Last week, in one of his first public comments about Puerto Rico after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria, Donald Trump reminded Americans on the island that Puerto Rico is “billions of dollars in debt to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.” Even at the time, it was a bizarre thing to say given the scope and scale of the personal crises.
This week, however, was nearly as odd. Trump told Fox News, in reference to Puerto Rico’s debt, “You know, they owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out. You can say goodbye to that. I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs, but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that.”
No one knew quite what that meant, or whether the White House even has the authority to simply “wipe out” billions of dollars in debt, but the president’s rhetoric rattled bond markets and sparked some “chaos” in the finance industry.
Which made it all the more remarkable when the Trump administration announced that Trump’s public pronouncements on a subject shouldn’t be taken too seriously. The New York Times reported yesterday:
The Trump administration on Wednesday walked back the president’s apparent vow to wipe out Puerto Rico’s debt, suggesting that the island would have to solve its own fiscal woes despite the catastrophic damage it has endured from two powerful hurricanes.
“I wouldn’t take it word for word with that,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said on CNN in reference to President Trump’s suggestion that the United States might clear Puerto Rico’s debt.
Oh. So, Trump said three times, out loud and on camera, that he’d make Puerto Rico’s debts disappear, but we’re now supposed to believe that the truth is pretty much the opposite. One can believe the president or his budget director, but not both, and according to Mulvaney, no one should take his boss’ declarations at face value.
Vice President Mike Pence recently 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.
The trouble is, this keeps happening. When Trump threatened over the summer to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, a White House source told a Politico reporter, “Don’t read too much into it.”
A few months earlier, after Trump took a belligerent posture toward our allies in South Korea, White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster had to reach out to officials in Seoul, urging them not to pay too much attention to what the president says.
New York’s Jon Chait added in August, “It is humiliating for the world’s greatest superpower to disregard its president as a weird old man who wanders in front of microphones spouting off unpredictably and without consequence.”
But those are the exact circumstances we seem to find ourselves in. Rachel has frequently referred to treating Trump rhetoric like a “silent movie,” and his assertions about Puerto Rico’s debt help bolster the point: the president simply isn’t a reliable source of accurate information about his own administration’s positions or beliefs.