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What Trump's shift on vaping says about his instincts, convictions

What vaping, background checks, and immigration reform have in common: Trump's instincts are sometimes fine; his courage and convictions are not.
In this April 23, 2014, file photo, a man smokes an e-cigarette at Vape store in Chicago. (Photo by Nam Y. Huh/AP)
In this April 23, 2014, file photo, a man smokes an e-cigarette at Vape store in Chicago.

It was just two months ago when Donald Trump and his team suggested it was quite serious about banning the sale of non-tobacco-flavored electronic cigarettes. The president told reporters that vaping is "causing a lot of problems, and we're going to have to do something about it." Pointing to vaping-related deaths, the Republican added that he would impose "very strong rules and regulations."

At the time, Trump acknowledged that vaping "has become a very big business," but he said public welfare had to take precedence over corporate bottom lines. "[W]e can't allow people to get sick, and we can't have our youth be so affected," he said, adding, "People are dying with vaping."

A month later, Trump's re-election campaign manager, Brad Parscale, reportedly started warning the president that his position on vaping was a political loser that the White House should abandon. And now, a month after that, it appears the president is no longer interested in the commitments he made two months ago. The Washington Post reported:

Everything seemed ready to go: President Trump's ban on most flavored e-cigarettes had been cleared by federal regulators. Officials were poised to announce they would order candy, fruit and mint flavors off the market within 30 days — a step the president had promised almost two months earlier to quell a youth vaping epidemic that had ensnared 5 million teenagers.One last thing was needed: Trump's sign-off. But on Nov. 4, the night before a planned morning news conference, the president balked.

The New York Times added that Trump is now resisting "moving forward with any action on vaping," and "even a watered-down ban on flavored e-cigarettes that exempted menthol, which was widely expected, appears to have been set aside," at least for now.

The official line, apparently, is that the president is principally concerned with possible job losses in the industry. Or put another way, Trump is prioritizing corporate concerns, which is the one thing he said two months ago he would not do.

And while public-health advocates will no doubt find the White House shift appalling, for good reason, I'm also struck by the familiarity of the circumstances.

In the wake of deadly mass shootings, Trump expressed a seemingly sincere interest in approving major gun reforms. Soon after, political and corporate allies started whispering in his ear, at which point the president's earlier plans evaporated.

On immigration, Trump told lawmakers that he'd endorse any bipartisan reform plans that they came up with. "I will say, when this group comes back, hopefully with an agreement, this group and others from the Senate, from the House, comes back with an agreement, I'm signing it," the president said in January 2018. "I mean, I will be signing it. I'm not going to say, 'Oh, gee, I want this or I want that.' I'll be signing it."

Democratic lawmakers proceeded to present Trump with six bipartisan immigration deals. Under pressure from his far-right allies, the president rejected every offer.

While it's no secret that Trump has a truth allergy, I suspect he was being sincere when he endorsed a vaping ban, expanded background checks on firearm purchases, and bipartisan agreements on immigration policy. We can certainly debate whether the president understood what he was saying, and appreciated the details and nuances of his position, but it's easy to believe that his instincts led him to take reasonable, constructive positions.

It was only later that we were reminded that Trump's instincts, even when sound, are irrelevant. What matters are his lack of courage and convictions.