12 min read

Watch who Trump hires, not what he says

The return of the “we’ll see” presidency.
Watch who Trump hires, not what he says
(Photo by TIME Magazine)

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Print magazines rarely shake the political world anymore, but TIME managed to on Tuesday when it published its latest cover story, an interview with Donald Trump about his plans for a second term.

Here’s how TIME correspondent Charlotte Alter summarized the piece:

Other pundits and politicians reacted similarly. “BREAKING: Trump Endorses Prosecuting and Punishing Women Who Have Abortions,” the Biden campaign announced in one email to reporters. “In TIME Interview, Trump Promises to Use Military to Rip Families Apart,” they said in another. Trump “is *literally* telling you what he will do” if re-elected, political analyst Chris Cillizza wrote on X.

Except, if you read the transcripts of TIME’s two interviews with Trump — which the magazine helpfully provided — it becomes pretty clear that the former president did not explicitly endorse most of those ideas. In fact, he doesn’t explicitly say much of anything about his second term agenda; rarely in in the interview does he “literally tell you” what he would do at all.

Consider his answers on the following topics:

  • On whether he would deploy active-duty military personnel to implement mass deportations: “I can see myself using the National Guard and, if necessary, I’d have to go a step further.”
  • On whether he would construct new migrant detention camps: “It’s possible that we’ll do it to an extent but we shouldn’t have to do very much of it.”
  • On whether he would create funding incentives for local police departments to assist with deportations: “It could very well be.”
  • On whether he would choose to use law or executive order to expand police immunity: “We’d have to take a look at that.”
  • On whether he would choose to use law or executive order to complete the border wall: “I think what we will do is we will complete [the wall].”
  • On whether he would impose tariffs of more than 10% on all imports: “It may be more than that. It may be a derivative of that.”
  • On whether he supports a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine: “It depends when. There was a time when I thought two states could work. Now I think two states is going to be very, very tough... There may not be another idea.”
  • On whether he would veto a national abortion ban if Congress passed one: “I won’t have to commit to it because it’ll never—number one, it’ll never happen.”
  • On whether women should be able to access the abortion pill mifepristone: “Well, I have an opinion on that, but I'm not going to explain. I'm not gonna say it yet.”
  • On whether he’d be comfortable with states punishing women who violate abortion bans: “It’s irrelevant whether I’m comfortable or not. It’s totally irrelevant, because the states are going to make those decisions.”
  • On how he will vote on the Florida abortion referendum in November: “I don’t tell you what I’m gonna vote for.”
  • On whether he would fire U.S. attorneys who disagree with him: “It depends on the situation, honestly.”

Occasionally, Trump gave a yes-or-no answer, like when he was asked whether he would defend Israel if the country were attacked by Iran (“yes”) or whether he supports overturning presidential term limits (“no”). But, besides those few exceptions, Trump refused to be pinned down throughout the interview.

This is hardly a new dynamic; in fact, it’s a strategy Trump has practiced (and preached) for years. In “The Art of the Deal,” his 1987 bestseller, one of his key pieces of advice — one of his “Trump Cards,” in the parlance of the book — was to always “maximize your options.”

“I also protect myself by being flexible,” Trump wrote. “I never get too attached to one deal or one approach. For starters, I keep a lot of balls in the air, because most deals fall out, no matter how promising they seem at first. In addition, once I've made a deal, I always come up with at least a half dozen approaches to making it work, because anything can happen, even to the best-laid plans.”

During his presidency, entire 24-hour news frenzies would sometimes be started by Trump expressing openness to something in response to a reporter’s question — when, in fact, such comments were sometimes a sign that he was actually considering that thing, and sometimes a sign that he just rarely says “no” when asked if a certain option is on the table. No matter what idea a reporter might lob at him, he would almost always leave the door open — precisely as he did with TIME. (During his presidency, “we’ll see” was his trademark response for this type of question.)

At various points in the interview, Trump even copped to using this approach. “Well, I’ve been asked this question many times and I always refuse to answer it because I don’t want to reveal my cards to a wonderful reporter like you,” he said when asked if the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. “But no. China knows my answer very well. But they have to understand that things like that can’t come easy. But I will say that I have never publicly stated although I want to, because I wouldn’t want to give away any negotiating abilities by giving information like that to any reporter.”

“It puts you in a very bad position if you actually come out and make a statement one way or the other,” he added.

