A look at President Trump’s first six months in office

U.S. President Donald Trump, center, signs an executive order at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, D.C. U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. Trump acted on two of the most fundamental -- and controversial -- elements of his presidential campaign, building a wall on the border with Mexico and greatly tightening restrictions on who can enter the U.S. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Pool via Bloomberg (Chip Somodevilla/Bloomberg)

Maybe it was a joke?

This is the eternal undercurrent of the Trump era: Does he actually mean what he says? Is he riffing? Is he joking? Is he serious? Is he exaggerating? Is he lying? President Trump’s conversations and statements and braggadocio all live in the same nebulous cloud encompassing all of those possibilities, a Schrodinger’s box in which the cat has no fixed state until you look inside — and even then you’re likely to be told that the very dead cat you’re holding is, in fact, alive.

So we have a transcript from an interview Trump gave to the Economist magazine.

ECONOMIST: Beyond that, it’s okay if the tax plan increases the deficit?
TRUMP: It is okay, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll … you understand the expression “prime the pump”?
TRUMP: We have to prime the pump.
ECONOMIST: It’s very Keynesian.
TRUMP: We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?
ECONOMIST: Priming the pump?
TRUMP: Yeah, have you heard it?
TRUMP: Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just … I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.

Asking an Economist writer if he or she has heard the expression “prime the pump” is like asking Sports Illustrated writers if they’ve heard of “RBIs” or asking someone at Playboy if they’re aware that you can have your body surgically enhanced. Of course they have heard the term, because Trump, contrary to what he suggests, didn’t invent the phrase, much less come up with it “a couple of days ago.”

Merriam-Webster, which has embraced insulting Trump by tweeting out the definitions of things in the news, was quick to explain the genesis of the expression. It predates not only this week, but Trump himself.

But we also know Trump didn’t invent the phrase because he has used it any number of times in the past.

• He said it in an interview with Fox News Channel last month: “It’ll take a period of time, and you’re going to have some deficits in the meantime, it’s, sort of, called priming the pump, you have to prime the pump, but look, the numbers just came out yesterday really, the real numbers.”

• He said it in a speech in December: “We’re going to prime the pump. We’re going to prime the pump. We got to get the jobs. We got 96 million people out there. We got to get them going, and they want to work.”

• He said it in his interview with Time magazine when he was awarded the “Person of the Year” title: “Well, sometimes you have to prime the pump.”

So we return to the initial question: Was he joking?

In normal circumstances, it seems like the natural assumption. A written transcript necessarily strips out the manner in which words were said, and Trump does have a habit of nudgingly toying with those to whom he’s speaking. “Ya ever heard of it,” Trump might say, winking to the reporters from the Economist.

During his many television interviews, President Trump often leaves his interviewers with more questions than answers. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

But Trump also has a habit of exaggerating his own achievements to make himself seem more impressive. It’s so common by now that one might assume it’s ingrained in his personality, taking a standard observation and puffing it up with a few “great, great” modifiers or tacking on a “nobody’s ever seen this before!” Everything is the easiest and the best and the biggest and the greatest, and many things got that way because of Trump. So maybe that’s the deal: Trump simply slipped into his long-standing pattern of taking credit where it wasn’t due.

That’s the big picture of this small comment. Nearly anyone else would be given the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t seriously asking the Economist if they’d ever heard the expression “prime the pump.” Perhaps another politician saying it would have been excoriated by his political opponents, sure. But in nearly no other circumstance would people read that, stop and think, “Wait. Does he really think he made that up?”

On the campaign trail, Trump did take credit for the genesis of two other expressions. In July, he claimed to have invented the term “crooked Hillary.” The prior December, he bragged about making up “low-energy Jeb.”

Those, we can be confident he actually invented.