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Trump Teases, Threatens And Dodges With 'We'll See What Happens'

President Donald J. Trump speaks during the Heritage Foundation's President's Club meeting on October 17, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Getty Images
President Donald J. Trump speaks during the Heritage Foundation's President's Club meeting on October 17, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Less than a week before chief strategist Steve Bannon was axed from the White House President Trump said, "We'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon."

The day before announcing he wouldn't re-certify the Iran nuclear deal Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox News, "We will see what happens, pretty soon."

Trump's frequent use of phrases like "big league" and "believe me" have gotten plenty of attention. But functionally those are filler words, without much meaning in practice. "We'll see what happens" is different. It can be a veiled threat, an admission that the president doesn't know what will happen, a tease or simply a way of blowing off a question.

"When Donald says 'we'll see' what he's really trying to do is get you off balance and at the same time avoid answering the question," said David Cay Johnston, investigative journalist and author of The Making of Donald Trump.

Johnston, who has covered Trump for almost 30 years, said the president is creating uncertainty with this phrase.

"Which may be because he doesn't have an answer. It may be because he's not sure he understands the question or a host of other reasons," Johnston said. "But it puts him in a position of power and it destabilizes your thinking — whether it's you directly as the journalist he's talking to, or the broader audience or a head of state in another nation."

It can be hard to tell what exactly the president is telegraphing any given time he uses the phrase.

Here are some of the more than 100 times this year that Trump has said, "We'll see what happens" or "We will see what happens":

With regard to other countries

In early October, Trump, while posing for a photo with military leaders made a reference to "the calm before the storm." This spurred days of questions about what he meant and whether he was referring to North Korea. Trump's response boiled down to "we'll see what happens."

"We're going to see what happens with North Korea. That's all I can say. We're going to see what happens. We're totally prepared for numerous things. We are going to see what happens with North Korea."

Back in April, he said much the same thing when asked in an interview on Fox News whether he had ruled out a military strike against North Korea.

"I don't want to telegraph what I'm doing, or what I'm thinking. I'm not like other administrations, where they say we're going to do this in four weeks and that. ... It doesn't work that way. We'll see what happens. I hope things work out well. I hope there's going to be peace, but you know. They've been talking with this gentleman for a long time."

In a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump was asked whether he would he reconsider his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

"Something could happen with respect to the Paris Accord. We'll see what happens. But we will talk about that over the coming period of time. And if it happens, that'll be wonderful. And if it doesn't, that'll be OK too. But we'll see what happens. But we did discuss many things today, including the cease-fire in Syria. We discussed the Ukraine. We discussed a lot of different topics. We briefly hit on the Paris Accord, and we'll see what happens, OK?"

While meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office on Oct. 11, Trump was asked about ongoing negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"We're negotiating a NAFTA deal. It's time, after all of these years, and we'll see what happens. It's possible we won't be able to make a deal, and it's possible that we will."

In an interview with Fox's Sean Hannity, Trump was asked about how he was going to handle the Iran nuclear deal, a decision that had already been made and was announced two days later.

"Worst deal I've ever seen. We will see what happens pretty soon."

At a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump was asked about his campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

"As far as the embassy moving to Jerusalem, I'd love to see that happen. We're looking at it very, very strongly. We're looking at it with great care — great care, believe me. And we'll see what happens."

Trump now says he wants to give Middle East peace a shot before moving the embassy.

On relations with Congress

Trump frequently invokes "we'll see what happens" in relation to his effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

"We'll see what happens. I mean, you know, it's going along. And at some point there will be a repeal on my desk, but we'll see whether or not that point is now or will it be shortly thereafter."

On the prospects for enshrining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program, into law, he mixed uncertainty with optimism.

"So we're working on a plan, we'll see how it works out. But we're going to get massive border security as part of that, and I think something can happened, we'll see what happens, but something will happen."

Shortly before House Republicans pulled a planned March 23 vote on an Obamacare repeal, Trump speculated about its chances for passage.

"Today, the House is voting to repeal and replace the disaster known as Obamacare. We'll see what happens, going to be a very close vote."

Similarly, shortly before a budget vote the night of Oct. 19 in the Senate, Trump speculated about how the vote might turn out. It passed.

"I think we have the votes, and, frankly, I think we have the votes for the tax cuts which will follow fairly shortly thereafter. So we'll see what happens."

On staffing matters

There's one other circumstance in which Trump regularly turns to this phrase: when talking about people who are about to get fired.

Trump appeared on Fox Business Channel in April and was asked whether he should have fired former FBI Director James Comey when he first took office.

"You know I have confidence in him. We'll see what happens."

That was about a month before Comey got the ax.

At a press conference in Trump Tower a few days before Steve Bannon was fired, Trump was asked about his chief strategist's fate.

"We'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon but he's a good person and I think the press treats him frankly very unfairly."

That Friday he was out.

On the south lawn of the White House as he walked toward Marine One, Trump was asked about the employment prospects of embattled former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

"We'll see what happens. We'll see what happens."

Within about an hour of Trump saying "we'll see what happens," Price was out. Which is to say, sometimes "we'll see what happens" is code for: Pack your things.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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