The ex-president used other classically Trumpian strategies to avoid answering questions throughout the interview. Sometimes, he would merely deny what he had previously said: “I never said that at all,” Trump falsely claimed when asked about his prior call for the “termination of the Constitution.” At other points, he would kick the can down the road, promising to make a statement on mifepristone “probably over the next week.” (When TIME followed up with Trump two weeks after the initial interview, which took place on April 12, he again promised a statement “over the next week or two.”) With Trump, answers on policy are always just two weeks away.

Reading the transcript, Trump comes off less like a candidate “eager...to implement autocracy in America,” as one critic put it, and more like someone completely unmoored from ideological principle, who still — after nine consecutive years of running for president — has yet to settle on any coherent political philosophy. Many of the ideas he “endorsed” in the interview were actually first thrown out by the reporter; his endorsement merely consisted of him not batting them away. 

Of course, this doesn’t make it any less notable that Trump is open to certain extreme ideas, even if he isn’t outright advocating them. And, obviously, it is concerning in its own right if one of the two candidates for president is refusing to tell voters his policy platform. 

But it does mean that, when trying to deduce what Trump will do in office, the emphasis should not be placed on what comes out of his mouth. Trump acknowledged this himself: “That was said as a point of negotiation... Look, that’s the way you talk as a negotiator,” he said when asked about his suggestion that the U.S. wouldn’t defend NATO countries, making clear that his comments are often better understood as bargaining positions than statements of hard policy.

Instead, the emphasis should be placed on who he surrounds himself with. As was the case during his first administration, the transcript betrays a politician easily molded by whoever is in the room with him — even, it turns out, a TIME reporter. With Trump, the maxim “personnel is policy” has never been more relevant.

And if there was one thing Trump did seem adamant about in the interview, it was his hiring plans. “We want to get rid of bad people, people that have not done a good job in government,” he said. “And we look at people like a company would look at people. You know, when you buy a company, you go in and you look at, how do you like the job? Job performance. They have job performance standards. And yeah, we would like to get rid of people that haven’t done a good job. And there are plenty of them.” (Still, Trump remained characteristically cagey when asked if he planned to revive the Schedule F executive order or to use election denial as a hiring litmus test, giving familiar non-answers to both questions.)

In his second term, Trump said, he will be less generous with keeping people on who disappoint him. “From now on, I’ll fire,” he said.

Ultimately, lacking a leader with many strongly-held policy beliefs, the extreme (or not) nature of Trump 2.0 will come down to staffing choices. MAGA-aligned Republicans, who watched during Trump’s first administration as Steve Bannon types had to wrestle for power with Reince Priebuses and Jared Kushners, know this, which is why they are gearing up for the looming personnel fights by vetting thousands of candidates to hand to him on Day 1. (Trump, trying to remain flexible as always, has distanced himself from the efforts.) The MAGA faction will be much more prepared to staff Trump’s second administration than they were for his first.

Trump will be both the best friend and worst enemy to such efforts. For all his talk that he will handle hiring differently in his second go-around, Trump will remain subject to the same impulses he always is, able to be won over by a plum candidate out of “central casting” — even if they don’t align with the agenda being pushed by his MAGA allies. For evidence, look no further than the fact that he is reportedly considering tapping Jamie Dimon, the JPMorgan Chase CEO — and a Democrat — as Treasury Secretary. Appearances and cachet still mean a lot to Trump, more than ideological purity. (Perhaps that’s why he gave an interview to TIME magazine in the first place.)

Still, make no mistake: if Trump allies like Bannon and Stephen Miller successfully ward off the military and country-club types who made up his first Cabinet, Trump’s second term will be different than his first. “Anti-anti Trump” Republicans often rationalize their decisions to support him this year by noting that Trump’s first administration achieved little and that few of his more extreme musings became policy.

“At the end of the day, [such ideas] wouldn’t be carried out and you could talk sense into him,” former Attorney General William Barr said recently.

But, again, that theory relies more on who surrounds Trump than Trump’s own comments, which neither Trump himself nor his close advisers seem to put much stock in. “I alone can fix it” this is not.

Maybe in a second Trump administration there will be people like Barr, who want to talk Trump off the ledge. But the MAGA faction is certainly doing everything it can to prevent that. More than anything Trump tells TIME magazine, whether or not their efforts are successful will be the real determination of how extreme Trump’s second turn at the helm would be.

