White House press secretary Sean Spicer continues to get barraged with questions about President Trump's claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped him. And Spicer had a new defense Monday: Perhaps Trump wasn't being 100 percent literal. He used quotation marks, after all!
“I think if you look at the president's tweet, he said very clearly, quote, ‘wiretapping,’ end quote,” Spicer said. “There's been reports in the New York Times, in the BBC and other outlets about other aspects of surveillance that have occurred. The president was very clear in his tweet that it was, you know, ‘wiretapping.’ ”
Spicer used air quotes here, adding that the term “spans a whole host of surveillance types of options.”
As our own Callum Borchers notes, this is part of a long tradition of walking back Trump comments to make them seem less literal. But in this case, that defense only carries you so far — for a couple reasons.
The first is that Trump didn't actually use quotation marks in two out of four tweets in which he cited Obama having wiretapped him.
If he was speaking figuratively, he probably should have been more consistent.
And the second — and most important — reason is that Trump has a very strange relationship with quotation marks. If you look over his tweets, he doesn't seem to use them in any consistent way. While some people might use them to project skepticism, that's not his approach. And while some might use them when they're actually quoting other people, Trump doesn't do that much either.
A few examples of this:
And this may be the best example:
What is happening here? If anyone can figure out his system, please email me.
In fairness, Trump does every once in a while get it right, using quotes to refer to things other people said (in this case John McCain questioning the success of the Yemen raid) …
… or to project skepticism.
Ben Yagoda of the Chronicle of Higher Education acknowledged those instances of correct use but pointed out that Trump's use of quotation marks most often betrays something else:
There are principally three legitimate reasons to use quotation marks. One, to indicate words a person or people spoke or wrote, one time or habitually. Two, for a title, like “Some Enchanted Evening.” Three, to in some way cast doubt on the word or words within the quote mark. Trump actually carried this off on Jan. 13, when he tweeted that the dossier supposedly showing Russians had damaging information on him was “Probably … released by ‘Intelligence’ even knowing there is no proof, and never will be.”
But … something else is clearly going on. Trump actually wants to say his “Apprentice” swamped Schwarzenegger’s in the ratings, that the people who disapprove of his relationship with Putin are stupid, that he is the leader of a movement, and so on. The quotation marks show the struggles of someone ill at ease with setting down words and sentences. When a familiar word or phrase comes to the mind of these people, they’re not sure what to do with it; sometimes, they’re more comfortable picking it up with protective gloves.
That seemed to be what was going on with the wiretapping tweets. And at the very least, Trump was not “very clear” that he was referring to a range of surveillance options — nor has the White House been “very clear” about exactly what he was referring to in the nine full days since he initially tweeted.
Maybe it's time “someone” gave our president a lesson on quotation marks. The discovery of the next “Nixon/Watergate” might depend upon it.