The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been pretty straightforward about its disdain for President Trump’s political style, foreign policy, foreign economic policy, overall management of the executive branch and staff quality. One can use a very broad brush to describe this administration’s fecklessness, incompetence and malevolence.
That said, there are times when a broad brush may not be the best approach. I’ve previously noted the ways in which Trump’s speaking style — and the ways in which the media reports on his inartful phrasing — creates a perfect storm of mutual recriminations. This is of a piece with the whole “seriously but not literally” trope of how to cover Trump. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry pointed this out recently in The Week:
President Trump is a motor-mouth, and he tends to speak in a strange, garbled way. He frequently lies. But that doesn’t mean everything he says is untrue. And yet, the media often interprets his comments literally so that they seem untrue and fantastical, even when reading them in context shows that what Trump means is something much less outrageous, or at least different.
In the spirit of comity, let me offer a data point where I have to side with Gobry. The story that broke Monday was that Trump said Obama is behind the protests and leaks plaguing his populist-but-not-popular administration.
Here are some headlines from that story:
- CNN: “Trump Says Obama Behind Leaks.”
- Washington Post, “Trump says Obama is helping to organize protests against his presidency.”
- The Guardian, “Donald Trump accuses Obama of orchestrating protest against him.”
- The Hill, “Trump blames Obama for protests, leaks.”
- BuzzFeed, “Trump Claims Obama Is ‘Behind’ Protests Against Him And White House Leaks.”
You get the idea.
Now, as written, these kind of headlines make Trump sound a wee bit paranoid and whiny. But let’s go to the source of all these stories, Trump’s interview with “Fox & Friends.” Here’s the relevant clip:
If you watch the clip, a few things become immediately clear:
1) Brian Kilmeade of “Fox & Friends” asked the question in a ridiculously leading way. As Ryan Lizza noted in the clip, Kilmeade “pushed” Trump into agreeing with the premise of the question. In a perfect world, Trump wouldn’t have accepted the premise without hard evidence. Absent a flat denial, however, reporters probably would have accused Trump of speaking ill of Obama no matter what he said in response.
2) Trump says the words that explain the headlines above. But he also says he thinks that Obama’s former staff members are involved. I would suggest that it’s a sloppy inference, but by the standards of Trump’s norm violations, this is pretty pedestrian.
3) Trump’s tone throughout all of this is, particularly by Trump’s standards, not hostile at all. He says “that’s politics” with a fair degree of equanimity at least three or four times. He certainly doesn’t sound like he’s whining. He refuses to condemn Obama despite several openings served up by Kilmeade. The only thing he seems motivated to talk about in that segment is the national security leaks, and even there he sounds more sorry than angry.
I’m pretty dubious of the nominal claim that Obama is behind the protests. But this is one of those stories where, if you read the headlines, it sounds way worse than hearing what Trump said in context.
As president, Trump has said and done some objectionable things. I honestly don’t think this is one of them.