More news to know.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. (Photo by the Brookings Institution)

Mike vs. MTG: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) announced this morning that she will trigger a vote to oust House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) next week. However, unlike a similar vote last year on Kevin McCarthy, there will be little suspense this time around: House Democratic leaders announced Tuesday that they would vote to block a motion to vacate against Johnson. The speaker worked with Democrats to pass a $96 billion foreign aid package earlier this month.

Campus clashes: More than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested at Columbia University last night, as Columbia officials called in the New York Police Department to violently clear the demonstrators from a school building where they had trespassed in violation of university policy. Meanwhile, violence also broke out at UCLA this morning, where pro-Israel protesters attacked a pro-Palestinian encampment, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Rescheduling marijuana: The Justice Department is poised to recommend that marijuana be reclassified from a Schedule I substance — the category reserved for the highest-risk, most strictly regulated drugs — to a Schedule III substance. The move would allow the government to fund research into marijuana’s medical benefits for the first time and give marijuana business new leeway to operate more openly.

Abortion wars: Florida’s six-week abortion ban will go into effect today, further limiting access to the procedure in the South. Florida voters are set to consider a ballot measure in November that could overturn the ban, which was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). If 60% of the state’s voters approve the measure, abortion would be made legal until fetal viability, which is around 24 weeks of pregnancy.

At the border: “Illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border are down more than 40 percent since December and have remained relatively stable through the first four months of 2024,” the Washington Post reports, a change attributed to the Mexican government’s recent migrant crackdown

Trump on trial: Donald Trump complied with Judge Juan Merchan’s orders on Tuesday to delete nine Truth Social posts about potential witnesses in his criminal trial after Merchan ruled that they violated Trump’s gag order. Holding Trump in contempt of court, Merchan also ordered the ex-president to pay $9,000. According to the New York Times, Trump has been privately complaining that his lawyer in the case, Todd Blanche, has been “insufficiently aggressive.”

Number to know: 55% of Americans said the Trump presidency was a success in a new CNN poll, a turnaround from 2021, when 55% said it was a failure. Trump’s tenure is regarded significantly better than Biden’s, which 61% called a failure in the new survey.

New legal frontier: The brewing fight between media outlets and tech giants over AI-generated content escalated on Tuesday when eight major U.S. newspapers, including the New York Daily News and the Chicago Tribune, sued OpenAI and Microsoft for copyright infringement. Their lawsuit follows a similar claim previously filed by the New York Times, which also alleged that the tech companies illegally used its content in the development of ChatGPT.

Quite a headline: “Woman was denied top-secret US security clearance for being a close relative of dictator” (CNN)

The day ahead.

low-angle photography of airliner during flight
The Senate begins consideration of an FAA bill. (Photo by Kevin Woblick / Unsplash)

President Biden will participate in a campaign fundraiser in Washington, D.C.

Vice President Harris will deliver remarks on abortion in Jacksonville, Florida, on the same day that a six-week abortion ban goes into effect in the state.

The Senate will vote on confirmation of a U.S. district judge nominee and hold a procedural vote on a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The House will vote on several pieces of legislation, including the Antisemitism Awareness Act, which would require the Department of Education to adopt the definition of antisemitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) when deciding if incidents at federally-funded schools violates anti-discrimination laws.

The IHRA definition includes “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” as examples of antisemitism.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will return to the campaign trail for the first time since his New York criminal trial began. (The trial does not meet on Wednesdays.) He will use the trip to hold rallies in both Wisconsin and Michigan.

Before I go...

fountain pen
(Photo by Trey Gibson / Unsplash)

Here’s something interesting: Could AI help slash red tape? Lt. Gov. Jon Husted (R-OH) thinks so. 

Husted’s office uploaded Ohio’s thousands of pages of regulations into a tool called RegExplorer — developed by Deloitte — and asked it to identify outdated or repetitive sections.

The bot identified all sorts of unnecessary regulations, from “thousands of pages of rules for lottery games that haven't been played in decades” to rules requiring “in-person interaction with state government that, once eliminated, will save 58,000 hours of labor over the next decade.” 

By the end of last year, the AI-fueled analysis had led to 2.2 million words being eliminated from the Ohio code. “If you think about it, no human being could make sense of the administrative code,” Husted told Axios. “I think it's like 17.4 million words.”

Per Axios, the lieutenant governor’s next plan is to launch “public-facing AI tools that will allow residents to ask questions about the state's laws and regulations and get answers back in plain, easy to understand English.”

Read more via Axios Columbus.

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