Alex Brandon/AP

Trump's 3 a.m. Phone Call

The president pondered a reasonable economics question—but who he reportedly dialed for answers raises questions of its own.

The president’s 3 a.m. phone call is typically a metaphor. It’s a symbol of the president’s ability to handle a crisis. But in the case of President Donald Trump, it appears to be a revealing reality.

According to the Huffington Post, Donald Trump recently placed a late-night phone call to Mike Flynn, his national security adviser, to ask if a strong dollar or a weak dollar is better for the U.S. economy. In the early rounds of commentary on television and Twitter, several people have mocked the president for staying up late, pondering questions that might appear on an Econ 101 exam.

But this conversation, if it’s true, is concerning for completely different reasons. 

“Is a strong dollar good or bad for the economy?” is actually a reasonable question without a simple answer. A brief one is that a strong dollar empowers American buyers, and a weak dollar empowers American exporters. A strong dollar is a sign of a robust American economy, but a weak dollar can be more useful for growing the economy through trade with foreign countries.

What makes this “choice” complicated is that Americans want all of those things. Consumers want to feel rich, but companies want to export a lot of stuff (while importing parts that are affordable). U.S. ventures want to be an attractive destination for global investment, but companies want to make stuff the world can afford, so that they can get rich.

There are two reasons why this story is concerning, even if the details of the story evolve over the next few days, as these anonymous leaks often do.

First, the president inevitably has to make decisions about domestic and global affairs on which he is not an expert. This is why presidents build Cabinets and surround themselves with phalanxes of expert advisers. But calling an expert on the Middle East for on-the-spot macroeconomic theory is treating the Cabinet like a game of Apples to Apples, in which advisers are randomly paired with consequential questions. Macroeconomics and national security aren’t entirely unrelated, but it’s concerning to think that a real-estate mogul with no government experience isn’t asking the right person for advice on trade, his signature issue.

Second, Trump’s circle of trust is already extremely small. The executive order on refugees and immigration was a skunkworks operation that reportedly barely even included the president. Reaching out to a national security adviser for economic advice further suggests that Trump doesn’t have many people he can trust with a brief, and potentially embarrassing, question about policy. This leak itself might embarrass Trump and preclude further curiosity, which would also be bad. Indeed, the constant stream of leaks from the administration serves an obvious public interest. The downside is that, in embarrassing the president, it may further shrink his circle of trust to a handful of advisers whose specialty won’t be policy at all but rather their reputation for confidentiality and their mindfulness of the president’s volatility. One thing worse than being powerful and clueless is being powerful, clueless, and embarrassed to ask questions.

This leak is still fresh in the media bloodstream, and as more reporters process it, this 3 a.m. call may turn out to be as make-believe as the 3 a.m. metaphor—a story of the president's impetuous incompetence that is tailor-made for liberal readers. But there’s another reason the report, true or not, has gained the traction that it has: It keeps with a pattern that has arisen, in which Trump asks his loyalists to advise him on topics that are out of their depth. For instance, Steve Bannon, his top advisor, has been appointed to the National Security Council’s principals committee, which represents a political intrusion into meetings that the national-intelligence community has traditionally valued as being somewhat walled off from politics. This latest leak will only make the White House more paranoid, and make Trump more likely to ask basic questions of only his most trusted advisors, however qualified they may be to answer them.