An Economist reporter dishes on Trump's 'priming the pump' interview

May 12, 2017

This week, The Economist published an in-depth interview with Donald Trump about his economic policy. The piece, which described Trump's economic strategy as "unimaginative and incoherent," picked up a lot of attention. The president's speech was riddled with falsehoods and confusion, drawing critics and social media commentators out of the woodwork.

At one point in the interview, Trump claimed to have invented the economics term "priming the pump." The term has actually been widely used for more than 80 years, so of course, Twitter responded:  

The Economist’s own analysis was even more scalding than the snarky tweets. The magazine declared: "The impulsiveness and shallowness of America's president threaten the economy as well as the rule of law." The article goes on to compare Trump to a modern-day Henry VIII, which is never a good thing: "Donald Trump rules over Washington as if he were a king and the White House his court. His displays of dominance, his need to be the centre of attention and his impetuousness have a whiff of Henry VIII about them. Fortified by his belief that his extraordinary route to power is proof of the collective mediocrity of Congress, the bureaucracy and the media, he attacks any person and any idea standing in his way."

Ouch.

We at The World have been somewhat obsessed with this interview, and we were dying to hear more. So we spoke to The Economist’s Washington bureau chief David Rennie, who was on the team of four reporters that conducted the interview. Rennie, with his classic British understatement, confessed that Trump's responses to questions of trade and fiscal policy were “not 100 percent reassuring.”

The World: What did Trump say that made you nervous?

David Rennie: On trade deals, for example, he seems to think that if there's a deal between, say, Mexico and America, if the Mexicans seem to be doing well out of the deal at all, then that shows you that others are taking advantage of America. And that's just not how trade works.

We asked him about the whole saga of how he was on the very point of withdrawing from NAFTA. He told us the back story, that he'd been ready to do it, but then he'd had a nice phone call from the prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico. And they asked him “could you think again? Maybe we should renegotiate instead of withdraw completely?” And so out of respect for them, he agreed to do that. 

Now that's actually slightly different from the story that we heard from people in the inner circle who said it was a lot more chaotic as a process.

TW: What did you learn about how Trump's NAFTA about-face actually went down?

DR: So we heard some fairly startling stories. From our other interviews, we learned that the reason the Canadians and the Mexicans called the president was that people in the inner circle of team Trump were very anxious about what was about to go down. They called [Canada and Mexico] and said, “You need to call [the president]. Right now.”

People inside the White House also called the new Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Perdue had only been confirmed, like, a day or two earlier. And they called him in, [saying], “You need to come over here now! You need to! He's about to withdraw from NAFTA.”

So Sonny Perdue literally asked his staff to draw up a map of the bits of America that had voted for Donald Trump and the bits of America that do well from exporting grain and corn through NAFTA. [The map] showed how these two areas often overlap. So he went in, said to Donald Trump, “Actually, Trump America, your voters, they do pretty well out of NAFTA.” And the president said, “Oh. Then maybe I won’t withdraw from NAFTA.”

TW: So this interview was in the Oval Office. What did the atmosphere there feel like?

DR: It's kind of like being in a royal palace several hundred years ago, with people coming in and out, trying to catch the ear of the king. That's the feel at the Trump Oval Office. He likes to be surrounded by his courtiers.

TW: Your magazine described it as being a little bit like Henry VIII. 

DR: There is a "Tudor court" side to it. And the role of some pretty senior figures, including cabinet secretaries, was to chime in and agree with whatever the president had just said, rather than offering candid advice.

There was a moment with Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary. 

We were talking [to Trump] about China and currency manipulation. On the campaign trail, Trump was very ferocious about [calling China a currency manipulator.] [In our interview], he said, “As soon as I started talking about China being a currency manipulator, they cut it out.” Actually that’s not true. China [stopped manipulating the currency] two or three years ago. 

What was striking was, when he made that point, Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, chimed in and said, “Oh yeah. The day he became president, they changed their behavior!” And factually, that’s just not right. It's quite striking to see a cabinet secretary making that point in that way.

TW: Did you get any evidence of the schism between Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner?

DR: A lot of the reporting has said that there are two completely different factions [in Trump's inner circle]: One is a moderate, globalist one led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner. And then the other is a dark, nationalist, angry view [led by his chief strategist Steve Bannon.] And somehow, those two factions are locked in a fight that one of them might win and then set the policy.

We came away with a different impression.

Fundamentally, Donald Trump is a nationalist with a grievance. He thinks that the world has taken advantage of America for too long, and it's time for America to be tougher and gruffer and more assertive and more selfish.

If there are different voices, it’s a question of tactics, of “how do you cut the best deal?” Do you bang your fist on the table? Or do you offer concessions? That’s where the schism is. I don't think that a globalist, moderate wing is somehow going to win the argument and change Donald Trump. He is who he is.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.


From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI