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The problem with Trump’s Revolutionary War airports isn’t the airports

Thousands traveled to the Mall on July 4 for Independence Day and President Trump’s “Salute to America” event. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump paused his Fourth of July speech several times on Thursday to accommodate military aircraft flying overhead. After several passed over late in the program, Trump again began speaking from his lectern behind protective, rain-spattered glass in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

"In June of 1775,” he said, reading from a teleprompter, “the Continental Congress created a unified army out of the revolutionary forces encamped around Boston and New York and named after the great George Washington, commander in chief.

“The Continental Army suffered a bitter winter of Valley Forge,” he continued, “found glory across the waters of the Delaware and seized victory from Cornwallis of Yorktown. Our army manned the [unclear]. It rammed the ramparts. It took over the airports. It did everything it had to do. And at Fort McHenry, under the rockets’ red glare, it had nothing but victory. And when dawn came, their star-spangled banner waved defiant.”

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At some point in this patter, Trump transitioned from discussing the Revolutionary War (the Continental Army) to the War of 1812 (Fort McHenry), but the transition isn’t clear. It was part of a sort of highlight reel of American military conflicts, with Trump going on to discuss the Civil War and then World War I.

The reason we and many others are considering this part of his speech, though, is that line about airports. There . . . were no airports. There were hot-air balloons used in the Civil War (and in conflicts as early as the 1790s in France), but there were no aircraft deployed in the Revolutionary War — much less dedicated landing facilities needing to be secured with musket fire.

A lot of people are misidentifying the problem, though. It's not the case that Trump wrote this speech and deliberately included a line about the famous Battle of Washington National. Instead, he was reading a prepared speech, stumbled repeatedly over what he was reading — and refused to acknowledge or correct those mistakes.

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There are a number of slip-ups just in the section above. Instead of saying that the Continental Congress named George Washington commander in chief, which it did, Trump said for some reason that they named it after him, which they didn’t. He said that the winter of Valley Forge, not at Valley Forge, was difficult. Trump claimed that British Gen. Charles Cornwallis of Yorktown had victory snatched away from him instead of saying that Cornwallis lost at Yorktown. He said that the army manned . . . something, instead of presumably saying that American forces manned the ramparts at Fort McHenry. The fort’s ramparts are part of the national anthem, which Trump then alluded to twice more.

Where the “airports” line came from is admittedly unclear. Perhaps there was a mention of ports? If Trump was trying to fill in or cover up a fumble (as he appears to have done with his addition of “it did everything it had to do"), working in a line about taking over airports was certainly an odd choice in the moment.

Update: On Friday morning, Trump told reporters that the teleprompter malfunctioned due to the rain.

Again, though, this is Trump’s approach. In speeches in particular, he will often misspeak and, instead of retracting what he said, will just say the proper thing afterward. He’ll generally include the word “and” as though both the incorrect and correct words were supposed to be in his remarks. Like, “it’s raining cats and frogs . . . and dogs.”

We are not the first to notice this.

This inability to admit misstatements has no more extreme example than his infamous “covfefe” tweet from 2017. Late one night that May, Trump tweeted, “Despite the constant negative press covfefe.” He’d obviously meant to write “coverage” and, instead of deleting the mistake, accidentally hit send.

But his administration swung into action defending the word as intentional.

“The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant,” then-press secretary Sean Spicer insisted.

Trump himself tried to imply that there was some secret meaning to be uncovered.

It's like falling on ice, breaking your knee and then deciding to accept walking on crutches for the rest of your life while claiming that you'd intentionally fallen just for the chance to use crutches.

It's an odd behavioral choice, certainly, but one in keeping with Trump's general refusal to admit mistakes. It raises a key question, though: Does Trump do the same thing in private conversations with other world leaders, doubling-down on mistakes in lieu of admitting that he'd made one? How far does his reflexive self-defense extend?

Trump claiming that Revolutionary War soldiers were dispatched to lock down airfields is the sort of gaffe that we've seen from other elected officials in the past. His refusal to admit even simple mistakes like this, though? That's pretty new.

Not that this was a mistake, I’m sure we’ll be told. It’s a matter of hours — perhaps less — before some Trump ally goes on CNN to explain that Trump was referring to the current site of Baltimore/Washington International or to argue that the president was using the term as it was originally intended to be used or who knows what. Perhaps we’ll get an Obama-also-misspoke.

This pattern, too, is revealing. Trump’s ability to not have to own even simple mistakes is certainly aided by the vast infrastructure, the various Sean Spicers out there, willing to help him in that effort.