Trump, the indecisive


The president speaks boldly about issues like trade, taxes, immigration, health care and climate change. But what exactly will he do?

President Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of NAFTA, the Paris climate agreement and the Iranian nuclear deal — unless he opts to stay. He decided to revoke legal protections for the Dreamers, then urged Congress hours later to enact new ones. And he has repeatedly demanded that lawmakers enact major legislation on health care, tax reform and a $1 trillion infrastructure plan — without making it clear what he wants the final product to look like.
Of all the factors that have made the president’s first year so turbulent, one of the most important has been Trump himself: Combining quick mood shifts, a rancorous White House staff and his own fuzziness on the details, the self-proclaimed dealmaker has left his options way open on a range of contentious decisions — while inducing whiplash in many of the political insiders, business leaders and even foreign governments with a stake in the outcomes.
Some business groups are making long-range decisions based on their best guesses of where the administration will land, while others try to outflank the White House by talking to key lawmakers before Trump does.
“It’s exhausting because there are so many places that you have to touch, so many different bases, because you never know who he’s listening to,” said Brian Wild, a Republican adviser to businesses on energy, tax, labor, transportation and health care at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. ”You never know who’s going to get the final ‘yes.’”
One longtime GOP lobbyist added: “You would’ve never seen a situation with Bush or Obama when a position in the administration got flipped overnight. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you get half a loaf, but rarely do you ever just change sides.”
“I think he thinks of everything as a trial balloon,” the lobbyist said of Trump.
The flux is especially vexing for conservatives who were invigorated after Trump won but now worry that their years of pushing to lower tax rates and repeal former President Barack Obama’s health care law might have been in vain.
“Nobody is happy,” said another Republican lobbyist. “It’s very likely that at the end of the year, we’ll be left with Obamacare and the same tax code.”
White House spokespeople rejected the idea that the president has waffled on policy issues, saying he’s been “abundantly clear” that he’ll leave the Paris agreement if he doesn’t get a better deal and has been “very clear” he wants Congress to act on immigration.
“President Trump was put into office precisely because he isn’t beholden to lobbyists and special interests,” White House spokeswoman Kelly Love said. “If they’re upset that they can’t stroll into the White House and drive administration policy anymore, that’s a badge of honor for a president who was elected to drain the swamp. This president makes his decisions based on what’s best for Main Street, not K Street.”
But the frustration has repercussions far beyond the Beltway. As tax talks between the White House and lawmakers stall, more than half of CEOs surveyed by Business Roundtable said they would have to shelve plans to hire and invest more if an already long-delayed overhaul doesn’t move through Congress.
The outcome of the tax debate will determine whether Guy Chemical Co. in Somerset, Pennsylvania, can buy extra equipment, hire 10 new employees and give raises to existing staff, company President Guy Berkebile said. But Berkebile, who was recently in Washington to urge lawmakers to lower business tax rates, said he’s not getting his hopes up.
“I am already thinking what I will do with the extra money at Guy Chemical if business taxes are lowered,” he said. “If tax reform does not get done, I will continue to grind away with the same typical investment I have put back into my company over the past 10 years.”
The details of what Trump wants in a tax overhaul are still in flux, complicating his sales pitch to conservative Republicans. The uncertainty includes whether the White House will insist on his oft-stated desire to cut the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, down from 35 percent. (“I hope it’s going to be 15 percent,” Trump told reporters Sunday, amid reports that negotiators had settled on a compromise of 20 percent.)
On health care, Trump has spent the entire year pushing Congress to repeal Obamacare but has offered vague, often contradictory clues about what he wants to see take its place. At times he’s promised “insurance for everybody,” supported a House Republican bill that guaranteed nothing of the sort, or mused about letting Obama’s system “explode” on its own or moving on to other issues like taxes. Trump’s tough talk on trade has also left industries he’s vowed to support hanging.
The United Steelworkers Union complains that foreign steel imports have “skyrocketed” since April, when the White House suggested the U.S. might limit them for national security reasons. Data from the American Iron and Steel Institute show that steel imports jumped more than 21 percent in the three months following the announcement versus the first three months of the year.
The Commerce Department was supposed to issue recommendations at the beginning of June but has delayed them indefinitely.
Vagueness and wishy-washiness might seem unlikely problems for Trump, who’s shown no reluctance to speak his mind and often expresses his thoughts in the most caustic terms — including using the epithet “Rocket Man” last week for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He’s spent years espousing certain consistently held policy beliefs, such as his charge that “stupid” trade deals are letting other countries rip off the U.S.

But that doesn’t make it any easier to predict the details of what Trump will decide as president, especially on the myriad issues where he’s offered no well-formed opinion. And he’s changed his mind on a host of issues — such as endorsing an influx of new U.S. troops to Afghanistan after previously calling for a pullout. Or holding a Rose Garden celebration in May after the House passed a bill to repeal Obamacare, only to describe the same bill as “mean” a month later in a meeting with Republican senators. Or deciding in early September to end the Obama-era program that prevented deportations for thousands of young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children — only to say hours later that he has “love for these people” and wants Congress to “help them.”