President Trump’s 2020 campaign operates a Twitter account called Official Trump War Room, which serves as a sort of institutional version of Donald Trump Jr.'s social media presence: aggressive, pugilistic and not always fully committed to accuracy. Campaign rapid response for the MAGA era.
On Saturday morning, the account picked up on a story posted by CNN’s political team. The CNN story was an aggregation of an interview that the Sun, a British tabloid, conducted with Trump in the Oval Office before he arrived in the United Kingdom on Monday.
The Sun presented Trump with comments made by American actress Meghan Markle — now the Duchess of Sussex, married to Queen Elizabeth II’s grandson — during the 2016 election. Meghan had said she would move to Canada if Trump won (prompting the reporter to joke that she’d moved to Britain instead).
"No,” Trump said, after hearing about the comments, “I didn't know that she was nasty."
The Sun’s headline indicated that the president was “shocked Meghan Markle was ‘nasty’ about him.” CNN’s original headline and its tweet promoting the article used similarly little context.
The Trump War Room moved into action.
The video it included with its tweet had the exchange referred to in the Sun’s article — including Trump’s “I didn’t know she was nasty” line. A number of people, including members of the media, pointed out that this was an unusual defense of the president: He didn’t say the thing that you can hear him say in the video you shared?
In short, the debate comes down to what the reader or listener understands the adjective “nasty” to be modifying. Trump defenders argue that he’s saying something equivalent to “I didn’t know that she was nasty about me” — using “nasty” to refer to her comments. Others argue that Trump is using “nasty” to describe Meghan directly, that, in essence, he didn’t know that she had a nasty personality before hearing her comments.
Complicating matters, there's not necessarily a clear line between those two options. Do non-“nasty” people make “nasty” comments? Is there a difference between saying someone was nasty about something and saying they were nasty? Imagine if Trump had said, “I didn't know she was rude.” In that case, to what is “rude” referring?
The debate is complicated further by Trump’s history of using “nasty” to describe people, actions and the overlap of the two. When a former employee spoke out about Trump’s treatment of women during the 2016 campaign, Trump similarly referred to her as “nasty” — in a way that could be similarly interpreted either way.
After the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, began speaking out about Trump’s handling of Hurricane Maria in 2017, the president declared that she’d been told to “be nasty to Trump.”
While people of both genders have been tagged with the adjective, Trump seems to more commonly describe women as “nasty” than men. When Omarosa Manigault Newman was a fixture on cable news for a tell-all book about her time in the Trump administration, the president derided her as being “[n]asty to people” in the White House. He’s also used the term recently to refer to Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) (“she was probably very nasty”) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) (“so nasty to Judge Kavanaugh”).
The Trump War Room retweeted a number of people who agreed with its assessment of Trump’s comment; that is, that the president was referring only to Markle’s comments as nasty. Many agreed with the campaign account’s bottom-line evaluation: that the media was being gratuitously misleading and false in presenting Trump’s use of “nasty” as describing the duchess.
That, of course, is the complicating factor here. To some extent, the debate is akin to the infamous blue-and-black dress debate that overwhelmed the Internet a few years ago. In that case, how people’s eyes interpreted lighting information in the photo determined how they saw the dress. In this case, either reading or listening to Trump’s words appears to influence how people interpret them — as does one’s view of Trump and his willingness to disparage his perceived opponents.
It’s fair to assume that the Trump War Room doesn’t really care all that much about whether people think Trump described Markle as nasty. The account’s subsequent retweets show that it understands the more useful role that the debate plays in fostering distrust of the media. The president understood that, too.
In other words, it’s the dress, overlaid with partisan rhetoric and utility. Perfect fodder for political social media accounts like the Trump War Room — and Trump’s.
correction: The article has been updated to reflect changes in CNN's headline.