It’s tempting to view President Trump’s many grievance-filled tweets as angry, indiscriminate lashing out at political opponents. It’s unhinged! It’s unpresidential! They’re “rage tweets!” Etc.
Often, though, if you look closely, you’ll see some design. Behind the invective and often-incorrect claims will be a controversial suggestion with built-in plausible deniability. He will be saying something without actually saying it. He’ll send the desired message to his supporters — a dog whistle — but when the media asks him and his aides, they’ll say he wasn’t really saying that. In the process, he’ll foment culture war and controversy.
Such appears to be the case with his tweets about Puerto Rico on Tuesday morning, along with an aide’s explanation of them.
In two Trump tweets about Puerto Rico and a cable news appearance from a top White House spokesman later that morning, both Trump and the spokesman talked about Puerto Rico as if it weren’t part of the United States. And they did so in a way that couldn’t help but make you think this might be deliberate.
In his tweets, Trump said the hurricane-ravaged island’s politicians “only take from USA” and said Puerto Rico will “continue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments.”
Of course, as Philip Bump notes, Puerto Rico is indeed part of the United States. Like any state, it both contributes to and accepts help from the federal government. That may be in a way that people like Trump view as unbalanced, but it’s difficult to picture Trump talking about a state as “only tak[ing] from the USA.”
Puerto Rico also employs farmers, who are “our farmers,” but they don’t seem to factor in to Trump’s concept of “our Farmers.” Trump’s claim that Puerto Rico is taking resources from “our … States” is also a curious formulation.
The combination of those three things at the very least seems to betray Trump’s attitude that Puerto Rico is a lesser part of the United States.
Later, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley appeared on MSNBC. In an interview with Hallie Jackson, Gidley twice referred to Puerto Rico as a “country,” which it is not. It’s important to note that this came after he correctly labeled it a “territory” twice. Gidley was also asked about the “country” comments at the end of the interview, at which point he apologized and said it was a mistake. He said it was a “slip of the tongue.”
Jackson, to her credit, pressed the point. She had just grilled Gidley on Trump’s apparent otherizing of Puerto Rico, after all, and this seemed a conspicuous mix-up from someone who had been dispatched to talk about that. Gidley again assured her that it wasn’t intentional.
“No, that was — a slip of the tongue is not on purpose, Hallie,” Gidley said. “That would, by definition, be a slip of the tongue.”
That skepticism is not misplaced. Whatever you think of the reasons for Trump’s attitude toward Puerto Rico, there’s no question he’s trying to diminish it. The question is whether he’s doing that because that’s what he believes and he’s truly upset about its use of federal funds, or whether he sees some kind of political advantage in it (or both!). Even just the day before, he oddly referred to it as a “place” — in quotation marks — in a tweet. That’s four references in less than 24 hours that suggested Puerto Rico was less-than. At some point, we can’t dismiss all of these things as coincidences.
And a spokesman going on cable news and calling Puerto Rico a “country” would only seem to fan the flames of the fire Trump has lit on this issue.