Trump Will Never Rule Out a Bad Option

Donald Trump never wants to take any option off the table, no matter how weird, unsettling, or foolish it might be. Throughout his career, when journalists have asked the former president a hypothetical question about any topic, he never rejects the premise—his answer is pretty much always maybe or yes.

Reporters love an interview that makes news—one that brings fresh facts to the public. If a reporter gets a government official to say, under intense questioning, that, yes, he really wishes he could jack up taxes or eliminate Social Security, that is valuable information for the public on that person’s thinking. But since President Trump seems constitutionally unable to say no, the usual newsmaking logic does not apply. Worse, reporters risk giving Trump bad ideas.

Last month, for example, a reporter in Texas asked Trump whether he would consider nominating Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, for U.S. attorney general if he wins the presidency. “I would, actually,” Trump said. “He’s very, very talented. I mean, we have a lot of people that want that one and will be very good at it. But he’s a very talented guy.” Paxton hasn’t previously been on reported lists of candidates, and he’d be an awful choice: He’s under federal investigation, has acknowledged breaking laws that protect whistleblowers, and barely (and outrageously) escaped conviction in an impeachment trial last fall.

Perhaps Trump won’t rule things out because he doesn’t want to commit a gaffe or be seen as conceding anything, or he doesn’t actually know enough about the topic at hand and is deflecting, or (frequently) some combination of these.

At times, the stakes of these hypothetical questions are pretty low. (Would you consider a value-added tax? Sure, maybe, who knows?) In many cases, the answers are basically meaningless chaff for the daily outrage cycle. (Would you consider Tucker Carlson for vice president? “Oh wow … I like Tucker a lot! I guess I would!”) But sometimes they have real-world ramifications. In one 2019 CBS News interview, Trump declined to rule out pardoning Roger Stone, and he ultimately did pardon him. In that same interview, he considered deploying U.S. troops to Venezuela (he did not, though the idea created diplomatic upheaval because even the most tossed-off thoughts of a U.S. president can shift geopolitics). Trump laid out his general approach plainly: “Well, I don’t—I don’t take anything off the table. I don’t like to take things off the table,” he told the host, Margaret Brennan.

Interviewers know this, which is one reason they keep asking. Time’s Eric Cortellessa recently asked Trump whether he would step down following a second term or challenge the Constitution’s Twenty-Second Amendment. “I’m at a point where I would, I think, you know, I would do that,” Trump replied. “Look, it’s two terms. I had two elections. I did much better on the second one than I did the first. I got millions more votes. I was treated very unfairly. They used COVID to cheat and lots of other things to cheat. But I was treated very unfairly.”

Trump has mused about a third term previously, so Cortellessa wasn’t conjuring the issue out of nowhere. One could argue that Trump’s willingness to end democracy is the major question of this election. But following the Constitution ought to be an expectation for all candidates, rather than a campaign issue—and one could argue that bringing up a third term only provides Trump an opportunity to float seeking one. He’s now discussing the possibility in public remarks.

In one May 2015 interview, both Trump and Bloomberg News reporters seemed to wink at the game they were playing.

“So what I want to ask you is, have you thought about this,” a reporter began. “Would you be willing to meet with Kim Jong Un personally to try to reach a—”

“Breaking—we have breaking news. Is this going to be breaking news, Jennifer?” Trump asked one of the interviewers, Jennifer Jacobs, eliciting laughter. “Depends on what you say,” she replied. What he said, of course, was that he would. He ultimately did meet with Kim, and the meeting was considered a botched job, one that did nothing to slow North Korea’s nuclear program or threats.

In these incidents, the reporters are part of mainstream outlets, looking to use hypotheticals to make news. But sometimes a slightly different dynamic unfolds at conservative outlets, with Trump allies who have a different goal: to make Trump seem normal. This gambit seldom works—Trump is temperamentally unable to avoid making news, and besides that, he doesn’t like to say no.

For example, in December, Sean Hannity sought to quash suggestions that Trump would abuse his powers if reelected. “Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?” Hannity asked. But Trump refused the lifeline. “Except for day one,” Trump replied. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said: ‘No, no, no, other than day one. We’re closing the border and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.’”

Journalists should not hesitate to ask Trump tough questions. But they ought to recognize they run the risk of implanting a bad idea.  In November 2015, Trump was speaking darkly about a need to crack down on terrorism: “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before.” Then, an interviewer from Yahoo News asked Trump “whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion.” You can guess what happened next: “He wouldn’t rule it out,” the interviewer reported. The backlash was swift, but so was the excitement from Trump’s base; the idea eventually morphed into his attempt to ban people from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.

Maybe the whole Trump era is the result of a hypothetical question: In 1988, Oprah Winfrey hosted Trump on her show, where he talked about trade. “This sounds like political, presidential talk to me,” Winfrey said. “I know people have talked to you about whether or not you want to run. Would you ever?” Trump was skeptical, but he didn’t take it off the table: “I just probably wouldn’t do it, Oprah. I probably wouldn’t, but I do get tired of seeing what’s happening with this country, and if it got so bad, I would never want to rule it out totally.”

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