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On trade, Trump brings an abrupt end to a plan he never understood

Last week, Trump signaled a renewed interest in the TPP. The trouble is, the political world didn't realize he had no idea what he was saying.
U.S. President Donald J. Trump speaks to the media during a meeting with congressional leadership in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, in Washington, D.C., November 28, 2017.
U.S. President Donald J. Trump speaks to the media during a meeting with congressional leadership in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, in Washington, D.C., November 28, 2017.

Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) failed presidential 2016 campaign was largely forgettable -- he quit a couple of days after a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses -- but it featured one shining moment.

It came during a November 2015 debate, when Donald Trump was asked why he was so opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he responded by rambling for a long while about China and currency manipulation. Eventually, Rand Paul interjected, "You know, we might want to point out China is not part of this deal" -- a detail Trump seemed completely unaware of.

It was the first real indication that Trump hated the TPP, despite not knowing what it was.

Nevertheless, after becoming president, the Republican formally ended the U.S. role in the partnership, prompting our former partners to move on without us. (In January 2017, Trump assured Americans he'd replace the TPP with a "beautiful" alternative. Fifteen months later, we've seen no such policy.)

Recently, however, the White House opened the door, at least a crack. In February, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced that the president would "consider" re-engaging with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Last week, to the delight of rural-state senators, Trump went much further, instructing White House officials to examine rejoining the TPP that he'd already abandoned.

And why didn't I write about this at the time? Because I had a hunch this was going to happen.

After publicly flirting last week with having the United States rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Trump appeared to rebuff the idea once and for all late Tuesday.In a Twitter post at 10:49 p.m., Mr. Trump said that although Japan and South Korea would like the United States to join the 11 other nations in the multilateral trade agreement, he had no intention of doing so. The decision put an apparent end to a meandering trade policy in which Mr. Trump pulled out of the deal in his first week in office, before suggesting last week that he was having second thoughts.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow also downplayed the possibility, calling the idea of the United States rejoining the TPP more of a "thought than a policy."

The trouble is, that same phrase could be applied to practically every aspect of the White House agenda: Trump and his team are filled with thoughts, but they have few actual policies.

We have a pretty good sense of what transpired on this issue. Last week, Trump hosted a White House meeting with lawmakers and governors, many of whom represent states that would've benefited greatly from the TPP. The president, eager to be the hero in the room, ordered U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow to take a fresh look at a possible role for the United States in the Pacific trade pact.

That led everyone in the room to believe Trump both knew what he was saying and was sincere about his commitment. That, however, a mistake: the president was just sharing more of a "thought than a policy," and yesterday, Trump seemed to reject that thought for the opposite idea.

If this dynamic sounds familiar, it's not your imagination. When he hosted a White House meeting on immigration, participants thought they had a sense of the president's perspective based on his stated beliefs. When he hosted a similar meeting on gun reforms, the same thing happened. Now we can add TPP to the list.

But in every instance, Trump quickly abandoned ideas he didn't genuinely believe or understand in the first place. It brings us back to three core truths about this presidency:

1. Donald Trump doesn’t speak for the Trump administration. The moment the president raised the prospect of re-engaging with our TPP partners, the reversal seemed inevitable, and now it’s happened, to the surprise of few. We’ve all internalized the uncomfortable fact that Trump doesn’t speak for the Trump administration, and all of his pronouncements are subject to quick walk-backs from himself and others in the administration.

2. There’s no point in negotiating with this president. Trump doesn’t know or care about public policy, and when he makes pronouncements, he generally has no intention of following through on commitments. So why would anyone bother to negotiate with him? How many times – and on how many issues – must this president disappoint his ostensible governing partners before officials simply stop showing up for meetings?

3. Trump’s instincts aren’t always bad, but they are always irrelevant. When talking about immigration, the president used to voice support for some worthwhile goals. The same is true on health care. And gun policy. And infrastructure. And trade. Trump’s instincts aren’t the problem.

What ultimately matters is whether he fully understands what he’s saying and whether his White House intends to honor the goals. Most of the time, they don’t.

For much of Trump’s presidency, Rachel has talked about treating practically everything the White House says like a “silent movie” – in effect, pretending not to hear them – because the president and his team simply aren’t reliable sources of information, even about themselves and their own agenda. We now know treating everything Trump said at his meeting on the TPP last week as a silent movie was the right thing to do.