President Trump's inarticulate defense
President Trump is incapable of basic human communication.
Maybe that's a counterintuitive statement. After all, there's rarely been a president so in love with talking directly to his fans, whose circumventing of traditional presidential communications have proven so central to his appeal. Trump's rallies allow him to hold forth before thousands of people for an hour or more; his tweets go out to an audience of millions. Much has been written about his staff's attempts to get him to stick to a script, or even lay off the phone for a bit — and much has been written about his refusal to simply be silent.
In recent weeks, though, the main defense of Trump has been, essentially, that all his words amount to nothing. That he's confused when he speaks, and in any case the words he says are meaningless. That he's bad at communicating.
It's an unsustainable defense, but it seems to be the best that Trump's allies have to work with.
The most recent example came Tuesday when Trump tweeted, again, his anger at the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller — and, rather transparently, ordered Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire him.
Sessions "should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now," Trump wrote as the day began, "before it continues to stain our country any further."
By the afternoon, though, the White House was telling us that what looked like an order was not, in fact, an order. "It's not an order, it's the president's opinion," Sarah Sanders told the press. Just meaningless, empty words not intended to affect the actions of his subordinate at all, right?
That seems unlikely — don't you find your boss's "opinions" influence your work? — but Sanders had good reason for walking back the president's tweet: We know Mueller is examining Trump's previous tweets as he considers building an obstruction of justice case against the president. A public, written order to end that investigation could end up as another piece of evidence against Trump.
The problem is that Sanders' defense of the president — his words have no power, have no intent to steer the course of events, and are not meant as people commonly understand them — is becoming the usual White House line, telling us to ignore what Trump says and tweets because it doesn't reflect reality.
Trump says he can't see any reason Russia would meddle in U.S. elections? He meant "wouldn't." Trump says "no," Russia isn't targeting the U.S. anymore? Actually he was saying "no" to answering a reporter's question. Trump says you need an ID to buy groceries? Well, beer is a type of grocery, right? The president keeps undermining NATO? He's actually strengthening it! Everything that sounds bad, isn't.
Trump's plain words, it seems, often aren't all that plain.
Occasionally you can find some consistency. Trump frequently calls the press "the enemy of the people." On Thursday, Sanders affirmed that statement. But this is the exception, not the rule.
When they can't defend his words, Trump's allies fall back to another excuse: His words aren't actually matched by policy, and action is what really matters.
"In order for something to be treasonous, it has to undermine who we are as a nation, and I've never seen a press conference have that effect," Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said after Trump's Helsinki debacle. "Normally, it takes policy and actions that go far beyond press conferences. And in fact, if we could solve the nation's woes with press conferences, they would have been solved a long time ago."
That's foolishly dismissive of the power of presidential rhetoric.
The presidency has long been more than the sum of its constitutional powers — it's been the focal point of our tragedies, our aspirations, and even our national inspiration. A president's ability to communicate his vision, to use the "bully pulpit," has often been a key aspect of his leadership.
College courses are devoted to presidential rhetoric. Generations of schoolchildren were once required to memorize the Gettysburg Address; the words of Lincoln's second inaugural are inscribed on his memorial. You don't have to be a historian — just a reasonably alert American — to recognize how powerful a president's words have been throughout history.
See, for example, how easy it is to match a president to his most famous quote:
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
"I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"
Trump's most memorable quotes, meanwhile, involve shooting voters on Fifth Avenue and grabbing women by their private parts. It makes you miss the days when Republicans hailed Ronald Reagan as "The Great Communicator."
The worst thing about "his words are meaningless" defense of the president is that it's probably his best defense. To preserve his presidency, Trump's own allies keep telling us we can't use his words to understand it. That's remarkable, and in any other administration would rightly be seen as a crippling political weakness.
At the very least, that defense signals a desire by Trump and his allies to have his cake and eat it too: He does want Mueller fired, but he doesn't want the headache of being directly responsible. He doesn't want to offend Vladimir Putin, but he doesn't want to look too much like a lapdog. Best of all for him, perhaps, is that this approach sows confusion: It's more difficult for opposition to congeal if your opponents are spending their time trying to determine if you mean what you say.
But words matter. They have meaning. And they matter a little bit more when you're president. Trump, though, treats his own speech like he's treated so many other institutions in American and international life — cheaply, without an understanding of why it's important, or an apparent consideration of the consequences for such cavalier treatment.
In Trump's America, even language itself is in decline.