How Trump can claim he doesn’t mean what he says.

Words Matter to Donald Trump, Unless He’s the One Speaking Them

Words Matter to Donald Trump, Unless He’s the One Speaking Them

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 14 2016 6:25 PM

Words Matter to Donald Trump

Unless he’s the one speaking them.

Republican candidate for President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally at Atlantic Aviation on June 11, 2016 in Moon Township, Pennsylvania.
Donald Trump’s words only occasionally and only inadvertently map onto his intentions. Above, Trump speaks to supporters in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, on Saturday.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Words matter a lot to Donald Trump. They matter so much to him that—in his telling—the very words used by President Obama to characterize terrorism not only helped cause Sunday’s terror attack in Orlando but will result in many others like it. As he explained to CBS News on Monday morning, “What happened yesterday will happen many times over with a president like Obama that doesn’t even want to use the term radical Islamic terrorism.” This is the same message he offered up by way of Twitter on Sunday, when he claimed that the failure of Obama and Hillary Clinton to use that magical incantation should suffice as a reason for Obama to resign from office and for Clinton to drop out of the presidential race. This is a trivial fight over word choice that long predates Trump, but only Trump has taken to suggesting that the word choices of others can disqualify them for elective office.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate, and hosts the podcast Amicus.

Word choices generally matter so much to Trump, in fact, that he decided on Monday to pull the Washington Post’s credentials to cover any of his campaign events, because he was displeased with word choice in the headline on an article about him. Indeed, Trump’s tendency to take umbrage at the words of others is almost legendary; only last week he claimed that Newt Gingrich’s criticism of Trump’s racist comments about the judge overseeing lawsuits against Trump University were “inappropriate.”

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But oddly, the same Donald Trump who believes that the word choice of others matters so much as to be disqualifying for political office and worthy of instant press censorship holds his own word choices to a very different standard. When Trump engages in hyperbole, or outright lies, or in overt racism, or thinly veiled accusations that President Obama is maybe committing treason, his words have no meaning. Indeed, no small part of the elaborate Trump two step—in which he says something utterly unconscionable and then walks it back fractionally—rests on the assumption that his own words are loose, gauzy nothings that have no real meaning and thus no serious or enduring consequences.

Truth is simply not a part of the Trump reality. Politifact found that 76 percent of the 77 statements it analyzed from Donald Trump were either mostly false, false, or “pants on fire” false. But he doesn’t want that to worry you a bit.

So Trump’s word meaning denial toolkit is almost bottomless: When asked how he could possibly make vulgar, euphemistic references to his hand size at a GOP debate, his defense was that he was “only [making] a joke about my hands.” When asked how he could make grotesque references to Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle, he replied by saying, “Only a deviant would think that.” Having promised to pay the legal fees of a supporter who violently assaulted someone at one of his rallies, Trump denied having said it. Having mocked a disabled reporter on video, he now insists he was miming some kind of one-armed groveling.

This goes far beyond the routine insults and slurs however. It goes to the words he uses to describe his fundamental policy positions. After calling for a “total and complete” ban on letting Muslim immigrants into the United States, he changed his stance, saying that the ban was “just a suggestion.” Less than 24 hours after saying that, as president, he would order servicemen to murder the families of terrorists or engage in illegal torture, he issued a statement clarifying, “I will not order a military officer to disobey the law.” Immediately after House Speaker Paul Ryan called Trump’s comments about the Mexican heritage of that judge in his Trump University case the “textbook definition of a racist comment” —Trump issued a statement to claim that his comments had been “misconstrued.” After stating that women who have abortions should be punished, he simply claimed that the statement meant that the doctors who provide the abortions should be punished. Later, he said he was only answering that original question “in theory” and that this “was an unbelievable academic answer.”

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Indeed, it’s clear that the central tenet of Trump’s word play starts with knowing that his words only occasionally and only inadvertently map onto his intentions. Perhaps the finest expression of this truth came when one of his senior advisers, responding on CNN to the statement that “Typically, words matter,” said this: “Oh please, this ‘words matter’ stuff. This is ridiculous.” Ben Carson, when he decided to endorse Trump in March, similarly concluded that he could do so only because Trump’s words were not really to be taken seriously: “I needed to know that he could listen to other people, that he could change his opinions, and that some of the more outlandish things that he’s said, that he didn’t really believe those things.”

This whole decoupling of words from truth is set forth as a feature, not a bug, and part of the reason Trump celebrates his liberation from prepared speeches and teleprompters is that when he strays from the truth, it can be called “bracing honesty” and singular freedom from “political correctness.” He is just exuberantly “telling it like it is,” even when he is telling it like it won’t be tomorrow. Consider Ari Fleischer’s celebration of Trump’s grotesque word choice—the former Bush press secretary described Trump’s indecency as a healthy corrective to journalists and their tendency to “look down your nose at other people who are different.”

The problem for Trump is that you can only mince your way along a double standard of that magnitude for so long. If President Obama’s word choice (or refusal to deploy Trump’s word choice) is an impeachable offense, at some point it begins to be apparent that Trump’s word choices must matter as well. Inasmuch as Trump would have you believe that the words of Hillary Clinton and the Washington Post are tantamount to acts of outright war, he cannot continue to stand on the premise that the words that emerge from his own mouth are just a bunch of feathery jokes, suggestions, and wistful ruminations. And as the GOP leadership and the Republican electorate begin to figure out that Trump’s language cannot be reined in and may, in fact, be affirmatively endangering America, they will be forced to reckon with the fact that the only person who still believes that Trump’s words have no real consequence is Trump.

Maybe the reason so many Republicans are beginning to lose confidence in Trump as a potential leader lies in the irony of his persistent relationship to words, which more and more can be boiled down to this discomfiting pledge: When my opponents say something I don’t like, assume they mean it, but when I say something you don’t like, assume it’s not true.