Donald Trump looking at things

How to tell the difference between what the president will actually do and what he's only 'looking at'

President Trump is looking into it.
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Trump is a man who likes to look at things. Beautiful women, beautiful buildings, beautiful vistas — you put something nice in front of him, and he'll give it a good, long look.

It's not just natural and human-made wonders that attract Trump's penetrating gaze. It's also policy proposals, i.e. thoughts about changing existing laws and enacting new ones. But when you hear Trump say he's "looking at" something, don't worry. He almost never means it.

This has become the standard Trump response to a sweeping variety of policy questions: "We're looking at that." It's a way of saying that he neither favors nor opposes whatever has just been suggested to him, but that he's giving it serious consideration. It's also a way of conveying not just action and assertiveness, but the notion that he's so on top of things that whatever you just asked about, he's already on it. They're looking into it right now.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

So for instance, when a woman at one of his campaign rallies told him, "We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims," and asked him, "When can we get rid of them?" he replied, "We're going to be looking at a lot of different things, and a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We're going to be looking at that and plenty of other things." On a separate yet similar occasion, another rally attendee suggested that we "get rid of all these heebeejabies they wear" at TSA, and replace the presumably Muslim women wearing them with military veterans. "We are looking at that," Trump said. "We're looking at a lot of things."

In the first case, they really were looking at it; the result was the travel ban that got struck down by the courts. But sometimes when Trump says he's "looking at" something, it seems to be because an interviewer brought it up, and although he hasn't given it much thought, it sounds like something popular that he might want to pretend to be in favor of. Consider this, from a recent interview with Bloomberg News:

President Donald Trump said he's actively considering a break up of giant Wall Street banks, giving a push to efforts to revive a Depression-era law separating consumer and investment banking."I'm looking at that right now," Trump said of breaking up banks in the 30-minute Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News. "There's some people that want to go back to the old system, right? So we're going to look at that." [Bloomberg]

Spoiler alert: President Trump and the collection of Wall Street figures dominating his administration are most definitely not looking at breaking up the banks. In that same interview he also said he'd consider raising the gas tax to fund an infrastructure bill; given that 87 percent of sitting Republicans in both the House and Senate have literally signed a pledge to never, ever raise taxes, that one isn't going to happen either.

Even those who work for Trump have started using this rhetorical tic. On Sunday, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was asked on ABC's This Week about Trump's frequent suggestion to "open up the libel laws" so he could sue news organizations whose coverage he finds displeasing. "I think it's something that we've looked at," Priebus said. When pressed on the fact that it would require amending the Constitution to essentially do away with the First Amendment, he responded, "I already answered the question. I said this is something that is being looked at." So there. Maybe he'll get to it once they figure out who cast those three million illegal votes for Hillary Clinton, something else they're supposedly looking into, but actually aren't.

Given how Trump's underlings are forced to jump at even his most ludicrous suggestions and publicly pretend that they're completely serious, it wouldn't surprise me if they actually may be "looking into" some of these things. Perhaps they assign an intern to the task, just so they can tell the president they're working on it if he ever asks. But they've also institutionalized looking at things as a substitute for genuine action.

By now you've probably heard the administration boast of how many executive orders Trump has signed as evidence of his tremendously active and accomplishment-filled presidency. He has signed orders on topics as diverse as national monuments, steel imports, the Affordable Care Act, reorganizing government, eliminating regulations, and reducing the federal role in education. But in all those cases and many others, the order didn't actually do much of anything, other than instruct the executive branch to study or investigate the matter. In other words, they're looking at it.

More often than not, the looking-at-it claim is a way to say an idea sounds potentially appealing, without taking a firm position. Asked not long after he took office whether DREAMers would be allowed to stay in the U.S., Trump said, "We're looking at this, the whole immigration situation, we're looking at it with great heart." And there isn't necessarily anything wrong with being noncommittal. Much of the time Trump appears to say it because he either hasn't decided what he wants to do or hadn't ever thought about it before, but he doesn't want to be so candid as to admit that.

But if you look at the things Trump actually does, most of the time they aren't the things he said he'd be looking at. When he's more emphatic about something, chances are much higher that he'll at least try to do it, even if he fails — repealing the Affordable Care Act, building a wall on the southern border, cutting taxes. When he says he's looking at something, on the other hand, it's a good bet that as soon as he gets asked the next question, he will have completely forgotten about what he said he was going to be looking at.

And frankly, most of the time that's just as well. He can look all he wants. The real problem is what he's doing.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a senior writer with The American Prospect magazine and a blogger for The Washington Post. His writing has appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines, and web sites, and he is the author or co-author of four books on media and politics.