Give President Trump credit. He’s invented a new kind of political gaffe. It was on display at the first meeting of the voter fraud commission held at the White House today, when he blurted out a real motive for the whole sorry exercise: to find “something.”
Of course, the whole notion of a gaffe is somewhat quaint at this point. The dictionary says that a gaffe is a “social or diplomatic blunder.” Spilling the soup on the hostess, mispronouncing a name. Such missteps involved breached decorum. Over the years, in the political world, it has come to mean a statement by a public figure that inadvertently causes a scandal or controversy. A faux pas, a blooper.
The journalist Michael Kinsley famously explained that a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Ever since connoisseurs have known this as a “Kinsley Gaffe.”
Along comes Trump. A Trump Gaffe is when he tells the truth about his own malevolent motive for doing something—and thus undermines the spin of his aides and allies. That’s not to be confused with other stumbles, say, starting World War III. (That would be worse than a gaffe.) But it tells us something about Trump nonetheless.
Examples abound. Take the firing of Federal Bureau of Investigations director James Comey. Everyone knew it would be scandalous if the president axed Comey because he was probing the Trump campaign and its ties to Russia’s political espionage. So the White House insisted he had acted only on the recommendation of the deputy attorney general, who lashed Comey for his conduct of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Vice President Mike Pence said Russia had nothing to do with the firing. “That was not what this was about,” he claimed.
Then, of course, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt, “In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’” Oops!
That same week, Trump shared highly classified intelligence with Russia’s foreign minister in the Oval Office. H.R. McMaster, his widely respected national security adviser, grimly told cameras, “This story is false.” Within days, another Trump Gaffe: “As President, I wanted to share [information] with Russia… which I have the absolute right to do.”
Trump’s compulsive confessions can be especially hard on the lawyers. When the White House rushed out its executive order banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries, its defenders insisted in court that religion had nothing to do with it. In blocking the move, judges cited Trump’s interview with the Christian Broadcast Network, in which he said Christian refugees would get priority. After officials put out a new version, claiming it was merely a pause, Trump demolished their arguments. “People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN.”
Wait, you might be thinking: Trump as truth-teller? Doesn’t he lie repeatedly, brazenly? Aren’t his aides expected to amplify those lies? (Think of Sean Spicer’s flop-sweat as he insisted that the crowd size at Trump’s inaugural set records.) What’s noteworthy is not Trump’s precision about facts, but his compulsion to blurt out his own rationale, the darker the better. It’s breaking through the fourth wall, a theatrical device familiar to viewers of Richard III or House of Cards.
All of which brings us to today’s first meeting of the voting commission. The panel was created to justify one of the more outlandish presidential fibs: the idea that, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” After Trump was roundly mocked for his claim of 3 to 5 million illegal voters, the panel was launched in an effort to try to rustle up some evidence—any evidence—for the charge. It was given a bland name, the Presidential Commission on Election Integrity. (Though Trump insisted on proudly calling it his “VOTER FRAUD panel.”)
The panel has had a slapstick launch. In contrast to voting inquiries in other administrations, with Noah’s Ark style balance between the parties, this one is led by two partisan Republicans, Vice President Mike Pence, and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, its vice chair and driving force. Its members include several of the most controversial purveyors of the urban myth of widespread fraud. Kobach’s ham-fisted bid for personal voting information about tens of millions of voters, including partial Social Security numbers, provoked a fierce backlash, a flurry of lawsuits, and colorful denunciation from Republican and Democratic officials.
Today’s task, plainly, was to start fresh. At its televised White House session, Mike Pence was on message. Three times throughout the day, he purred, using nearly identical wording. “We have no preconceived notions or preordained results.” Another commissioner chimed in. “I appreciate, in spite of some of the media reports I’ve seen, that the commission has no preconceived results.”
Time for a Trump Gaffe, this time in his opening remarks. No preconceived results? The goal of the panel, he explained in his remarks, was to find something—some evidence of misconduct. He was plainly peeved that so many states had refused to offer up voters’ personal data. “If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they’re worried about. And I asked the Vice President, I asked the commission: What are they worried about? There’s something. There always is.”
Hmm. “There’s something. There always is.” Where have we heard that before?
The more cynical—or literary—might remember the instructions the corrupt demagogue Willie Stark gave his henchmen in Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel, All the King’s Men. Find some dirt on a judge, Stark told them. “There is always something.”
“Maybe not on the judge.”
Stark replied: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”
So much for “no preconceived notions,” “election integrity,” and other mild reassurances.
Trump’s brief flare of candor spoke volumes. The purpose of the panel is not just to try to justify his laughable claims of millions of invisible illegal voters. It aims to stir fears, to lay the ground for new efforts to restrict voting. Trump’s claims, after all, are just a cartoon version of the groundless arguments already used to justify restrictive voting laws. Late today Kobach told MSNBC that “we may never know” if Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Even the panel’s missteps can have harsh consequences. Already, we’re hearing reports from around the country of voters canceling their registrations because they do not want the White House to have their data.
So let’s set aside the comic relief, and recognize that an insidious assault on basic democratic values is underway. That’s no gaffe. That’s an outrage.
Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. His most recent book, The Fight to Vote, was recently published in paperback.