One reason the minimum wage plays so well as a political issue is that it’s a pretty simple policy. The federal government mandates a minimum wage that serves as a baseline wage floor for the entire country. Either you want to raise it, or you don’t.
But good luck figuring out where Donald Trump stands on the issue.
First, some background. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, meaning all U.S. workers covered under the law are entitled to at least that much. But states can set their own wage floors higher than the federal level if they want to, and a majority of them already have. In the states that haven’t, the federal rate of $7.25 prevails.
The most pertinent question for a presidential candidate is whether he or she thinks the federal minimum wage should be raised. Trump has staked out conflicting positions on the minimum wage throughout his campaign.
Last year, he said in a television interview that a low wage floor isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And in a primary debate, he infamously said that American wages were already “too high,” suggesting hiking the minimum wage would be bad for the economy.
After those words were used against him to great effect, Trump later said that U.S. wages were in fact “too low.” Once he was close to locking up the necessary delegates for the GOP nomination and was presumably shifting his focus to the general election, he said he was “very different” from other Republicans and was “looking at” the idea of raising the minimum wage. “I mean, you have to have something that you can live on,” he said.
Then, in May, Trump said the question of the minimum wage is best left to the states. “I’d rather the states go out and do what they have to do,” he said.
In case Trump hadn’t confused you enough, he managed to muddy the issue even more in the past 24 hours, thanks to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In his Democratic National Convention speech, Sanders said that Trump wanted to give states the leeway to set minimum wages even lower than the federal level. As PolitiFact noted, this line appears to be a reference to Trump’s statement in May that the issue should be left to the states.
The logic of Sanders’ statement was sound ― after all, Trump said he wants to leave this whole mess to the states. But the Vermont senator took some liberties with the implications. So long as there is a federal minimum wage of $7.25, workers are entitled to earn at least that much, regardless of where a state sets its own wage floor. Trump has not called for abolishing the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Regardless, the GOP nominee took the bait in an interview on Tuesday night.
Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly directly asked Trump the question that needed to be asked ― not what Trump would do with the minimum wage in general, but what he would do with the federal minimum wage in particular.
Trump’s answer spoke volumes. “I would leave it and raise it somewhat,” he responded, managing to pack a whopping policy contradiction into a mere eight words. “You need to help people. I know it’s not very Republican to say. But you need to help people.”
Trump then named a specific number: “I would say $10.”
But then, seconds later, he was back to foisting this decision onto the states, rather than the federal government.
“The thing is, Bill, let the states make the deal.”
The vacillation wasn’t over. In a press conference Wednesday morning, Trump seemed to suggest once again that the feds should be boosting the wage floor. He called Sanders “a liar” for his remarks.
“It has to go up,” Trump said. “I would like to raise it to at least $10.”
There, Trump appeared to be saying he would like to raise the federal minimum wage to $10. After all, a president has no say over state minimum wages ― he or she can only raise the federal one, by signing a bill sent from the Congress.
So, to recap: Trump thinks wages are already too high, and maybe a low minimum wage is okay. But he also thinks wages are too low, and perhaps the federal minimum wage needs to go up. Except this is really a question that’s best left to the states, not the federal government. But if Trump wins federal office, he would like to see the minimum wage be $10.
Got all that?