Donald Trump’s changing views have attracted attention, and criticism, during his run for the Republican presidential nomination. But how much of this stems from actual changes in position from one day to the next, and how much stems from his penchant for using confusing, vague and even contradictory language?
We decided to look into this question by scrutinizing a few of Trump’s alleged changes of position. We concluded that it’s a little of both.
In choosing these six issues, we decided to look at a half-dozen issues where Trump has been accused of changing his views during the course of the campaign. We ignored topics where Trump has been accused of flip-flopping over the course of many years. (He was, after all, a private citizen rather than a declared candidate for high office until recently.)
We’re highlighting reversals in order, starting with the clearest reversal and moving toward the murkiest.
On whether women should be punished for getting an abortion
First instance: In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, March 30, 2016, Trump said women should be punished.
Matthews: "No, should the woman be punished for having an abortion? … This is not something you can dodge. … If you say abortion is a crime or abortion is murder, you have to deal with it under law. Should abortion be punished?"
Trump: "Well, people in certain parts of the Republican Party and conservative Republicans would say, ‘yes, they should be punished.’ "
Matthews: "How about you?"
Trump: "I would say that it’s a very serious problem. And it’s a problem that we have to decide on. It’s very hard." ...
Matthews: "Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?"
Trump: "The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment."
Matthews: "For the woman."
Trump: "Yeah, there has to be some form."
Matthews: "Ten cents? Ten years? What?"
Trump: "I don’t know. That I don’t know. That I don’t know."...
Matthews: "A fine, imprisonment for a young woman who finds herself pregnant?"
Trump: "It will have to be determined."
Second instance: In a statement on the Trump campaign website, March 30, 2016, Trump says women are victims of abortion.
"If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb."
This is as clear a reversal as they come -- it came within hours, and directly from the campaign, which is a rarity for Trump.
On raising the minimum wage
First instance: In an interview with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Aug. 20, 2015, Trump wouldn’t endorse a higher minimum wage.
"We're competing -- It's the United States against other places, Joe, where the taxes are lower, where the wages are lower, where lots of things are lower. Now, I want to create jobs so that you don't have to worry about the minimum wage. They're doing a great job that they're making much more than the minimum wage. But I think having a low minimum wage is not a bad thing for this country, Mika."
Second instance: In an interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press on May 8, 2016, Trump said the minimum wage is too low.
"I don't know how people make it on $7.25 an hour. Now, with that being said, I would like to see an increase of some magnitude. But I'd rather leave it to the states. Let the states decide. … I think people should get more. … I don't know how you live on $7.25 an hour."
This is also a reasonably clear shift, tonally and substantively, though Trump’s advocacy for local variations in the minimum wage is worth noting.
On defunding Planned Parenthood
First instance: Trump said in interview on Fox News Sunday on Oct. 18, 2015, that Planned Parenthood should be defunded.
"Planned Parenthood should absolutely be defunded. I mean, if you look at what's going on with that, it's terrible. And many of the things should be defunded and many things should be cut."
Second instance: Trump had more positive things to say at a Republican debate in Houston on Feb. 25, 2016.
"As far as Planned Parenthood is concerned, I'm pro-life. I'm totally against abortion, having to do with Planned Parenthood. But millions and millions of women -- cervical cancer, breast cancer -- are helped by Planned Parenthood. So you can say whatever you want, but they have millions of women going through Planned Parenthood that are helped greatly. And I wouldn't fund it. I would defund it because of the abortion factor, which they say is 3 percent. I don't know what percentage it is. They say it's 3 percent. But I would defund it, because I'm pro-life. But millions of women are helped by Planned Parenthood."
These two statements are different primarily in tone, not substance. In both cases, Trump said he would defund Planned Parenthood, but in the second instance, he also applauds some of the work the group does.
On the future of NATO
First instance: Trump commented somewhat ambivalently on the NATO military alliance in an interview with the Washington Post editorial board, March 21, 2016.
"I see NATO as a good thing to have ... No, I don’t want to pull (out of it). NATO was set up at a different time. NATO was set up when we were a richer country. We’re not a rich country. We’re borrowing, we’re borrowing all of this money. We’re borrowing money from China, which is a sort of an amazing situation. But things are a much different thing. NATO is costing us a fortune and yes, we’re protecting Europe but we’re spending a lot of money. … We’re not reimbursed fairly for what we do. We’re constantly, you know, sending our ships, sending our planes, doing our war games, doing other. We’re reimbursed a fraction of what this is all costing."
Second instance: Trump seemed more negative about NATO in an interview with ABC’s This Week, March 27, 2016.
"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. We have the threat of terrorism and NATO doesn’t discuss terrorism, NATO's not meant for terrorism. NATO doesn’t have the right countries in it for terrorism. And what I'm saying is that we pay, number one, a totally disproportionate share of NATO. We're spending the biggest, the lion share's paid for by us, disproportionate to other countries. … NATO is obsolete and it's extremely expensive to the United States, disproportionately so. And we should readjust NATO. And it's going to have to be either readjusted to take care of terrorism or we're going to have to set up a new -- a new coalition, a new group of countries to handle terrorism because terrorism is out of control."
Trump’s underlying critique of the U.S.-European alliance is basically consistent in both interviews, but in the first instance, he twice made a point of saying he wouldn’t pull the United States out of NATO, while in the second he didn’t, and instead played up how "obsolete" NATO is. That’s at least a rhetorical difference, though it’s unclear how much of a substantive one.
