On Sunday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders returned to a familiar refrain when asked about President Trump’s past praise for WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.
“Clearly the president was making a joke during the 2016 campaign,” Sanders said, days after the United States charged Assange with conspiracy to illegally obtain secret U.S. documents. “The president was making a joke during the campaign and was talking about the specifics of the case at that moment.”
It was at least the 13th time in the past four years that Trump or his allies have downplayed his remarks with some variation of suggesting he was joking, kidding or being sarcastic, including:
- Inviting Russia to find and release Hillary Clinton’s emails
- Praising the release of hacked emails by WikiLeaks
- Shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and not losing voters
- Suggesting “Second Amendment people” could stop Hillary Clinton from appointing judges
- Calling former president Barack Obama the “founder of ISIS”
- Asking Americans to “sit up at attention” when he speaks
- Suggesting he could be “president for life”
- Calling Democrats’ refusal to cheer at his State of the Union address “treasonous”
- Telling police officers to not “be too nice” with suspects
- Praising a congressman for assaulting a reporter
- Saying it would be “easy” to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act
- Floating becoming more “presidential”
- Touting a higher IQ than that of his secretary of state
It is similar to other rhetorical deflection tactics Trump routinely employs, such as stressing the importance of nearly everything, claiming he is “looking into” over two dozen policy proposals and evading reporter questions via his “roaring” helicopter.
But unlike his more explicit deflections, it can be hard to tell when Trump is joking, and at times even he doesn’t seem entirely sure.
“Obviously, I’m being sarcastic,” Trump said in 2016, two days after calling Obama the “founder” of ISIS. “But not that sarcastic, to be honest with you.”
Less than two months into office, White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked whether reporters could trust the president’s words.
“If he’s not joking, of course,” Spicer replied. “Every time that he speaks, he’s speaking as president of the United States.”