The Eisenhower Executive Office Building at dusk.

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building at dusk. Jon Bilous/

Trump on the Federal Government: 'I Never Realized How Big It Was'

An interview with the Associated Press shows President Trump slowly coming to terms with the size of the government he now runs, and the challenges he must tackle.

Every president faces a steep learning curve when he enters the presidency. There is, as John F. Kennedy, wrote, no school for commanders in chief. Yet even by that standard, recent interviews show a Donald Trump who is genuinely surprised by the size of his duties, the interests he must balance, and the methods required to get that done.

On Sunday, the Associated Press released a transcript of an interview with the president last week. It deserves to be read in full: It captures his constant evasiveness on facts, preferring hyperbole, for example, and his detachment from reality—when asked about a “contract with the American voter” on what he’d achieve in 100 days, Trump dismisses it, saying, “Somebody put out the concept of a hundred-day plan.” 

Yet while Trump can be evasive, and he is often deeply misleading, the AP interview and another recent discussion with The Wall Street Journal are fascinating documents for what they show about a president reckoning frankly with how little he understands the government.

“The financial cost of everything is so massive, every agency,” Trump told the AP. “This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world. The second-largest company in the world is the Defense Department. The third-largest company in the world is Social Security. The fourth-largest—you know, you go down the list …. And every agency is, like, bigger than any company. So you know, I really just see the bigness of it all, but also the responsibility.”

Trump is right, but the government has long been enormous. What is different is that Trump ended up in the Oval Office having expressed little interest in how the government worked over the preceding decades of his life, and barely more during the presidential campaign. While he demonstrated a prodigious, intuitive grasp of electoral politics, policy held little interest for him; and because, despite that intuitive grasp, he did not expect to win the election, he did little to prepare himself.

During the campaign, Trump boasted that if elected he could cram and catch up, and now that process is in action. Some of what Trump is learning is purely factual—such as the size of the government, or his new understanding of how the Export-Import Bank functionsAccording to Peter Baker, Trump only asked how surveillance worked after he lobbed a wholly unsubstantiated claim of wiretapping at Barack Obama. Discussing his decision not to brand China a currency manipulator, as he had promised during the campaign, he told the AP, “But President Xi [Jinping], from the time I took office, he has not, they have not been currency manipulators.” This is true—but China quit devaluing its currency in 2014, long before Trump entered office.

But many of his revelations concern the human dimension of his job. His central new insight seems to be that in the world of politics, the personal is far more important than he realized. This might be a surprise from a man often described (sometimes pejoratively, but often not) as “transactional,” but as Trump notes, “Here, everything, pretty much everything you do in government, involves heart, whereas in business, most things don't involve heart … In fact, in business you're actually better off without it.”

One good example of how this manifests itself is the decision to strike Syria with missile strikes after a chemical attack by the Assad government. His quick change of position—from being staunchly against intervention against Assad to launching airstrikes—was dizzying, but seemed to be largely an emotional reaction to the horror of images from the strike. Yet despite tough talk about the military, he had apparently never grappled with one reality of being commander in chief up until then:

"When it came time to, as an example, send out the 59 missiles, the Tomahawks in Syria. I'm saying to myself, 'You know, this is more than just like, 79 [sic] missiles. This is death that's involved,' because people could have been killed. This is risk that's involved, because if the missile goes off and goes in a city or goes in a civilian area—you know, the boats were hundreds of miles away—and if this missile goes off and lands in the middle of a town or a hamlet .... every decision is much harder than you'd normally make."

Even where human life is not involved, basic human emotions are. Discussing the question of Chinese currency manipulation, Trump acknowledged that even if Beijing were still devaluing, he might be unable to pressure the government too forcefully.

“But more importantly than him not being a currency manipulator the bigger picture, bigger than even currency manipulation, if he's helping us with North Korea, with nuclear and all of the things that go along with it, who would call, what am I going to do, say, ‘By the way, would you help us with North Korea? And also, you're a currency manipulator.’?” Trump asked. “It doesn't work that way.”

The president is, of course, correct: It’s very hard to get a country to cooperate with you on a critical issue of national security if you’re starting a trade war with them on the side. But Trump’s campaign was constructed on the premise that you could do that, and with just a little more tough talk against the Chinese, just a little rougher rhetoric toward Iran, just a little more willingness to speak about “radical Islamic terror,” these problems would be manageable. It wasn’t so long ago that Trump was branding Obama a weakling for refusing to act more harshly.

It will be interesting to see how lasting Trump’s new view is, and how effectively he can adapt to it. As he has said, in the business world, he could be motivated by the profit motive alone—and occasionally by the impulse to revenge. “Get even with people,” he said in Australia in 2011. “If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.”

By contrast, his rival in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton, had a much softer view of what leadership required. “I know it’s not usual for somebody running for president to say what we need more of in this country is love and kindness,” she said in June. “But that’s exactly what we need more of.”

That’s strikingly similar to what the president told the AP last week.

“You have to love people,” he said, sounding far more like the Hillary Clinton of 2016 than the Donald Trump who was running against her.