U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross gestures as he leaves after addressing delegates at the annual Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in east London, on November 6, 2017.
Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Trump’s cabinet secretary summarizes his mercurial nature

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross did his best to defend Donald Trump’s upcoming trade tariffs on steel and aluminum. Chuck Todd also wanted to know, however, whether the policy is actually going to happen, or whether the president is still weighing his options.

“Well, I think you have to take the president at his word,” Ross said, though he hedged a bit moments later. “Whatever his final decision is is what will happen.” It led to this exchange:

TODD: Meaning this isn’t a done deal.

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.

It was at this point in the interview that the host had the same reaction I did while watching at home: Chuck Todd laughed and asked, “What does this mean?”

Which was precisely the right question. If I understood Ross’ comments correctly – and really, your guess is as good as mine – I think the cabinet secretary was trying to avoid a definitive answer because Ross knows what Trump is capable of. At any given moment, the president might see some Fox News segment that will lead him to announce without warning that he now opposes his own agenda.

And so, despite everything Trump has said about tariffs, everyone seems to recognize the possibility that he could soon decide the opposite, at which point, as Ross put it, the administration’s policy will “be something different.”

All of this made for an interesting television interview, but it was also emblematic of a larger truth: this president, who ran as a consummate deal-maker, is making it impossible to work with him. Indeed, the Washington Post had a piece over the weekend on Trump’s mercurial nature and its impact on the political process.

Heading into a new week, lawmakers still have no sense of what Trump truly wants on guns and other key agenda items – a pattern that leaders of both parties say has hindered their ability to move forward on knotty issues that could benefit from presidential leadership.

After more than a year of the Trump presidency, members of Congress have learned to brace themselves for unpredictable, confusing and often contradictory positions from the commander in chief on issues ranging from health care to immigration to gun rights.

Other than his unflinching support for Russia and Putin’s government, it’s genuinely difficult to think of an issue on which Trump has even tried to be steady and consistent.

The result is a dynamic that’s no doubt familiar to regular readers: we have a president who knows very little about public policy and current events, makes no real effort to get up to speed on any issue, makes different commitments to different political contingents, has few core beliefs that he genuinely cares about, routinely changes his mind for reasons the White House struggles to explain, and tends to agree with the last person who has his ear.

Why is it that Trump has failed to negotiate any deals with anyone on any issue during his tenure to date? In part because there’s a collective understanding that the president’s pronouncements are meaningless.

As a consequence, we get to see clumsy cabinet secretaries, fearful of being contradicted without warning, telling a national television audience in reference to the president, “If he says something different, it’ll be something different.”