Presidents can tap a fount of information unlike any in the world. A corps of foreign service officers, multiple intelligence agencies and thousands of federal bureaucrats exist to learn all they can about crucial matters and convey it upward. The White House can also call on professors, think tanks, advocacy groups and corporations. If the president can’t find the answer to a question, it’s probably because no one can.
Being able to get all the best information gives the person occupying the Oval Office a unique perspective. How many times have you heard someone defend a president’s decision by saying he knows many things we don’t and must have sound reasons?
But that theory doesn’t apply to Donald Trump. He is the rare president who doesn’t know things we don’t know. He has access to facts that others lack, but they are wasted on him.
He can’t be bothered to read his top-secret daily intelligence briefing (or anything else) because he’s too distracted by “Fox & Friends” — which is where he got the idea that a caravan of dangerous migrants was about to storm our southern border. Trying to load his brain with verified data is like trying to pound a wooden peg through a steel plate.
Trump, like every president, came into office facing a steep learning curve. “As he governs, he is realizing that the campaign talk doesn’t fit neatly into governing and he needs a different approach, one that gets results,” his friend and Newsmax Media chief executive Christopher Ruddy said.
Early on, Trump occasionally exhibited an awareness of his limits. After he urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to force North Korea into line, Xi explained to him the relationship between the two countries. “After listening for 10 minutes,” said Trump, “I realized it’s not so easy.” During the debate on repealing the Affordable Care Act, he marveled, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.”
But unlike his predecessors, he has seen no urgent need to climb the learning curve. Years ago, he developed his fundamental opinions without knowing much, and he maintains them the same way.
Trump does not treat his ignorance as a flaw to be fixed. He treats it as a precious jewel to be protected. Far from handicapping him, it furnishes a rich supply of half-baked excuses for following his whims, and he strives mightily to preserve it.
His penchant for nonsense, misinformation and falsehoods is as strong as ever. Anytime he has to talk about the substance of policy, he makes it plain that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
He also doesn’t care. In a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he insisted that the U.S. has a trade deficit with Canada. He later boasted, “I didn’t even know. … I had no idea.”
And why wouldn’t Trump make things up to support his claims? He always got away with it before. When the boss (or father or host) is rich, opinionated and overbearing, few people are going to make a habit of correcting him.
Trump, like every low-information gasbag, seizes stray bits of information — or invents them — to bolster what he believes. He has no interest in learning anything else.
Those who want to educate him do it at their peril. National security adviser H.R. McMaster got on his nerves by acting as though Trump had some use for information. Reported Politico, “The president at one point gestured toward the general in the midst of a lengthy briefing and said to others in the room, ‘Look at this guy, he’s so serious!’”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, after joining with other top officials in a determined but futile effort to make Trump understand the Iranian nuclear deal, concluded that his boss was a “moron.” Like McMaster, he’s gone.
It’s become clear that Trump has decided he knows all he needs to know and can dispense with subordinates who challenge him. Trade adviser Peter Navarro captured the secret of pleasing the president when he explained that his job is to supply Trump with “the underlying analytics that confirm his intuition.”
But even as he remains impervious to learning, Trump imagines that he’s mastered everything he needs to know. “Some worried aides,” reported The New York Times, “say privately that Mr. Trump does not understand the job the way he believes he does” and “fear he will become even less inclined to take advice.”
No surprise there. Ignorance is not a bug in the Trump operating system. It’s not even a feature. It is the operating system.
Chapman writes for the Chicago Tribune as well as being syndicated columnist.