Trump’s base wasted little time in embracing the idea, even though it was a tacit acknowledgment that Trump couldn’t be trusted to represent his views accurately. A noteworthy example came from Trump’s ally Peter Thiel, the man who secretly bankrolled lawsuits meant to kneecap the website Gawker.
“I think a lot of the voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally,” Thiel said at an event last October. “And so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment or things like that, the question is not ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.’ ‘We’re going to try to figure out how do we strike the right balance between costs and benefits.’”
Since Trump was inaugurated, of course, we’ve learned that the Trump comments on the wall, Muslim immigration and government spending were indeed meant to be taken literally — and seriously.
But we’ve also learned that there is an escape hatch to literally everything that the president says, as identified Monday by press secretary Sean Spicer.
Zito’s “serious-not-literal” formulation was in response to Trump’s frequent claims that the unemployment numbers were phony, made up or manipulated. When Spicer was asked whether Trump still believed that the numbers were fake after Friday’s strong jobs report was released, Spicer laughingly assured the press that the numbers were no longer phony but now very real.
That exchange was raised Monday by NBC’s Peter Alexander.
“When he says something, can we trust that it’s real, or should we assume that it’s phony?” Alexander asked.
Spicer assured Alexander that Trump’s words could be trusted.
“How can we believe that it’s real when you just told us that it’s phony then, but now it’s real?” Alexander pressed. “How can we trust anything he says, that he won’t later say, actually it was the opposite?”
Spicer replied by trying to describe Trump’s comments about employment numbers as, in a sense, being accurate. (They were not.)
“The bottom line is,” Alexander asked, “the question that you still have not answered is: Can you say affirmatively that whenever the president says something, we can trust it to be real?”
“If he’s not joking, of course,” Spicer replied. “Every time that he speaks, he’s speaking as president of the United States.”
This is a much broader cop-out than the literal-vs.-serious formulation. Trump doesn’t really tell jokes so much as he levels insults in a biting, sardonic way. When he said that Sen. John McCain wasn’t a hero, that wasn’t a joke. When he suggested that the judge ruling on Trump University couldn’t be fair because of his ethnic heritage, that wasn’t a joke either. Trump’s comments about employment were never offered humorously either. While Spicer wasn’t necessarily saying that the employment number or the evidence-free wiretapping accusations were intended as jokes (though he did claim Trump didn’t really mean the latter), it’s not clear when he was suggesting the standard be applied.
Trump’s tried this before. Last August, when he spent several days referring to Barack Obama as the “founder of” the Islamic State, Trump tried to pass off the comments as a joke. It wasn’t, of course; his explanation was an attempt to try to wiggle out of controversial comments by characterizing them as being insincere. In that way, he was hoping to use the Zito formulation to his advantage, just as Spicer was Monday: He was being intentionally unserious, and the fault lies with you for reading it as literal.
Parents, elementary school teachers and those who’ve ever used social media will recognize this excuse for what it is: a cop-out. This is one of the oldest deflections from criticism that there is. “I was just joking” is probably carved into some cave wall somewhere, right after a rude drawing of Grok that got someone into trouble.
There’s one time on the campaign trail that Trump did offer actual jokes. At the Al Smith dinner in New York last fall, Trump and Clinton were meant to offer incisive critiques of one another, part of the dinner’s tradition. Trump’s jokes mostly landed very flat — and were seen by people in the room and watching from home as far too harsh for the moment. What’s more, he clearly meant the sentiment that those jokes contained.
Peter Alexander wasn’t done questioning Spicer. So were Trump’s claims that millions voted illegally — totally meritless claims, mind you — a joke, Alexander asked. Those, Spicer said, were serious.
That’s the other problem, of course. Just because the president is being serious doesn’t mean his claims aren’t occasionally laughable.