There’s a pattern to how President Trump approaches controversy.

In the first phase, he does or says something that any unbiased observer would categorize as controversial. This is generally something geared toward embarrassing or undermining a perceived political opponent.

In the second phase, he tells media outlets that they’re misunderstanding his true intent, which was something less objectionable. Sometimes doing so demands stuffing some awfully big claims into some awfully small boxes, but Trump and his supporters are generally content if he at least gives it a shot.

This tactic is well-designed for leveraging the media. With decades of inculcated assumptions about the good faith of the president, reporters find themselves forced into declaring that, while most people would agree that the president’s statement was problematic, he insists that it is not problematic for whatever reason. His supporters embrace the original intent and meaning of what Trump does, and the media has to leave it there. Works great, at least for him.

Speaking to reporters while on his way to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Trump’s retweet of a suggestion that Bill and Hillary Clinton might be involved in the apparent suicide of convicted child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein entered Phase 2.

Trump retweeted two tweets linking Epstein’s death loosely to the former president. One was from “BNL News,” which purports to be a “breaking news” account linked to a random news blog. (The blog’s main Twitter account has been suspended.) The other was from conservative comedian and commentator (per his Twitter bio) Terrence Williams. Williams’s tweet included a video in which he claims that “word around the street” is that the Clintons were involved in Epstein’s death, echoing a long-standing and long-debunked allegation about the former president.

A reporter asked Trump about the retweets.

“Yeah, he’s a very highly respected conservative pundit,” Trump said about Williams. “He’s a big Trump fan. That was a retweet; that wasn’t from me. That was from him, but he’s a man who has half a million followers, a lot of followers. And he’s respected.”

As longtime Twitter users can confirm, follower counts do not connote respectability. Before this, Williams was probably best known for appearing on Fox News and making racist comments about an Asian American woman hired by the New York Times.


President Trump talks to the media before boarding Air Force One in Morristown, N.J., on Tuesday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

NBC News’s Benjy Sarlin points out that Trump’s assertion that Williams was respected is similar to his 2015 defense of tweeting an inaccurate graphic falsely claiming that most white murder victims are killed by black perpetrators.

“I retweeted somebody who was supposedly an expert. … But this came out of radio shows and everything else,” Trump said then, although he had actually retweeted someone who was tweeting to a radio show.

The retweet about the Clintons, Trump said Tuesday, was “just a retweet” and of “a very respected conservative pundit.” So, he added, “I think it was fine.”

Trump then pivoted to his effort to reframe his retweets. He noted that Attorney General William P. Barr had announced an investigation into Epstein’s death.

“Basically what we’re saying is we want an investigation,” Trump said. “I want a full investigation, and that’s what I absolutely am demanding. That’s what our attorney general — our great attorney general — is doing. He’s doing a full investigation.”

This is nonsense, the purest form of gaslighting. Trump did not retweet Williams and BNL News because he was calling for an investigation. If he were calling for an investigation he could have tweeted — oh, let’s think about this — “I am calling for an investigation.” He could have tweeted a news report about Barr’s investigation. He could have tweeted any number of things that weren’t centered on disparaging a Democratic president whose wife ran against him in 2016. But he didn’t.

To put a fine point on the intent of his tweets, he again targeted Bill Clinton when a reporter asked whether he truly believed that the Clintons might be involved in Epstein’s death.

“I have no idea,” Trump said. “I know he was on his plane 27 times, and he said he was on the plane four times. But when they checked the plane logs, Bill Clinton — who was a very good friend of Epstein — he was on the plane about 27 or 28 times. So why did he say four times?”

This is a reference to a public statement Clinton offered after Epstein’s most recent arrest. Clinton claimed to have flown on Epstein’s plane for four trips, not four times. As the Washington Examiner determined (and we have confirmed), Clinton took six trips with Epstein, for a total of 27 flights. Several of those trips were overseas, including a multi-stop visit to Africa for work related to the Clinton Foundation. One of the trips not mentioned by Clinton was from Miami to New York, which flight logs indicate included four Secret Service agents. Clinton’s statement noted a trip to Asia with Epstein, but two are included in the logs. The last one was in late 2003.

Note that this has nothing to do with Epstein’s death. It’s just Trump throwing up smoke, an attempt to suggest that there was something suspect about Clinton’s relationship with Epstein or that Clinton had something to hide.

Trump claims that Clinton was a “very good friend” of Epstein. But it was Trump who, in 2002, told New York magazine that he had known Epstein for 15 years and that the financier was “a lot of fun to be with.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Trump went on to suggest that reporters investigate whether Clinton ever visited a private island owned by Epstein in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Clinton’s statement denies having visited it.

But wait! Wasn’t Barr supposed to be investigating this? Wasn’t that the point of the retweets? So why should the media dig into it?

It may be possible — just possible — that Trump’s claim that he was simply calling for an investigation was insincere and that his intent was to disparage the Clintons. That he wasn’t soberly considering the thoughts of a “respected conservative pundit” and, instead, retweeting something that he knew his supporters would embrace.

It’s even possible that he knew that he could later make some wild claim about the intent of the retweet and get cover for it from the media. But here we are, being cynical.