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Trump, Then And Now: What His Shifting Positions Say About What He Believes

President Trump walks up the stairs to Air Force One on Thursday at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The president has recently made a series of apparent policy reversals.
Alex Brandon
President Trump walks up the stairs to Air Force One on Thursday at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The president has recently made a series of apparent policy reversals.

Reporters ask lots of pesky questions during campaigns for a reason: to find out how someone would govern.

Most candidates right and left comply with the public interest in what they would do by putting out policy papers and laying out facts and figures, numbers and details.

Not Donald Trump. He likes to keep everyone guessing. And the country is now seeing just how much.

In the first couple of months of his presidency, he was governing like he campaigned — bombastic and trying to follow through on bold promises. Build the wall. Ban certain people. Bring back manufacturing jobs. He ordered that the wall be built (though the U.S. will pay for it and part of it might be a fence); he ordered a travel ban for people from six majority-Muslim countries (though it was seven at first, and it's still hung up in the courts); and, as for jobs, well, presidents always get too much credit and blame for that, but there's always the Carrier deal.

In just the past few days, however, Trump has reversed himself on a whole host of subjects — from NATO, China, Russia and Syria to health care, the Export-Import Bank, even Goldman Sachs and Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen.

As the 100-day marker of Trump's presidency approaches, the shifting raises questions about what Trump really intends to do as president with the rest of his time in office. Does he even know? Or is he — and now the country — simply at the mercy of his instinctual whims and latest conversations?

Some of what Trump is doing is being billed as a movement toward the mainstream. For example:

  • Reuters: "Trump won't rule out second Yellen term, signaling drift to the mainstream."
  • The Wall Street Journal: "Five Big Players Steer Trump's Foreign Policy Toward the Mainstream."
  • Politico: "Trump's foreign policy goes mainstream."
  • But do Trump's reversals really signal that? Don't bet on it. Just because something is true today with Trump doesn't mean it will be so tomorrow.

    Here's a look at how Trump has changed on some of the issues in the news and how he's shifted. (Jump to: NATO, China, Russia, Syria, health care, Export-Import Bank, Goldman Sachs and Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen.)

    1. NATO


    "I think NATO's obsolete. NATO was done at a time you had the Soviet Union, which was obviously larger, much larger than Russia is today. I'm not saying Russia's not a threat. But we have other threats." — March 27, 2016, on ABC's This Week


    "The Secretary General and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete; it's no longer obsolete. It's my hope that NATO will take on an increased role in supporting our Iraqi partners in their battle against ISIS." — Thursday in a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

    PolitiFact fact-checked Trump's view that NATO didn't give him credit in 2016 when it unveiled that it had created a new intelligence chief. But it noted this wasn't a major change — and it wasn't because of Trump. Member nations had been complaining about how to improve intelligence sharing. This was a step to get better about that. The fact-checking site added:

    "More to the point, Trump's comment gives the impression that NATO hadn't been responsive to terrorism until the new division was created. That's not true at all. NATO involvement in counter-terrorism issued its first formal declaration on terrorism in 1980, and it became a significant issue for the alliance on Sept. 11, 2001."

    NATO has a section of its website explaining how the organization tries to counter terrorism. Its efforts were written about by Philip Gordon in 2002. Gordon wound up on President Barack Obama's National Security Council.

    In fairness to Trump, Stoltenberg was on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Thursday saying that NATO has "stepped up" its efforts when it comes to combating terrorism and is hoping that more countries devote more money to their own defenses as well, something Trump has called for.

    2. China


    "On day one of a Trump administration, the U.S. Treasury Department will designate China a currency manipulator." — Nov. 9, 2015, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

    "I will direct the Secretary of the Treasury to label China a currency manipulator." — Trump in his "Contract with the American Voter" as point No. 3 of his "seven actions to protect American workers." He called that plan "my pledge to you."


    "They're not currency manipulators." — Trump in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

    Trump's reason? Per the Journal: "China hasn't been manipulating its currency for months and because taking the step now could jeopardize his talks with Beijing on confronting the threat of North Korea."

    3. Russia


    "The relationship is great, and it would be great if I had the position I should have." — March 18, 2015, to the Daily Mail.

