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What’s making President Trump shift views on domestic policies?

April 13, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
President Trump has made a series of reversals in recent days. Despite a tough posture during his campaign, he now says he won't label China as a currency manipulator. And on tax reform, Fed chair Janet Yellen and the Export-Import Bank, the president has made stark departures from past remarks. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal and Robert Costa of The Washington Post.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump has been observed to change his stated position on issues, sometimes within days or even hours of what he last said.

The president and his team have said he’s being flexible, and that many people have changed their views to match his. But he has made some moves that reverse statements he made during the campaign, in particular on economic policy.

Hari Sreenivasan in our New York studio has our — has more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For President Trump, it’s all about pointing out that he’s done what he said he’d do. He tweeted last night that his administration has kept promises on the border, on energy, on jobs, on regulations.

But he’s also made a series of reversals in recent days. In an interview yesterday with The Wall Street Journal, he said he will not label China as a currency manipulator. That’s a stark departure from his posture throughout the presidential campaign that he’d brand Beijing on day one.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are going to stand up to China on its massive currency manipulation, because they are beating our companies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And just 11 days ago, he told The Financial Times that the Chinese were the — quote — “world champions” of cheapening their currency to boost exports.

Then came his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Now Mr. Trump says Xi’s government is not currently manipulating its currency, and that claiming otherwise might jeopardize Chinese cooperation on North Korea.

In the same interview, the president said he wouldn’t release guidelines for tax reform legislation until he gets health care done. That underscored what he said during a FOX Business interview a day earlier.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have a great health care plan that I think will happen, and, if it happens, then I go immediately to tax reform.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But that’s a 180 from last month, after House Republicans failed to rally the votes to repeal and replace Obamacare.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So, now we’re going to go for tax reform, which I have always liked.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And on the subject of taxes, in the FOX interview, the president declined to say outright that he’d support the so-called border adjustment tax to give U.S. companies favorable treatment on exports and imports.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When I hear border adjustment, adjustment means we lose. We lose. So, I don’t like the term border adjustment.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president also didn’t rule out keeping Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen for another term. And he said he likes the fed’s low-interest rate policy. During the campaign, he said the opposite on both Yellen and interest rates.

Ditto on the Export-Import Bank. On the campaign trail, he called it unnecessary. In The Wall Street Journal interview, he praised it for helping small businesses and overseas companies that buy American.

Let’s try to unpack some of the reasoning behind these changes and their impact.

Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal interviewed the president on Wednesday. And Robert Costa covers the White House for The Washington Post.

Carol, let me start with you.

Currency manipulation, not something we talk about very often, but the president did talk a lot about this on the campaign trail. And what he said to you was the opposite of what he’s been saying for a very long time.

CAROL LEE, The Wall Street Journal: That’s right.

During the campaign, then-candidate Trump promised many times — it was one of his go-to lines — that he wouldn’t only label China a currency manipulator, but do it on day one of his presidency.

And when he spoke to us yesterday in our interview, he was asked about this, and his response was twofold. One, he said, China is no longer a currency manipulator, so he doesn’t need to label them a currency manipulator, that they have been — haven’t been manipulating their currency, he said, since he took office; they have been doing it for some time before that. But he — that was his first reasoning.

And, number two, he said, even if they were manipulating their currency, now is not the time, because he needs China to take steps to help him implement a policy that confronts North Korea, the North Korea threat. So, it’s two reasons, but it’s a pretty significant reversal, because it’s one that he — a promise that he made multiple times on the campaign trail, and now he’s saying he doesn’t need to do it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Robert, health care, according to these interviews, is back on the table.

How come? You famously got the phone call after the health care bill didn’t make it to the floor. And he said that it’s not health care. It’s, we’re moving on the taxes.

What happened, do you think?

ROBERT COSTA, The Washington Post: There’s a big push from the Republican base to have the GOP majorities in the Congress and, of course, the White House follow through on the promises they made during the 2016 campaign.

You saw this on the ground this past week in the Kansas House special election. You see it ahead of next Tuesday, where there is a special House election in Georgia. Republicans want to see action on health care and on taxes.

That’s why, as much as the president told me and others that he may shelve the health care bill for the moment and look for Democrats down the line to come back to the bargaining table, he’s at the top of a party that wants movement. And that’s why we see Congress during this recess starting to reengage on that issue.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Carol, was there some rationale that he offered to you all about why his thinking is changing on these things?

CAROL LEE: Well, there were different rationales for different changes that he made.

He discussed the one about currency manipulation. He also talked about his views on the chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, who he was sharply critical of during the campaign. And he said he met her, he liked her, he respects her. And he left open the possibility of nominating her again.

He spoke about Russia, about China. There was one particular instance where very early on in the interview he talked about President Xi of children, and meeting him, and how he went into that meeting telling him that he thought it was easy for China to pressure North Korea, that they had a lot of power over North Korea, and he should be able to easily handle that issue.

And he said that President Xi then went into the history of China and Korea, and within 10 minutes, President Trump said that he realized it’s not so easy for China to just take care of the North Korea problem, because they don’t have as much power as he thought they did.

So, there is — you know, he kind of walked through his thinking on that. And so he’s a little more sympathetic to the Chinese in terms of what they’re able to do to help him on the North Korea issue.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Robert, how much of this — I mean, what Carol is saying, certainly some part of it is the president realizing that things are much more complicated when you’re actually behind the desk.

How much of it is also the forces that are at work inside the White House, the different power struggles that you have been documenting?

ROBERT COSTA: The political environment inside of the West Wing is certainly a factor as President Trump thinks through his decisions.

Based on my reporting, there are certain people right now who have very influential voices in the ear of the president, in particular Gary Cohn, the president’s top economic adviser,a former Goldman Sachs executive, Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser and a former George W. Bush official in that White House, as well as Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and his daughter Ivanka.

They come out of a more centrist Republican and even Democratic mold, when speaking of Cohn, who is still a registered Democrat. And they’re urging the president privately to more in a more mainstream, centrist direction.

You also have H.R. McMaster, the new national security adviser, who is a Republican hawk. So, these non-interventionist instincts that we saw during the campaign with the president seem to have faded a bit with the Syria strike and now this action in Afghanistan.

And you see Stephen Bannon, the populist nationalist at the president’s side, being demoted, still in the White House, but not as influential.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Carol, speaking of Stephen Bannon, he didn’t do him any favors. He sort of almost distanced himself from him, or at least minimized his role during the president’s interview with you.

CAROL LEE: He did. It was a very interesting moment.

We asked him what to make of his comments the previous day in The New York Post, where he said that — you know, he really distanced himself from Steve Bannon, said that he’s his own — the president said he’s his own strategist and tried to diminish that role.

And we said, well, what should we make of those comments? And the president’s response was, well, you know, he’s a guy who works for me, which is a really understatement. And he said — he also said, I am my own strategist.

And, in saying that, it was something that he repeated again, it was very clear that he is trying to set the tone that he wants — that he’s in charge, and he not only was frustrated with some of the overshadowing that was happening with Steve Bannon and some of the parodies that were out there about him and how he was controlling Trump.

I think the president also then, as Robert reported, got very frustrated with the infighting, particularly between Steve Bannon and his son-in-law. And he said that he told them that they needed to work it out. We asked him if he planned on having the same team in six months. And he said, I like my team, but I don’t know. Maybe I will make some changes. Maybe I won’t.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Robert, finally to you, how do you cover a president like this who tells The Financial Times 10 days before Carol’s interview something company different than what he tells Carol, and then perhaps, the next time you talk with him, it’s going to be something else?

ROBERT COSTA: In a way, it’s almost predictable, having covered the president for a few years, as has Carol, very deeply over the last few years.

You know that this is a nonideological president. Unlike President Obama, who was mounting his own version of a liberal progressive project, or George W. Bush with his compassionate conservatism, or even with Ronald Reagan, decades ago, with his conservative movement, with Trump, you have a president who, at the center of it all, wants to do what’s best for him, his own popularity, his own standing, rather than necessarily his party or an ideology.

So, he is susceptible to shift with the political winds and to make decisions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right.

Robert Costa of The Washington Post, Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal, thank you both.

ROBERT COSTA: Thank you.

CAROL LEE: Thank you.

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