Tess Torelli December 31, 2017

The interview is not done.

I know more about the big bills. … Than any president that’s ever been in office. Whether it’s health care and taxes. Especially taxes. And if I didn’t, I couldn’t have persuaded a hundred. … You ask Mark Meadows [inaudible]. … I couldn’t have persuaded a hundred congressmen to go along with the bill. The first bill, you know, that was ultimately, shockingly rejected … I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest C.P.A. I know the details of health care better than most, better than most. And if I didn’t, I couldn’t have talked all these people into doing ultimately only to be rejected.

In psychology, there’s an idea known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It refers to research by David Dunning and Justin Kruger that found the least competent people often believe they are the most competent because they “lack the very expertise needed to recognize how badly they’re doing.” This dynamic helps explain comments like the one Trump makes here.

Over the course of reporting on the Trump White House, I have spoken to people who brief Trump and people who have been briefed by him. I’ve talked to policy experts who have sat in the Oval Office explaining their ideas to the president and to members of Congress who have listened to the president sell his ideas to them. I’ve talked to both Democrats and Republicans who have occupied these roles. In all cases, their judgment of Trump is identical: He is not just notably uninformed but also notably difficult to inform — his attention span is thin, he hears what he wants to hear, he wanders off topic, he has trouble following complex arguments. Trump has trouble following his briefings or even correctly repeating what he has heard.

This is all perfectly evident if you listen to Trump discuss policy in public even momentarily. For instance, in this same New York Times interview, he tries to explain how he’s changed Obamacare:

So now I have associations, I have private insurance companies coming and will sell private health care plans to people through associations. That’s gonna be millions and millions of people. People have no idea how big that is. And by the way, and for that, we’ve ended across state lines. So we have competition. You know for that I’m allowed to [inaudible] state lines. So that’s all done.

Now I’ve ended the individual mandate. And the other thing I wish you’d tell people. So when I do this, and we’ve got health care, you know, McCain did his vote.

… We’ve created associations, millions of people are joining associations. Millions. That were formerly in Obamacare or didn’t have insurance. Or didn’t have health care. Millions of people. That’s gonna be a big bill, you watch. It could be as high as 50 percent of the people. You watch. So that’s a big thing. And the individual mandate. So now you have associations, and people don’t even talk about the associations. That could be half the people are going to be joining up. … With private [inaudible]. So now you have associations and the individual mandate.

I can, with some effort, untangle what Trump might have been trying to say here, but it’s incoherent, so suffused with half-related ideas and personal obsessions (why did Trump feel the need to bring up McCain’s vote here?) that it’s hard to say for sure.

At best, Trump is saying something that is comprehensible but incorrect. He signed an executive order making it easier to form association health plans, which are health plans formed by groups of small businesses, and making it easier for those plans to skirt Obamacare’s insurance regulations and to contain small businesses from multiple states.

As of now, and Trump doesn’t seem to realize this, it’s just an executive order — the rules defining and implementing it have not been written, so it is not yet happening, and we don’t know how it will work in practice, much less how many people may eventually sign up. Nor does the order actually get rid of the prohibition on selling insurance across state lines for most people — it’s only for this one kind of plan, which will only serve a tiny minority of the health insurance market.

Whatever Trump is saying, it does not reveal much familiarity with health policy, or even with the status and limits of his own actions. And yet Trump believes himself, on policy, to be the most informed president in American history. As the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests, he doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know, and that, combined with his natural tendency toward narcissism, has left him dangerously overconfident in his own knowledge base.

Speaking of narcissism:

We’re going to win another four years for a lot of reasons, most importantly because our country is starting to do well again and we’re being respected again. But another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, “Please, please, don’t lose Donald Trump.”

What is one even to say about this? Is it a joke? If so, why is Trump taking this opportunity to make it? Is it an attack on the media? Is it Trump finding another way to compliment himself, to give himself credit for the media’s success?

Imagine how we would react to literally any other president speaking like this. Trump has bludgeoned us into becoming accustomed to these kinds of comments but that, too, is worrying.

This is the president of the United States speaking to the New York Times. His comments are, by turns, incoherent, incorrect, conspiratorial, delusional, self-aggrandizing, and underinformed. This is not a partisan judgment — indeed, the interview is rarely coherent or specific enough to classify the points Trump makes on a recognizable left-right spectrum. As has been true since he entered American politics, Trump is interested in Trump — over the course of the interview, he mentions his Electoral College strategy seven times, in each case using it to underscore his political savvy and to suggest that he could easily have won the popular vote if he had tried.

I am not a medical professional, and I will not pretend to know what is truly happening here. It’s become a common conversation topic in Washington to muse on whether the president is suffering from some form of cognitive decline or psychological malady. I don’t think those hypotheses are necessary or meaningful. Whatever the cause, it is plainly obvious from Trump’s words that this is not a man fit to be president, that he is not well or capable in some fundamental way. That is an uncomfortable thing to say, and so many prefer not to say it, but Trump does not occupy a job where such deficiencies can be safely ignored.

Commentary by Ezra Klein. Follow him/her on Twitter @ezraklein.

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