    "I was over in Moscow two years ago and I will tell you — you can get along with those people and get along with them well. You can make deals with those people. Obama can't." — June 16, 2015, to Fox's Bill O'Reilly.

    He went on to echo that sentiment on multiple occasions throughout the campaign. (See CNN's comprehensive timeline here.)

    "If he [Putin] says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him. I've already said he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing' — the man has very strong control over a country." — Sept. 7, 2016, in an NBC town hall.

    "[Hillary Clinton] doesn't like Putin, because Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way. ... Putin has outsmarted her in Syria, he's outsmarted her every step of the way." — Oct. 19, 2016, third presidential debate.

    In December, Trump quoted Putin in a tweet, saying of Clinton: " 'One must be able to lose with dignity.' So true!"

    As president-elect, he said this on Jan. 11: "If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia."

    Then as president, on Feb. 6, just two months ago, when asked by O'Reilly about Putin being a "killer," Trump said: "There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent?"


    "It would be wonderful, as we were discussing just a little while ago, if NATO and our country could get along with Russia. Right now, we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia." — Trump in a press conference with NATO's secretary general on Wednesday.

    "Things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia. At the right time everyone will come to their senses & there will be lasting peace!" — Trump in a tweet on Thursday.

    4. Syria


    "The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!" — Aug. 30, 2013, in a tweet after Assad used chemical weapons and President Obama was deciding if he would strike unilaterally. Obama wound up going to Congress, did not get approval and did not strike despite, saying use of chemical weapons would be a "red line."


    "President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your 'powder' for another (and more important) day!" — Sept. 7, 2013, in a tweet.


    "Assad choked out the lives of innocent men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror. Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons." — April 6, in a speech announcing U.S. military action against Syria.

    5. Health care


    "I think what will happen is Obamacare, unfortunately, will explode. It's going to have a very bad year. ... So what would be really good, with no Democrat support, is if the Democrats, when it explodes — which it will soon — if they got together with us and got a real healthcare bill. I would be totally up to do it. And I think that's going to happen. I think the losers are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, because now they own Obamacare. They own it — 100 percent own it. ... And they have Obamacare for a little while longer, until it ceases to exist, which it will at some point in the near future. ... We'll be going right now for tax reform, which we could have done earlier." — March 24 from the Oval Office after the GOP health care bill's failure.


    "We have to do health care first to pick up additional money so that we get great tax reform. So we're going to have a phenomenal tax reform. But I have to do health care first. I want to do it first to really do it right." — Wednesday in an interview with Fox Business.

    6. Export-Import Bank


    "I don't like it because I don't think it's necessary. It's a one-way street also. It's sort of a featherbedding for politicians and others, and a few companies. And these are companies that can do very well without it. So I don't like it. I think it's a lot of excess baggage. I think it's unnecessary. And when you think about free enterprise it's really not free enterprise. I'd be against it." — Aug. 4, 2015, to Bloomberg.


    "It turns out that, first of all, lots of small companies are really helped, the vendor companies. ... But also, maybe more important, other countries give [assistance]. When other countries give it we lose a tremendous amount of business. ... Instinctively, you would say, 'Isn't that a ridiculous thing,' But actually, it's a very good thing. And it actually makes money, it could make a lot of money." — Wednesday in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

    7. Goldman Sachs


    "I know the guys at Goldman Sachs. They have total, total control over him. Just like they have total control over Hillary Clinton." — Feb. 19, 2016, in a primary debate about rival Ted Cruz. Cruz's wife, Heidi, was a Goldman employee.

    "We've seen this firsthand in the WikiLeaks documents in which Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors." — Oct. 13, 2016, in reference to Clinton receiving $675,000 for three speeches made to Goldman.

    Trump touted that he was self-funding his campaign and that he believed that the influence of special interests "resonates with voters."

    Trump even ran this closing ad in the 2016 campaign. Over images of world leaders, Hillary Clinton and Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein, there's this line:

    "It's a global power struggle that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets into a handful of large corporations and political entities."


    Trump hired a slew of people with Goldman Sachs on their resumes to key positions in his White House. In addition to chief strategist and former campaign "CEO" Steve Bannon, who had once worked for the heavy hitting New York investment bank, there's also Gary Cohn, director of his National Economic Council; deputy national security adviser Dina Powell; and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was Trump's national finance chairman.

