White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was shocked — shocked! — to find that President Trump had sent a tweet Tuesday that many viewed as sexually suggestive and demeaning to women.
After Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called on Trump to resign over sexual harassment allegations, Trump attacked her in an early-morning Twitter missive — calling her a political “lightweight” who “would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them).”
Sanders said the president was merely delivering a critique of a corrupt political system. “There’s no way that this is sexist at all,” she said. “This is simply talking about a rigged system that we have that is broken, in which special interests control our government.”
When pressed on the widespread interpretation that Trump’s tweet at the very least contained “sexual innuendos,” Sanders issued a resolute denial. “I mean, only if your mind is in the gutter would you have read it that way,” she said.
The problem for Trump and his team, however, was that much of official Washington opted for the gutter interpretation.
After all, the president has displayed the flexibility and precision of a Russian gymnast when it comes to dancing on the balance beam of outlandish statements, using innuendo and a verbal wink-and-nod to say something — and then claim he meant nothing of the sort.
His attack on Gillibrand fits a familiar pattern. After Gillibrand became the first woman to add her name to the growing list of Democratic senators calling on Trump to resign because of sexual misconduct allegations from more than a dozen women, Trump weaponized his preferred social media against her.
"Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office 'begging' for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump," he wrote. "Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!"
By setting aside “begging” in quotation marks and noting, in parentheses, that she “would do anything” for campaign donations, he seemed to offer a sly virtual grin of acknowledgment that what his critics accused him of saying was, in fact, just what he was saying.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on political rhetoric, said there were striking parallels between Trump’s Tuesday tweet and his comments in the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed during the campaign in which Trump boasts about grabbing women’s genitals.
“In the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape, he says, ‘You can do anything,’ and in the tweet attacking Gillibrand, he says, she ‘would do anything,’ ” Jamieson said. “What that language suggests is that the language for Trump is sexual language. We know he uses that language in a sexual context.”
The backlash was swift and forceful. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) accused Trump in a tweet of trying to "bully, intimidate and slut-shame" Gillibrand.
Despite the clamor, Sanders claimed the meaning of president’s tweet was “obvious.”
“This is the same sentiment that the president has expressed many times before when he’s exposed the corruption of the entire political system,” she said.
The president, however, has a history of such tweets and statements in which he effectively — if not technically — asserts something controversial or false.
During the presidential campaign, after a feisty primary debate exchange with then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, Trump said that she had "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever." Yet because Trump never fully articulated the insinuation — that Kelly asked Trump tough questions because she was menstruating — he was able later to deny it when pressed on CNN. "Do you think I'd make a statement like that?" he said. "Who would make a statement like that? Only a sick person would even think about that."
He also during the campaign implied, without stating outright, that the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) may have been involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. "You know, his father was with Lee Harvey Oswald before Oswald's being — you know, shot," Trump said in a phone interview with Fox News. "What was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death, before the shooting? It's horrible."
More recently, he hinted — with no evidence — that MSNBC "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough was involved in the 2001 death of a young female staffer in his Florida office when he was a member of Congress. Sanders dodged questions about Trump's tweeted allegations, saying simply that she had nothing to add.
The president also employs another favorite rhetorical trick to float unsubstantiated claims without personally taking responsibility, quipping that “many people are saying” something outlandish or offensive.
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, called it “the non-assertion assertion or the non-allegation allegation.”
“But it’s not cute — it’s actually cowardly,” Naftali said. “If you really believe such nonsense, he should be straightforward and tell people he believes it, and then we can adjudicate the truth of the matter.”
Sometimes, the president uses a degree of remove — passing on something specious from someone else as a means of plausible deniability. Early on in the 2016 campaign, for instance, he retweeted a racist image showing a dark-skinned masked man wielding a gun, complete with a set of false homicide data by race.
"There's a big difference between a tweet and a retweet," Trump said when asked about it afterward. "It's for other people. Let them find out if it's correct or not."
And on his first foreign trip in May, speaking in front of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s new headquarters in Brussels, Trump pointedly refused to affirm the United States’ commitment to Article 5 of the agreement, which states that an attack on one allied country is an attack on all.
Afterward, then-press secretary Sean Spicer sought to play down the controversy, saying reporters were overreacting.
“We’re not playing cutesy with this,” Spicer said. “He’s fully committed.”
In fact, Trump had blindsided his own national security team by deliberately cutting the 27 words he was supposed to utter in support of Article 5 and the NATO alliance.
So Spicer was wrong. It was the president, yet again, who was playing cutesy.