The truth about Donald Trump's 'jokes'

There was President Donald Trump, on Monday, recounting the cold reception he received from Democrats during his Stat...

Posted: Feb 7, 2018 11:02 AM
Updated: Feb 7, 2018 11:02 AM

There was President Donald Trump, on Monday, recounting the cold reception he received from Democrats during his State of the Union address a week earlier.

"So that means they would rather see Trump do badly, OK, than our country do well. That's what it means. It's very selfish. And it got to a point where I really didn't even want to look too much, during the speech, over to that side, because honestly, it was bad energy," he said. "That was bad energy."

And then -- the punchline.

"They were, like, death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said, 'Treasonous.' I mean, yeah, I guess, why not," Trump said as his audience, at a manufacturing plant in Ohio, had a good chuckle. "Can we call that treason? Why not."

Less than a day later, after his question had been answered with a squall of condemnation by Democrats and, as has become custom, silence or evasion by most Republicans, the White House began to reframe the message.

"He was clearly joking. He was making the point that even when good things are happening (the Democrats) are still sitting there angry," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said of Trump on Tuesday. One of her deputies described the remark as "tongue-in-cheek."

That Trump is a cunning public speaker, even (or especially) when he borders on incitement, is no secret. Indeed, his suggestion in Ohio that Democrats had betrayed their country by scowling during a partisan speech certainly sounded like a joke. He attributed the sharpest bit of the allegation to "somebody," and ultimately landed on a "why not?"

So yes, sure, why not. Let's say Trump was joking. But here's the thing about that. A joke is not, by definition, false. Or believed to be false by the person who tells it. Or, more importantly, received as false by the people who hear it -- and laugh at it. Quite the opposite. What's that thing people say at a comedy show, when the performer is nailing her lines and you're doubled over, slapping a knee?

"That's so true."

Trump has a history, too, that casts his Cincinnati show in darker hues. He routinely conflates himself with the government he was elected to lead. Allegiance to one, Trump has repeatedly implied, is the same as loyalty to the other. It stands to reason, then, that sitting on your hands, refusing to cheer as he speaks, is not simply defiance of a political opponent -- it's a betrayal of the country.

More importantly, though, is the rhetorical usefulness of playing off a smiling accusation -- of treason, a capital offense -- as a gag. To start, it immediately diminishes those who find it upsetting. Implicit in Sanders' defense is a taunt: What's wrong, can't take a joke? It's a conversation ender, and for Trump, one he used successfully on his way to the White House and in his first year in the job.

On July 28, 2017, Trump urged an audience of police offers in New York to dispense with the lawful requirements of their profession and get "rough" with suspects.

"When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in -- rough. I said, 'Please don't be too nice,'" Trump said, to scattered laughs. "Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head, you know, the way you put the hand over ... like, don't hit their head and they've just killed somebody, don't hit their head. I said, 'You can take the hand away, OK?'"

Asked for her response after a series of subsequent public rebukes from anxious police departments around the country, Sanders told reporters, "I believe (Trump) was making a joke at the time."

She said about the same when Trump, in an interview with Forbes, denied reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called him a "moron," before adding, "but if he did that, I guess we'll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win."

"The President certainly never implied that the secretary of state was not incredibly intelligent," Sanders said later. "He made a joke, nothing more than that."

That the stakes and circumstances were vastly different -- yukking it up over police brutality being a rather more serious digression than mind games with with a Cabinet secretary -- only underscores the vast utility of the deflection. One that has on at least two notable occasions been used to gloss over odd or troubling remarks about Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign.

Less than a week after accepting the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland two summers ago, candidate Trump at a press conference in Florida said he would "love to see" Hillary Clinton's hacked emails.

"Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing," he blared. "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press."

Then, in August of last year, Trump refused to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin's order to remove hundreds of US diplomatic staff from the country. Instead, he offered his gratitude.

"I want to thank him," Trump said, "because we're trying to cut down our payroll and as far as I'm concerned, I'm very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll."

Both incidents invited a mix of anger and confusion, which in turn were met with similar dismissals from the President and White House staffers. "Of course I'm being sarcastic," Trump told Fox News in an interview that aired the day after his Florida press conference. Months later, since-departed press secretary Sean Spicer, looking back on the bizarre scene, made a similar argument.

