White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is seen during a press briefing at the White House on Jan. 11. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Media critic

In a memorable Politico Magazine piece in 2016, former tabloid journalist Susan Mulcahy poked at the dishonesty behind President Trump’s demonization of the media. “Today, Trump calls reporters ‘disgusting,’ ” wrote Mulcahy. “That’s the biggest lie of all. I’d argue that his longest and most intimate relationship is with the media, who offer so many opportunities for him to gaze at the person he loves most.”

Such adoration pours out of a transcript published by the Wall Street Journal of an interview between the president and several reporters at the financial newspaper. At one point in the proceedings, Trump pronounced himself pleased with one of the newspaper’s stories: “A lot of tremendous things are happening in the United States, including the fact that you can now live without being strangled by regulation. You people actually wrote one of the best stories that I’ve ever seen on regulation; you said more than any president in history,” said Trump. “That was the full pager.” After a rep of the Journal responded in the affirmative, Trump continued, “I mean I actually read it because I’ve never seen a full page — it’s actually a full page article.”

Again, a Journal interviewer responded in the affirmative, and again Trump marveled at the layout: “But, it was a full pager and essentially said there’s never been a president that’s been anywhere close on regulation.”

That part of the interview transcript isn’t in doubt; another part is, big-time. In a part of the dialogue relating to foreign policy, the Journal quotes the president as follows:

With that being said, President Xi has been extremely generous with what he’s said, I like him a lot. I have a great relationship with him, as you know I have a great relationship with Prime Minister Abe of Japan and I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea.

I have relationships with people, I think you people are surprised.

Bolding added to highlight the words that have fueled a several-days-long controversy. The way White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tells it, the White House objected to this transcription as early as Friday, insisting that the president used a different formulation: “I’d probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea.” Here’s Sanders on Twitter:

Trump, too:

The Journal posted a reply to the White House request:

Journalist Yashar Ali came down in favor of “I’d”:

The Erik Wemple Blog has listened to the dueling audiotapes. There’ll be no verdict coming from these parts on whether Trump uttered a contraction or merely a pronoun.

What is remarkable about the episode, however, is how quickly Team Trump goes from loving the Wall Street Journal and its regulatory coverage to denouncing it as fake news — over a split second of an interview with an ambiguous transcription. A lack of self-awareness has to kick off any explanation of the contretemps: Trump speaks in ways that discombobulate anyone seeking to write down his words. “Trump is a very sloppy speaker,” said transcription expert Elizabeth Pennell to CNBC during the 2016 presidential election. “He is very hard to transcribe and because what he says can be such a bombshell and so badly parsed by the consuming public and the media, you just got to take so much more care. Because everybody out there is literally hanging on every word he says in a way I have never seen happen before in a race.”

Look again at the way Trump set up this sequence, according to the Journal.

With that being said, President Xi has been extremely generous with what he’s said, I like him a lot (1). I have a great relationship with him (2), as you know I have a great relationship with Prime Minister Abe of Japan (3) and I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea (4).

I have relationships with people (5), I think you people are surprised.

Take a look: There are five statements highlighted above, four of which aren’t in dispute. Those four — 1, 2, 3 and 5 — are all in the present tense, indicative mood — meaning that they are statements of fact or belief. Perhaps because Trump was stringing together several such sentences, the Journal defaulted to a present-indicative transcription of the disputed sentence, No. 4. A quick listen to the audiotape, too, appears to confirm as much.

What Trump claims, however, is that he changed up the mood of his verb in the disputed sentence, from “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea” to “I’d probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea.” That’s a significant change, one involving the conditional mood, which is a way of expressing a thought that is dependent on some other outcome. Which is to say, it’s a way of stating a fantasy. I would be very happy if Trump were to stop attacking the “fake news” media.

What’s so strange about Trump’s diction here is that he decided to use a contraction: “I’d probably” instead of “I would probably.” It’s an odd way of proceeding because Trump was presumably trying to stress that he would have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea if such-and-such circumstances emerged. Yet in this passage, Trump doesn’t specify the conditions under which he would have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea.

So: Even if the White House is right about the transcript, the president still makes no sense.

One moment, the Wall Street Journal is a glorious publication that runs “full pagers” on deregulation; the next moment, it’s a purveyor of “fake news” because of a transcription squabble. In a speech he’s drafting on Trump’s approach to the media, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) has written, “I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of ‘fake news’ are dubious, at best.”