You would be forgiven for not knowing what “counting” to take tough measures means. Why would that phrase have been included in Trump’s speech when “continuing to take tough measures” by itself gets the point across?
The answer, as experienced observers of the president are aware, is that “counting” wasn’t included in Trump’s speech. This is an example of the coping mechanism Trump deploys, gliding past verbal stumbles by simply pretending that he meant to include the incorrect word in what he was saying, even if it doesn’t make any sense. He meant to say “continuing to take tough measures,” and instead said “counting” — then simply rewound himself with a cursory “and.”
In late 2017, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes documented several examples of Trump deploying this tactic.
Sometimes, the rewinds are much more substantive than simply tossing in one odd word. CNN’s Daniel Dale, who fact-checks Trump’s speeches for the network, noticed a lengthy aside apparently spurred by misreading the teleprompter during the president’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month.
Trump’s prepared remarks almost certainly had him saying, “We understand that our first duty and our highest loyalty is to the American citizens,” continuing on to attack his political opponents for violating “this sacrosanct principle.” But perhaps having gone on a riff about first lady Melania Trump earlier in his speech, that’s not what he said.
“We understand that our first lady and highest — ” he said, catching himself and redirecting, “and you have to remember this: When our first lady came out, she said to me today, ‘Say hello to everybody.’ And she said that ‘your first duty and your highest loyalty’ — and this was coming right from her — ‘is to the American citizens. And you really have to let the people know.’ This is — Melania told me this. Can you believe this?”
The crowd applauded.
“She’s like giving me a history lesson. Our first lady is giving me a history” — more applause — “Our highest loyalty to the American people. I said, ‘Okay.’ That was pretty good. Thank you. Thank you very much. I’ll tell her. I’ll tell her that was the single-best line in the whole speech.”
He went on to disparage the “American left.”
It’s not entirely clear what motivates Trump to defend his mistakes in this way. Slate’s Ashley Feinberg has speculated it may be a function of his disinclination to wear reading glasses. Normally, though, such slip-ups don’t really matter, and the cause for them is relatively unimportant.
At another point in his speech Wednesday evening, though, Trump may have had a more significant slip-up.
He’d announced a ban on travel from Europe to the United States.
“There will be exemptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings,” Trump said, “and these prohibitions will not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo but various other things as we get approval. Anything coming from Europe to the United States is what we are discussing.”
This wasn’t actually right. The administration wasn’t announcing a ban on cargo or trade. Dale speculates that perhaps Trump had seen “not apply to” on the teleprompter, read it as “not only apply to” and then had to append the “various other things” to justify the use of “not only.” That theory is bolstered by the inclusion of “tremendous.” Trump’s speech was heavy on reminders of the health of the economy; pointedly exempting the “tremendous” amount of trade with the European Union would send a signal that Trump was keeping economic concerns at the forefront.
Later reporting indicated European leaders had not been informed about the new restrictions before Trump announced them on live television. During the 10-minute window between his comments and the White House’s clarification about their scope, imagine the scramble from European trade partners: a ban on any trade or cargo? The implications of Trump’s statement were probably short-lived but not insignificant.
Perhaps something changed between the moment when Trump read his remarks and the later walk-back from his White House. Perhaps Trump had intended to curtail all trade, though, of course, people are the most worrisome vector for transmitting the virus.
And perhaps Trump wanted America to know that his team was counting to take tough measures.
Update: The Wall Street Journal reviewed draft copies of Trump’s speech. They did not include the word “only.”