"He was joking at the time," Spicer said. "We all know that."

Trump's kind words in the wake of Putin's swipe at American officials in Moscow were also, according to Sarah Sanders, "sarcastic" -- a characterization he later confirmed.

Perhaps Trump's most enduring round of quasi-comical storytelling came at a campaign rally in Iowa on January 23, 2016.

"I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody," he said, "and I wouldn't lose voters."

In the immediate aftermath, Trump brushed off the backlash on familiar grounds.

"Now, that comment was said with me laughing and the entire audience, thousands of people, were laughing," he told friendly Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo. "It was said as a joke -- obviously it's a joke."

The tempest that followed, a reaction to his light description of a violent act, subsided within a few days. But the truth at the heart of the "joke" -- that his supporters' loyalty was impervious to Trump's own behavior, no matter how unseemly -- made it memorable, a cornerstone of the conventional wisdom about his presidency.

Jokes, it turn out, are not always a laughing matter.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 751242

Reported Deaths: 13795
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1032931788
Lake556911009
Allen41692692
St. Joseph36990565
Hamilton36588417
Elkhart29398461
Tippecanoe22901226
Vanderburgh22556400
Porter19356325
Johnson18471389
Hendricks17682317
Clark13226195
Madison13149344
Vigo12614253
LaPorte12419221
Monroe12207176
Delaware10966198
Howard10321225
Kosciusko9630121
Hancock8576146
Bartholomew8169157
Warrick7860156
Floyd7811180
Grant7242179
Wayne7162201
Boone6966103
Morgan6761141
Dubois6218118
Marshall6209116
Cass6016110
Henry5900110
Dearborn589878
Noble581488
Jackson509076
Shelby501496
Lawrence4742122
Gibson444894
Clinton442355
Harrison441875
DeKalb439885
Montgomery438090
Whitley406543
Huntington402681
Steuben400159
Miami395269
Jasper388054
Knox375991
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Jefferson335886
White331953
Daviess3033100
Wells295281
Decatur289992
Greene286885
Fayette284864
Posey273835
LaGrange273072
Scott270156
Clay267148
Washington246036
Randolph244783
Jennings235349
Spencer234531
Starke228058
Fountain220948
Sullivan214643
Owen211858
Fulton202942
Jay200932
Carroll193620
Orange188255
Perry187237
Rush175926
Vermillion174844
Franklin170335
Tipton166246
Parke149416
Pike138234
Blackford136232
Pulaski120647
Newton113936
Brown104243
Crawford102516
Benton101714
Martin91715
Warren84015
Switzerland8148
Union72810
Ohio57911
Unassigned0420

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1108902

Reported Deaths: 20166
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1287491467
Cuyahoga1158082211
Hamilton814091250
Montgomery525571043
Summit484351001
Lucas43359820
Butler39018606
Stark33338929
Lorain25675505
Warren24595303
Mahoning22376603
Lake21211388
Clermont20124253
Delaware18856136
Licking16663222
Fairfield16576204
Trumbull16551482
Medina15612271
Greene15284248
Clark14237306
Wood13292200
Portage13251215
Allen11914239
Richland11607211
Miami10849225
Wayne9146223
Columbiana9034230
Muskingum8906135
Pickaway8664122
Tuscarawas8650250
Marion8642138
Erie8056165
Ashtabula7161179
Hancock6999132
Ross6945161
Geauga6838151
Scioto6534106
Belmont6157174
Union584649
Lawrence5732102
Jefferson5679158
Huron5546122
Sandusky5442126
Darke5420129
Seneca5350128
Washington5320109
Athens523960
Auglaize502187
Mercer487385
Shelby476895
Knox4572112
Madison444366
Ashland435797
Putnam4336103
Defiance432399
Fulton432174
Crawford4040110
Brown402461
Logan387677
Preble3856105
Clinton379166
Ottawa373681
Highland359865
Williams348278
Champaign344859
Guernsey324953
Jackson318254
Perry297350
Morrow291840
Fayette285450
Hardin275365
Henry273467
Holmes2702101
Coshocton269060
Van Wert247264
Adams243256
Pike242835
Gallia240750
Wyandot234556
Hocking220563
Carroll197348
Paulding176542
Meigs148440
Monroe136344
Noble136239
Harrison114138
Morgan109624
Vinton85717
Unassigned03
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