Taking Trump Seriously and Literally
WASHINGTON -- Journalist Selena Zito famously summed up President Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign when she wrote, "The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally."
In September 2016 when Zito's apt assessment appeared in The Atlantic, Gallup reported its lowest approval rating ever -- of the news media. A mere 32 percent of Americans said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the very journalism pack that challenged Trump's legitimacy from the moment the real estate developer descended a Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy.
Within weeks, Trump would win the Electoral College with 46 percent of the vote -- in part by galvanizing dissatisfied voters who proudly proclaimed their resentment of the chattering class. When the media wolves bayed at Trump's description of illegal immigrants as criminals, drug dealers and rapists, the scolds' outrage only made Trump stronger. Trump's refusal to dance the cable TV dance of contrition left his supporters sure that he would fight for them.
Now Gallup has bad news for Trump. It's not just his low approval rating -- as of Wednesday, 50 percent of voters disapproved of the president, while 43 approve. (Trump has enjoyed a recent bump; he was down to 39 percent approval the week before.)
The big change is the number of voters who believe Trump keeps his promises. In February, 62 percent of voters believed Trump kept his promises. That is, even his critics believed the GOP president would stick to his campaign rhetoric. Two months later, 45 percent of voters say that about Trump.
You can credit shifts on substantive issues that brought Trump closer to mainstream Washington. Candidate Trump said NATO was obsolete. This month President Trump declared NATO is "no longer obsolete." Candidate Trump pledged to direct his treasury secretary to declare China a currency manipulator. President Trump now says the Chinese are not currency manipulators. Candidate Trump wanted to terminate the Export-Import Bank. President Trump wants to keep it.
Washington insiders see this as proof that Trump is learning in the job. Trump's support for NATO has bolstered his standing in Europe. The Treasury Department issued an opinion that Beijing had stopped devaluing its currency, and Trump wants President Xi Jinping to curb North Korea. Some U.S. companies see the Export-Import Bank as essential. Whether you agree or not, Trump had solid reasons to change his opinion.
It's the little stuff that is harder to justify.
Take golf. Trump frequently criticized President Barack Obama for playing too much golf when America faced so many insurmountable problems -- which would lead the reasonable person to believe Trump would stay away from the links. Not so. Politifact compared how much time Trump and Obama spent playing golf after entering the office. Obama did not hit the green until April 29. In his first 90 days, Trump has played golf 14 times.
In 2015, Trump said he would release his tax returns. In January 2016, NBC's Chuck Todd asked Trump if he would release his tax returns. Trump answered, "I have very big returns, as you know, and I have everything all approved and very beautiful and we'll be working that over in the next period of time, Chuck. Absolutely."
Other times Trump would hedge his answers, as he is wont to do, by saying he would release his taxes "probably" or if necessary. In February 2016, Trump changed his story and said he could not release his returns while under audit.
Then after Trump won office, aide Kellyanne Conway told ABC's "This Week," "The White House response is that he's not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn't care. They voted for him." Trump said as much on Jan. 11 in his first post-election press conference.
On April 15, anti-Trumpers held demonstrations to demand the president release his tax returns. They were motivated by the same suspicions that led GOP critics to deride Hillary Clinton's homebrew email server. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., declared, "Donald Trump is hiding something."
It turns out that the IRS audits every president, so Trump will have the audit excuse while he remains in office. Those audits, Politifact reported, didn't stop every GOP nominee since Richard Nixon released their tax returns to let the public see what they earned, what they donated to charity and the tax rate they paid. It was good enough for Ronald Reagan.
Trump rightly can argue that the law does not require him to release his tax returns. He has complied with rules requiring that he disclose his considerable assets. He knows that the opposition is insistent that he release his tax returns because they want to use the information found in them against him. Trump didn't get where he is by making it easy for others to attack him.
But there is a price. Friday, Trump told the Associated Press he plans to roll out his tax reform package next week. Critics can use their imaginations to estimate the billionaire president's likely windfall.
Also, while no reasonable voter expects a presidential candidate to keep to every campaign promise if elected, no reasonable elected official should think he can walk away from his promises without consequences.
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