forest management – an issue he only pretends to understand – the president wrote that he’d ordered FEMA to send the Golden State “no more money.”

So, did he actually order FEMA to cut off California? Of course not. BuzzFeed reported overnight:

Although President Donald Trump tweeted that he had ordered his administration to cut off disaster aid to wildfire victims in California, federal officials confirmed on Wednesday that they never received any such directive.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which helps survivors of national disasters recover, told BuzzFeed News for the first time that Trump never issued an order to stop sending money to California.

BuzzFeed filed requests with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which concluded that the agencies had received no such orders from the White House.

At face value, this may seem fairly minor. There was no reason to believe the nation’s largest state had been cut off from federal emergency aid, so these findings are in line with expectations. Indeed, I imagine many observers had forgotten about the presidential tweet soon after it was published. I certainly did.

But what strikes me as notable about this is the degree to which it reinforces a larger point: Trump often just says stuff, issuing declarations that no one takes seriously because we know they’re little more than bluster.

It happens all the time, to the point that it’s become the background noise of our political discourse. Late last week, for example, the president boasted, “We have a lot of great announcements having to do with Syria and our success with the eradication of the caliphate. And that will be announced over the next 24 hours.”

That was 140 hours ago. There’s been no announcement. No one’s surprised.

Trump is now seen as an unreliable narrator of his own presidency. Whatever the Republican says about his plans and priorities must automatically, in every instance, be taken with a grain of salt.

Not surprisingly, the rest of the world has taken notice. Last year, for example, Trump announced delays to the implementation of a new trade agreement with our allies in South Korea. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius said something memorable soon after: “I had a South Korean ask me, ‘Were the president’s comments about holding the new trade deal … was that real? Did he really mean that? Or was he just ad-libbing?’

The questions were rooted in an awkward truth: no one, here or abroad, has any idea when Trump’s words have any value.

As regular readers may recall, after Trump announced the end of DACA negotiations last year, the New York Times noted in passing, “It was unclear whether the president’s tweets represented any change in his immigration policy, or were just the sort of venting he is known to do after reading a newspaper article or seeing a television program.”

After Trump announced the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, Vox noted, “[O]f course, there’s no indication that this represents actual policy as opposed to the ramblings of a president who is a strangely marginal figure in his own administration.”

At a White House discussion on gun policy, Trump announced positions that he didn’t mean. At a discussion on immigration, he did the same thing.

Vice President Mike Pence once said, “President Trump is a leader who says what he means and means what he says.” Imagine how much more effective this administration would be if Pence weren’t so hilariously wrong.