    Cohn, a registered Democrat, is so wealthy, he's worth more than Mitt Romney. His financial disclosure found he's one of the richest members of Trump's Cabinet, worth between $252 million and $611 million.

    Another Goldman alumnus, Anthony Scaramucci, who was involved in the transition, was set to take on a senior role in the White House running the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. But he wound up not getting the role because of a potential conflict of interest — a hedge fund he founded was in the process of being sold to a Chinese company.

    Bloomberg wrote this back in December of Trump's Goldman ties:

    "After eight years as the face of Wall Street greed and the target of public scorn, the bankers at Goldman Sachs can be cheerful again. Not only has Trump's election stoked hopes for looser regulatory policies that will make it easier for banks to take bigger risks and book fatter profits, but Goldman also appears to have regained its place at the nexus between Wall Street and Washington. After being largely cut out of the federal government during the Obama years, with few of its alums tapped for big jobs, Goldman is starting to live up to its former nickname, Government Sachs."

    8. Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen


    "She's keeping [rates] artificially low to get Obama retired. Watch what is going to happen afterwards. It is a very serious problem, and I think it is very political. I think she is very political and to a certain extent, I think she should be ashamed of herself because it is not supposed to be that way." -- Sept. 12, 2016, on CNBC.

    "We are in a big, fat, ugly bubble, and we had better be awfully careful, and we have a Fed that's doing political things. This Janet Yellen of the Fed. The Fed is doing political ... by keeping the interest rates at this level." — Sept. 26, 2016, during the first general election presidential debate.


    "I do like a low-interest rate policy, I must be honest with you. ... No, not toast. I like her, I respect her." -- Wednesday to the Wall Street Journal.

    That's a lot. Despite all of it, White House press secretary Sean Spicer contended it's not Trump changing, it's everything else changing in Trump's direction.

    "If you look at what's happened, it's those entities or individuals in some cases or issues evolving towards the president's position," Spicer said, per NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. "NATO, in particular, he talked about the need of countries to pay their fair share, to live up to their commitments of 2 percent of GDP. He talked about the need for NATO to focus more on terrorism. NATO has done just that."

    (See our fact-check on this very point in point No. 1 above.)

    Trump is undoubtedly — let's call it — ideologically flexible. There were plenty of Trump flip-flops from before entering politics to his campaign. He went from "very pro-choice," for example, to floating the idea of jailing women who get abortions.

    There is potentially some advantage to being malleable. It could help him make deals. Mike McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia, said on MSNBC on Wednesday that Trump's unpredictability has the Russians worried — and it can be one of his biggest assets.

    This unpredictability was employed by another U.S. president, Richard Nixon. His "Madman Theory" was employed to keep the Soviet Union and Vietnam, for example, off balance.

    Barton Swaim, a former aide to Mark Sanford when he was governor of South Carolina, picked up on this in an op-ed in the Washington Post in December and made the case for Trump this way:

    "[E]vents have a way of upending presidents' worldviews — George W. Bush, remember, rejected "nation building" as a presidential candidate — and it's just conceivable that Trump may use his cunning to accomplish worthier goals than his myriad critics think him inclined to pursue. Trump, in other words — the madman, not in theory, but in practice — may bring off some creditable diplomatic victories precisely because foreign leaders and their emissaries don't feel it's in their interest to test the White House."

    But the downside can be huge. Dana Milbank wrote about it in December, too:

    "[I]n Trump's application of the Madman Theory there seems to be less theory than madman. There may be advantages to keeping foes and opponents off guard, but Trump is baffling friends and allies, too. In foreign affairs, unpredictability spooks allies and spreads instability. And unpredictable policy at home has long been seen as toxic for business. ... The widespread chaos suggests Trump isn't signaling new policies as much as he's winging it. His unpredictability is not a theory. It's the absence of one."

    So, crazy? Or crazy like a fox?

    Where you come down on that is probably another dividing line between Trump opponents and supporters.

    Regardless, both sides should be able to agree that Americans deserve to know where politicians stand, what they intend to do, how they will lead and, if they change, why.

    When it comes to the Trump presidency, one thing is clear — anything can happen.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.