Following the country’s most deadly mass shooting, Donald Trump was asked to explain what he meant when he said President Obama either does not understand radicalized Muslim terrorists or “he gets it better than anybody understands.”
“Well,” Trump said on the “Today Show” Monday morning, “there are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. A lot of people think maybe he doesn’t want to know about it. I happen to think that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing, but there are many people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it. He doesn’t want to see what’s really happening. And that could be.”
In other words, Trump was not directly saying that he believes the president sympathizes with the terrorist who killed at least 49 people in an Orlando nightclub. He was implying that a lot of people are saying that.
Trump frequently couches his most controversial comments this way, which allows him to share a controversial idea, piece of tabloid gossip or conspiracy theory without technically embracing it. If the comment turns out to be popular, Trump will often drop the distancing qualifier — “people think” or “some say.” If the opposite happens, Trump can claim that he never said the thing he is accused of saying, equating it to retweeting someone else’s thoughts on Twitter.
This is particularly true when it comes to Trump’s comments on Islam. For months, the candidate has portrayed Muslims as the leading threat working against the United States and has routinely suggested in a wink-wink fashion that the president might secretly be a follower.
At a rally in New Hampshire in September, a man in the audience loudly declared President Obama a Muslim and “not even an American,” then asked Trump to get rid of Muslim “training camps.”
“You know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there,” Trump responded. “We’re going to look at that and plenty of other things.”
Later that month, Trump announced that as president he would kick all Syrian refugees out of the country and not allow any others to enter because they could be a secret terrorist army.
“This could be the ultimate — probably not, but it could be — the ultimate Trojan horse,” Trump said on Fox News in early November, floating the idea without embracing it.
(On Fox News Monday, Trump said that he used to make this suggestion “with a smile” but he is now “starting to think that it can happen because our politicians are so inept and so incapable.”)
When it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, Trump has floated a variety of theories as to why the United States got what he views as such a raw deal. During a campaign rally in South Carolina in December, Trump seemed to accuse the U.S. negotiators of not having the country’s best interests in mind.
“Some people say it’s worse than stupidity. There’s something going on that we don’t know about,” Trump said in Hilton Head. “And you almost think — I’m not saying that, and I’m not a conspiracy person. . . . Half the people in this room are saying it. I’m trying to be — you know, I’m just hoping they’re just stupid people, okay?”
Trump’s they-said-it-not-me tactic is also often used when he’s attacking his rivals or their relatives.
In early January, Trump said that he was not concerned that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was born in Canada — but that he had heard from many Republicans who were.
“I’d hate to see something like that get in his way, but a lot of people are talking about it, and I know that even some states are looking at it very strongly, the fact that he was born in Canada and he has had a double passport,” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Post at the time.
As this attack on Cruz stuck — and was echoed by other Republicans — Trump stopped pinning the concern on others and embraced it as his own, even threatening to sue Cruz over his eligibility in mid-February.
In attacking Hillary and Bill Clinton, Trump indirectly raised questions about one of their close friends, Vince Foster, whose suicide in 1993 has long been a focus of far-right conspiracy theorists who allege Clinton involvement.
“I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it,” Trump said in an interview with The Post in May. “I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”
Still, the fact that Trump even chose to comment on the topic outraged many — including Foster’s sister, who accused Trump of “cynically, crassly and recklessly” insinuating that her brother had been murdered to further his own candidacy.
When asked about Foster during a news conference in North Dakota soon after, Trump continued to distance himself by attributing the concern to “a lot of people.”
“Somebody asked me the question the other day, and I said that a lot of people are very skeptical as to what happened and how he died,” Trump said. “I know nothing about it. I don’t think it’s something that, frankly, really, unless some evidence to the contrary of what I have seen comes up, I don’t think that it’s something that should be part of the campaign.”
In some cases, Trump’s commenting-while-not-commenting is delivered with a clear wink to the crowd. He will tell his audience that he’s not going to talk about something he shouldn’t talk about — and then continue to comment.
“I’m not going to say it, because I’m not allowed to say it, because I want to be politically correct,” Trump said in discussing the sound of Clinton’s voice at a rally in Fresno, Calif., last month. “So I refuse to say that I cannot stand her screaming into the microphone all the time.”
On Twitter recently, he took a swipe at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): “I find it offensive that goofy Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, pretended to be Native American to get in Harvard.” He did not note that he was the one who coined the nickname.
Trump has explained his approach by comparing it to a retweet. During a rally in New Hampshire in February, a woman in the crowd called Cruz a vulgar word, and Trump repeated it for the rest of the audience to hear.
“It was like a retweet,” Trump said in a television interview the next day. “I would never say a word like that — by the way, can I tell you what? The audience went crazy. Standing ovation. Five thousand people went nuts, they loved it.”