On raising taxes on wealthier Americans
Tax Policy Center analysis: "On average, households at all income levels would receive tax cuts, but the highest-income households would receive the largest cuts, both in dollars and as a percentage of income. The highest-income 1 percent would get an average tax cut of over $275,000 (17.5 percent of after-tax income), and the top 0.1 percent would get an average tax cut worth over $1.3 million, nearly 19 percent of after-tax income. By contrast, the lowest-income households would receive an average tax cut of $128, or 1 percent of after-tax income."
Second instance: Trump said he might raise taxes on the wealthy during an interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press, May 8, 2016
"I have no illusions. I don't think that's going to be the final plan. Because they are going to come to me, including the Democrats and everybody else, they're going to come to me. They're going to want to negotiate. But that's a floor. That's where we're starting. … The rich (are) probably going to end up paying more. And business might have to pay a little bit more."
Third instance: In an interview with the Wall Street Journal on May 10, 2016 Trump suggested tax cuts for the wealthy might be less than in his proposal.
Wall Street Journal: "What makes you think that Democrats will be willing to negotiate on this when they say taxes should go up on high income people not — up not down, just less than you want them to go down?"
Trump: "Well, they may go up on high-income people, based on my proposal. In other words, at the proposal level, not at the — where they are now level."
These seem different, but may not necessarily be. Trump takes advantage of two sources of uncertainty: First, how a much a final bill will differ from his original proposal, and second, whether you compare the new taxation level for the wealthy to their current level of taxation, or to what they would have gotten under his original proposal. Altogether, we found this a confusing discussion.
On renegotiating U.S. debt
First instance: In an interview with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin and Becky Quick on May 5, 2016, Trump discussed how he would approach paying down the federal debt.
Sorkin: "Mr. Trump, you talk about debt. And you are to some degree the king of debt. I appreciate that point. You have also renegotiated debt agreements over the years. Do you believe that we, in terms of the United States need to pay a hundred cents on the dollar, or do you think that there's actually ways that we can renegotiate that debt?"
Trump: "Yeah, I think -- look. I have borrowed, knowing that you can pay back with discounts. And I have done very well with debt. Now, of course, I was swashbuckling, and it did well for me and it was good for me and all that. And you know, debt was sort of always interesting to me. Now we're in a different situation with the country. But I would borrow, knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal. And if the economy was good, it was good. So, therefore, you can't lose. It's like, you know, you make a deal before you go into a poker game, and your odds are so much better." ...
Quick: "I understand that you've done this in business deals, but are you suggesting we would negotiate with the U.S. credit in such a way?"
Trump: "No, I think this. I think there are times for us to refinance. We refinance debt with longer term. Because you know, we owe so much money. … I could see long-term renegotiations, where we borrow long-term at very low rates." ...
Quick: "But let's be clear. I mean, you're not talking about renegotiating sovereign bonds that the U.S. has already issued?"
Trump: "No. I don't want to renegotiate the bonds. But I think you can do discounting, I think, you know, depending on where interest rates are, I think you can buy back. You can -- I'm not talking about with a renegotiation, but you can buy back at discounts, you can do things with discounts. … I would refinance debt. I think we should refinance longer-term debt."
Second instance: Trump seemed to walk back those comments in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, on May 10, 2016
Trump: "I’m only saying you can buy back. Look, this isn’t a real estate deal where you can go in and buy out a mortgage at a big discount because the market crashes, okay? This is the United States government. The bonds are absolutely sacred. … I’m saying if interest rates go up, you can buy debt at a discount on the market — just on the market. You just buy back debt on — at a discount."
Wall Street Journal: "And so the U.S. government should spend its money to go buy back its bonds and --"
Trump: "Well, if they can make good deals. If they can buy the debt back at good deals, you could buy it back in the market. And if rates go up, you’ll always — you’re always given that opportunity. But no, I’m not talking about negotiating with — with people that own the debt or creditors or anything like that."
Trump’s initial comments stirred concern in the United States and around the world, because high investor confidence in the United States’ ability to pay back its creditors has been the bedrock of the country’s low borrowing costs and a linchpin of the international economy. Renegotiating bonds would risk all that -- and probably wouldn’t even work. "No one on the other side would pick up the phone if the secretary of the U.S. Treasury tried to make that call," Lou Crandall, the chief economist at Wrightson ICAP, told the New York Times. "Why should they? They have a contract" requiring payment in full.
The second time, Trump said that "the bonds are absolutely sacred," presumably an effort to ease the concerns inspired by his initial comments. But Trump still floats changes in how the United States handles policy with creditors. While he rules out "negotiating" with creditors, he opened the door to "buying back" bonds at a discount on the open market. Such a policy might not pass muster with those worried about the international economic effects.
Donald Trump, interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, March 30, 2016
Donald Trump, statement on his campaign website, March 30, 2016
Donald Trump, interview with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Aug. 20, 2015
Donald Trump, interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press, May 8, 2016
Donald Trump, interview on Fox News Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015
Donald Trump, remarks at a Republican debate in Houston, Feb. 25, 2016
Donald Trump, interview with the Washington Post editorial board, March 21, 2016
Donald Trump, interview with ABC’s This Week, March 27, 2016
Donald Trump, tax proposal, accessed May 11, 2016
Donald Trump, interview with the Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2016
Donald Trump, interview with CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin and Becky Quick, May 5, 2016
Analysis of Donald Trump’s tax plan by the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, Dec. 22, 2015
Politico, "Donald Trump’s Greatest Self-Contradictions," May 5, 2016