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Does Trump genuinely believe his own trade war rhetoric?

The fact that Trump is impervious to reality when it comes to China and tariffs matters for reasons that extend beyond the economy.
TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump leaves after speaking during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in the...

Lately, Donald Trump has falsely claimed -- on a nearly daily basis -- that China is paying the United States massive amounts of money as a result of the White House's tariffs policy. In fact, the president repeated the boast during an event in the Oval Office yesterday.

"[W]e're taking in, right now, hundreds of billions of dollars. We're taking in billions of dollars of tariffs. And those tariffs are going to be tremendously -- if you look at what we've done thus far with China, we've never taken in 10 cents until I got elected. Now we're taking in billions and billions."

No, we're really not. As officials have no doubt tried to explain to the president, China is not paying us anything as a result of Trump's tariffs. The Republican keeps saying this, day after day, in tweet after tweet, but his claim continues to be plainly and demonstrably wrong.

On some level, Trump seems to realize his falsehood is at least controversial. At a White House event last week, he said "a lot of people" have tried to "steer" the debate "in a different direction" -- an apparent reference to those who've pointed out reality in ways he finds annoying. He quickly added, however that Americans aren't paying more as a result of his tariffs, which, of course, is wrong.

In fact, Larry Kudlow, the top voice on economic policy in Trump's White House, admitted over the weekend that the president's claims are at odds with reality. On Sunday, the National Economic Council directly made the concession in a diplomatic way, but while Trump insists his trade policies have fueled economic growth and brought in billions to the Treasury, Kudlow conceded that the opposite is true.

To be sure, Kudlow contradicted his boss carefully -- to avoid being fired, of course -- but he nevertheless acknowledged that the president's claims are false.

All of which leads to a relevant question with a murky answer: does Trump genuinely believe his own nonsense?

There are really only two possible answers. The first is that the president understands reality and peddles this odd lie every day as part of a cynical scheme to deceive the public. The alternative is that Trump, even now, doesn't yet understand the most basic details of his own trade agenda -- ostensibly one of his signature issues, on which he claims to have vast expertise.

So, which is it? Axios spoke to several current and former administration officials, asking whether Trump actually believes his falsehood. The "consensus" was the president has been entirely sincere, touting the falsehood because he chooses to believe it's true.

One former aide told Axios that trying to encourage Trump to accept reality is pointless because the president's bogus beliefs are "like theology."

This is, of course, deeply depressing for reasons that have little to do with the economy, and everything to do with Trump's capacity for learning. One of the most important jobs a president has is consuming an enormous amount of information and being able to separate what's true from what's false, what's credible from what's dubious, and what's important from what's trivial.

It requires excellent judgment and intellect. It's also proving to be the part of the presidency that Trump struggles with most.

I'm reminded of something Ezra Klein wrote in late 2017: "Over the course of reporting on the Trump White House, I have spoken to people who brief Trump and people who have been briefed by him. I've talked to policy experts who have sat in the Oval Office explaining their ideas to the president and to members of Congress who have listened to the president sell his ideas to them. I've talked to both Democrats and Republicans who have occupied these roles. In all cases, their judgment of Trump is identical: He is not just notably uninformed but also notably difficult to inform -- his attention span is thin, he hears what he wants to hear, he wanders off topic, he has trouble following complex arguments. Trump has trouble following his briefings or even correctly repeating what he has heard."

Is it any wonder, then, that every knowledgeable source has told the president that China isn't paying us billions through tariffs, only to find that Trump believes his nonsense anyway?

The fact that the president is impervious to reality has made any prospects for a meaningful debate on the issue effectively impossible. For Trump, this simply does not matter: he has his version of reality, and he likes it just fine, regardless of the chasm between it and the reality the rest of us live in.

Postscript: Complicating matters, the president's ignorance on the matter is more than just exasperating. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent argued persuasively yesterday that Trump needs his falsehood about China and tariffs to be true -- even though it clearly isn't -- or the politics of his trade agenda will quickly collapse like a house of cards.