Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. (Michael Reynolds/EPA)

It’s no longer surprising when the president of the United States makes a basic factual error. Such is par for the course in the Trump era. But for a long-tenured member of his Cabinet to make the same mistake several days later, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did Sunday morning, is worrying on a different level.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Mnuchin was tasked with defending the president’s signing Friday of a $1.3 trillion spending bill, to the scorn of many on the far right. Asked by host Chris Wallace what the president would do if congressional Republicans sent Trump another spending bill of this size later this year, Mnuchin repeated a suggestion that President Trump made Friday: Congress should give him the power of “line-item veto,” i.e. the ability to veto portions of the bill without vetoing the whole.

The problem? As Wallace pointed out, “that’s been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, sir.”

Wallace is correct: The Supreme Court ruled the line-item veto unconstitutional in 1998. But instead of conceding his mistake, Mnuchin dug himself in deeper: “Well, again, Congress could pass a rule, okay, that allows them to do it.” When Wallace pointed out that “No, no, sir, it would be a constitutional amendment,” Mnuchin stammered, “Chris, we don’t need to get into a debate in terms of — there’s different ways of doing this” and moved on.

A defender of the administration may argue that Mnuchin was referring to subsequent efforts by the George W. Bush administration and Congress to pass new versions of the line-item veto. But where the traditional line-item veto allowed the president to unilaterally enact the legislation while simultaneously vetoing individual provisions, those proposals would have required Trump to send the bills back to Congress for another vote — a far weaker power. Given that the president also called Friday for ending the Senate filibuster — which would radically transform the upper house — it seems unlikely that Trump had the watered-down version of the veto in mind. Regardless, Mnuchin was caught off guard to learn that the line-item veto had been ruled unconstitutional.

The president’s track record of obviously incorrect statements is so long at this point that it would have been more surprising for him to acknowledge the Supreme Court’s ruling than for him not to. After all, it seems Trump thinks the three branches of government are the presidency and the two houses of Congress, not the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court. He also seems to be consistently surprised that the legislative branch of the government does not work for the executive branch. And given that he was under the gun to sign a spending bill he only recently decided that he opposed, a factually questionable outburst was in the cards.

That a member of his Cabinet made the same error two days later is far more disturbing. The Sunday talk shows may not be as important as they used to be, but White House officials do not usually go on them unprepared. For Mnuchin to make this mistake days later means two things: 1.) The treasury secretary, more than a year into his tenure, is not aware of basic budget-making procedure; 2.) Either no one else senior enough at the White House to prepare Mnuchin knew those basics, or no one was organized enough to prep the one Cabinet member to appear on any of the Sunday shows this weekend.

In the president’s first 400 days, we’ve seen plenty of government by amateurs. But as “record-setting turnover” in Trump’s White House continues apace, his administration seems determined to mine new levels of incompetence. Mnuchin would play a critical role in the next economic crisis. If he can’t get something so basic right, what chance does the country have when things get tough?

On – 26 Mar, 2018 By James Downie

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