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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 10:02 AM
Updated: Feb 7, 2018 10:02 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.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 256827

Reported Deaths: 5638
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto17331186
Hinds16373328
Harrison13731199
Rankin10854217
Jackson10557187
Lee8922141
Madison8335166
Jones6483112
Forrest6038120
Lauderdale5965187
Lowndes5425118
Lafayette503193
Lamar490865
Washington4826124
Bolivar4024109
Oktibbeha397681
Panola374680
Pontotoc369855
Monroe3591105
Warren3569100
Union348063
Marshall347769
Neshoba3413152
Pearl River3329103
Leflore3059107
Lincoln299386
Sunflower288271
Hancock282559
Tate274362
Alcorn267454
Itawamba265260
Pike264679
Scott250847
Prentiss248252
Yazoo247356
Tippah244450
Copiah243949
Coahoma242254
Simpson238368
Leake232966
Grenada220671
Covington215072
Marion215073
Adams207870
Wayne203232
Winston202667
George201939
Newton195044
Attala194659
Tishomingo191661
Chickasaw185744
Jasper174438
Holmes169168
Clay161335
Tallahatchie148235
Stone145921
Clarke141762
Calhoun137621
Smith122725
Yalobusha119134
Walthall112836
Noxubee111423
Greene111029
Montgomery110136
Carroll105321
Lawrence103217
Perry102831
Amite98826
Webster93924
Tunica87421
Claiborne86625
Jefferson Davis85827
Benton83323
Humphreys83324
Kemper78420
Quitman6969
Franklin67115
Choctaw61213
Wilkinson58825
Jefferson55419
Sharkey44017
Issaquena1596
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 429655

Reported Deaths: 6283
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson63040956
Mobile30794557
Madison27486201
Tuscaloosa20996268
Montgomery19352315
Shelby18833120
Baldwin16653184
Lee12749102
Morgan12389119
Etowah11861176
Calhoun11292201
Marshall10290113
Houston8746156
Limestone813276
Cullman8125106
Elmore7999104
DeKalb776599
Lauderdale768698
St. Clair7651121
Talladega6309108
Walker5954174
Jackson586341
Colbert539873
Blount537683
Autauga525755
Coffee450456
Dale402981
Franklin369948
Russell340711
Chilton338966
Covington332668
Escambia326043
Dallas308896
Chambers293170
Clarke287833
Tallapoosa2641107
Pike255230
Marion248953
Lawrence246649
Winston229535
Bibb218847
Geneva205446
Marengo202829
Pickens197531
Hale179542
Barbour176036
Fayette172928
Butler170858
Cherokee161930
Henry156523
Monroe149818
Randolph142135
Washington139126
Clay127645
Crenshaw121544
Cleburne119023
Lamar119021
Macon118637
Lowndes112036
Wilcox105121
Bullock101128
Perry99019
Conecuh95720
Sumter89626
Greene76623
Coosa61015
Choctaw51624
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