Update: Trump doubled down on this assertion in a tweet Sunday morning, suggesting he'll keep pressing on this going forward. The below was posted Friday.
"If you can't run your own house you certainly can't run the White House" A statement made by Mrs. Obama about Crooked Hillary Clinton
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2016
Donald Trump offered a new justification on Friday for attacking Bill Clinton's indiscretions and Hillary Clinton's handling of them: Michelle Obama did it first.
Here's what Trump said in Fletcher, N.C.:
“And I see how [President Obama's] wife likes Hillary, but wasn’t she the one that originally started the statement, ‘If you can’t take care of your home,’ right, ‘you can’t take care of the White House or the country?’ Where's that? I don’t hear that. I don’t hear that. She’s the one that started it.”
Trump then offered this as a justification for invoking the Clintons' personal problems.
“I said, ‘We can’t say that. It’s too vicious.’ Can you believe it? I said that — ‘We can’t say that.’ They said, ‘Well, Michelle Obama said it.’ I said, ‘She did?’ ”
Well, not exactly — or, at least, not as Trump presented it. The fact is that the 2007 Michelle Obama statement Trump is referring to wasn't so clearly the dig at the Clintons that Trump would lead you to believe.
The remark in question came during an August 2007 event at which Michelle Obama spoke in Chicago. Trump gets the quote pretty close to accurate, but not quite.
“One of the things — the important aspects of this race — is role modeling what good families should look like,” Obama said at the time. “And my view is that if you can't run your own house, you certainly can't run the White House. Can't do it.”
She repeated the comment at a rally a few days later in Iowa, adding: “So we've adjusted our schedules to make sure that our girls are first, so while he's traveling around, I do day trips. That means I get up in the morning, I get the girls ready, I get them off, I go and do trips, I'm home before bedtime.”
But President Obama denied at the time that the comment had anything to do with the Clintons. Instead, he said it was about the Bush administration. “There was no reference beyond her point that we have had an administration that talks a lot about family values but doesn’t follow through,” Obama said.
Look, it's certainly possible that Michelle Obama was taking a veiled shot at the Clintons' rocky personal lives and providing her own family as a more attractive contrast to it. Politicians do this kind of thing so that they will have plausible deniability, but the media will still write about it as if it were an attack. And the first lady has certainly shown an ability to attack Donald Trump, routinely doing it without referring to him by name.
But her attacks are otherwise pretty obviously about him, and the Obama campaign in the 2008 primary didn't really trot her out regularly to issue these kinds of veiled — or even direct — attacks. That wasn't her strength as a surrogate.
What's more, her extended comments at the Iowa rally suggest she was talking about how their family handles the campaign. And she spoke repeatedly on the campaign trail about how she wanted to maintain some kind of normalcy for their family, even as her husband was in the midst of a meteoric political rise. So this wasn't a one-off for her. It was a subject she spoke about frequently.
Her husband's explanation of her comments strikes us as kind of odd. It's apparent how it could have been intended for the Clintons, but it's not really clear what specific aspect of the Bush administration's policies she might have been attacking when she talked about her family's travel schedule and taking care of their home. The Bush family was, by all accounts, a pretty solid family unit. And why did it have to be a veiled reference at all?
What's clear beyond all of this, though, is that even if Michelle Obama was digging at the Clintons, this attack was not anything close to a feature of the 2008 campaign, as it has become in the 2016 Trump vs. Clinton race.
And politically speaking, it's a questionable decision too. When it comes to political figures in the United States, few are even close to Michelle Obama's popularity. A Bloomberg poll this week showed 62 percent of Americans have a favorable view of her. Are swing voters who like her really going to believe she was getting down in the mud and attacking the Clintons nine years ago when her family denied it? It seems unlikely.
Trump likes to blame others for starting his more controversial lines of attack — even blaming Hillary Clinton for starting the birther conspiracy theory. But yet again, he's using very scant evidence and making a strained argument to avert the gaze from his own bare knuckles.