Why the White House line on drug prices is so confusing

The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)
The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. 
Before taking office, Donald Trump broke with Republican Party orthodoxy and embraced an idea many Democrats have traditionally championed: lowering prices on prescription drugs by using Medicare's negotiating power.As recently as a month ago, he said at a press conference, in reference to the pharmaceutical industry, "Pharma has a lot of lobbies, a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power. And there's very little bidding on drugs. We're the largest buyer of drugs in the world, and yet we don't bid properly."That didn't last long: the president suggested last week that he intended to go in the opposite direction. As Vox explained, the Republican denounced the idea he supported as a form of "price fixing" that would hurt "smaller, younger companies." Instead of getting tough, Trump's new plan amounted to little more than "lowering taxes" and "getting rid of regulations."He made the comments shortly after a meeting with executives and lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry. By reversing course on the issue, the Washington Post's James Downie noted in response that Trump "is handing Democrats a gift on drug prices."And while that certainly seemed true, the White House reversed course again yesterday. The Huffington Post's Jonathan Cohn highlighted the latest developments in this confusing series of events:

... NPR's Mara Liasson asked Press Secretary Sean Spicer to clarify, once and for all, what Trump's actual position is. Here's how the exchange went:Liasson: So is he for Medicare negotiating drug prices or not?Spicer: He's for it, yes. He wants to make sure ...Liasson: He's still for it?Spicer: Absolutely.

So, in the span of about a month, Trump and his team were for lowering prices on prescription drugs by using Medicare's negotiating power, then against it, then for it again.With comments that were apparently intended to be clarifying, Spicer added, "The president's clear. The president's clear. I mean, when you look at the cost of -- not to drug costs. The U.S. government has not done. I mean, you look at what other, frankly -- the easier way to look at this is what other countries have done, negotiating costs to keep those down."What does this mean? I have no idea.And therein lies the problem. For many of us interested in the White House's policies, there's an inclination to consider what the president and his aides say about the administration's positions. But with Team Trump, that doesn't work -- in part because of their discomfort with the truth, and in part because they don't seem to have much of a grasp on public policy.After listening to the president and his press secretary explain their perspective, Jonathan Cohn added, "[W]hether Trump really supports the notion of government negotiating prices is anybody's guess."