WASHINGTON — Washington policymakers have a time-tested method for rolling out new ideas: float a trial balloon. Spread rumors of a policy change or selectively leak it to the press, then see how it plays and proceed only if it looks doable.
President Donald Trump has flipped that script.
Big and startling ideas fly out of his mouth or from his Twitter feed. Then the rest of his administration scrambles to catch up — and to figure out when his statements signal new presidential policies and when they’re offhand remarks that mean little.
In the past week alone, Trump has suggested he’s open to higher gas taxes, tweeted that a government shutdown could be a good thing and called North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un a “smart cookie” whom he’d be honored to meet under the right conditions. Trump also invited Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, with a troubling human rights record, to visit the White House and insisted the GOP health plan would provide coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions, even though an ironclad guarantee is not reflected in the latest version of the legislation.
Such pronouncements sometimes force Trump’s top policy advisers to try to adjust administration policy to sync with the president’s remarks. His communications aides contort themselves to explain away inconsistencies in administration messages. And blindsided GOP congressional leaders have to decide when to realign their positions and when to stay the course.
“It’s a scramble drill in the White House every day, and certainly a scramble drill in Trump’s mind every day,” says Calvin Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University.
The frustration of Republican legislators was clear when Trump tweeted Tuesday that the government “needs a good shutdown” in September to fix the “mess,” after Democrats prevailed on a number of spending issues in a bipartisan budget bill designed to keep the government open.
“I do wish somebody would take his iPhone away from him,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
“I wish he’d think twice before tweeting,” seconded Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
House Speaker Paul Ryan wondered aloud: “How many times have I had this, ‘Do you agree with the tweet this morning?'”
Ryan said he shared the president’s aggravation with Democrats over the spending negotiations. But he also defended the budget deal, telling reporters it was an “important first step in the right direction.”
On North Korea, Trump seemed to recognize the startling nature of his conciliatory comments about Kim in which he told CBS on Sunday that he would be “honored” to meet the leader if circumstances were right. The president labeled his own comments “breaking news.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer quickly stressed that Trump wouldn’t meet with the North Korean leader unless he changed course and showed “signs of good faith.”
Asked how Trump could be honored to meet with someone who’s threatened to destroy the U.S., Spicer said that because Kim was a head of state, “there’s a diplomatic piece to this.”
Likewise, it fell to Spicer to tamp down expectations after Trump told Bloomberg in an interview that he would “certainly consider” generating more money for his big infrastructure plan by raising gasoline and diesel fuel taxes. The idea of raising taxes is a no-go zone for most Republican legislators.
Spicer said Trump was merely showing “respect” for an idea that had been raised by industry groups and “there was no endorsement of it or no support of it.”
Trump’s interviews sometimes make news to his own team.
When Trump promised an AP interviewer last month that he’d roll out his tax plan the following week, officials at the White House and Treasury Department, as well as Republicans on Capitol Hill, were caught off guard. The announcement sent aides scrambling to put together a one-sheet outline of a tax plan by the president’s surprise deadline.
Trump’s Twitter feed is an ongoing source of surprise, perhaps most notably his March accusation that President Barack Obama had him wiretapped during the presidential campaign. That triggered an all-out effort by aides to find ways to justify the claim.
Jillson allowed that sometimes Trump may appear to be winging it when his statements are planned, such as the president’s phone conversation during the transition with the president of Taiwan. The call generated speculation that Trump had unthinkingly broken longstanding U.S. policy but appears to have been part of a calculated effort to throw China off-balance, Jillson said.
Trump’s White House invitation to Duterte, whose record includes extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users, caught key players at the State Department unaware and left White House officials trying to explain why it would be a good idea.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus framed the president’s invitation as part of an effort to counter the military threat of North Korea, adding that “it doesn’t mean that human rights don’t matter.”
Jillson said that while administration officials may feel compelled to align the policies they’re developing with Trump’s latest statements, GOP members of Congress are becoming more discriminating about when they need to sync up with the president’s pronouncements and when they can disregard them.
On the bipartisan budget deal, he said, congressional Republicans and Democrats “forgot about Trump for enough time to craft a deal, almost without reference to him, and got a win.”
“They’re learning to let this stuff wash off their backs and continue to try to think systematically,” Jillson said.