Did you hear the one about police brutality?
Speaking to a group of law enforcement officers in Long Island last week, President Donald Trump urged them not to be “too nice,” as if being gentle were an urgent problem. Putting his hands above his head for added drama, he said: “Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put your hand over their head, you can take the hand away, OK.”
When the White House got pushback, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was just “making a joke.”
Picking up the lighthearted approach to affairs of state on Monday, Jared Kushner, Trump son-in-law and aide in charge of Middle East peace, among other things, joshed about the Russia investigation at a speech to interns on Capitol Hill. He employed the Madcap Defense: “They thought we colluded, but we couldn’t even collude with our local offices.”
The whole thing was supposed to be off the record but kids these days—they were just kidding about not taking notes. They grow up so fast, as the Boy Scouts did last week listening to an R-rated speech from the president at their annual jamboree. The White House pointed out that the 12-year-olds laughed and Trump then told The Wall Street Journal that top scout officials called him to say how much they liked his remarks. They did not.
Just kidding, maybe. This has long been the default position of Trump, which he’s carried to the White House. When something that Trump or his White House has put forward turns out to be, well, a lie, or just plain stupid, like don’t go nicey-nicey on a perp, out comes that he didn’t mean it the way it sounded. Any minute now that adoption ruse dreamed up on Air Force One will be a joke.
Oh wait, as of Tuesday it’s a sitcom where Don Jr. is The Beaver and Trump is Dear Old Dad who “weighed in,” Sanders explained, as “any concerned father would do” to help out his good boy, who happens to be 39 years old.
This is the pattern. As a story unravels, the context changes. Just kidding! Although Trump and his lawyer Jay Sekulow swore up and down otherwise, Trump both concocted the adoption cover story and then tried to cover up that he had any part in the cover up.
Problem for Trump is there’s no laugh track to key a joke or to cover-up the ones that don’t fly. During the campaign, he kept praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, going so far as to welcome his suspected meddling in our election. “I will tell you this, Russia, if you’re listening—I hope you’re able to find the thirty thousand e-mails that are missing,” he said urging them to hack into Hillary Clinton’s server in July. As the Russia investigation was heating up this summer, press secretary Sean Spicer cleared up any confusion about what Trump meant. “He was joking at the time. We all know that,” Spicer said.
We don’t all know, and that is the problem. Was he joking when he compared our intelligence agencies with Nazi Germany’s? Wednesday, we know it was no joking matter when Trump signed the Russia sanctions bill: He did it in private, without any wisecracks for the cameras.
He masks serious threats in sarcasm. He sat endangered Nevada Sen. Dean Heller next to him at a White House lunch just before the health care vote to joke that if he wanted to remain a senator, he’d do what was good for him. He “joked” at a rally that he was going to win the health care vote and if he didn’t, his HHS secretary, standing behind him, would be fired. Was he kidding Monday when he welcomed people to the “boardroom,” where firings took place on The Apprentice, for Gen. John Kelly’s first meeting as chief of staff?
Trump rarely laughs so there’s no signal that he’s about to crack wise. His verbal crutches—“believe me,” “I have to tell you,” “people say”—sometimes alert his audience that a whopper is coming, like the one about Ted Cruz’s father being involved in JFK’s assassination, a nasty claim spewed out the night of the Indiana primary when he clinched the nomination. That’s the kind of baseless, mirthless charges that crowd Trump’s mind on one of the happiest nights of his life.
Trump got away with a lot as a casino owner and since, from impersonating a PR agent to brag about his sexual prowess to the New York tabloids to leaving his wife to brush off as jocular “locker room” talk his boasting on the Access Hollywood tapes.
He takes back antics that fall flat like his mockery of disabled reporter Serge Kovaleski. Trump wasn’t mimicking Kovaleski but demonstrating how the writer was “groveling because he wrote a good story.” When his comment that Fox anchor Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” went south, he said that, of course, he meant “her nose.” His five-year birther campaign ended last September with the worst joke ever—that we should be grateful that he was bringing to closure an inquiry that Hillary Clinton started.
For sure, Trump can’t take what he dishes out. He may have run for president as payback for Barack Obama’s jokes Trump took seriously at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. Trump’s infamous insult to Sen. John McCain was issued in the form of a joke. The man who once said that avoiding STDs was his personal Vietnam dismissed the prison of war tortured for five years in Hanoi: “I like people who WEREN’T captured.” When McCain was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor two weeks ago, the White House said Trump had no plans to take insult back. It was no joke when McCain cast the deciding no vote against Trump’s health care repeal.
Coming to a newsstand near you is Trump’s latest insult, this time the hallowed building he’s privileged to live in. “What a dump,” Trump said of the White House to a Golf magazine reporter explaining why he spends so much time—58 days and counting—at his various clubs, clocking more time on the links than the prior president he pilloried for doing so.
“What a dump” is Mad Men meets Rat Pack talk, Sammy Davis Jr. exclaiming how they trashed the joint after a three-hour set at the Sands.
Trump told me something similar in January at Mar-a-Lago, complaining that he had to give up the beauty of his own homes for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The White House should be “renovated top to bottom,” he said, but the permits would take too long and while he’d be doing the country a big favor, he’d be playing into the unfair image of him as a developer.
Trump told me how he uses sarcasm and humor to get people’s attention, walking mincingly, stooped over, to help me understand why a major donor who wanted to be an ambassador wouldn’t be nominated. He had my attention for sure. Like rubbernecking at a multi-car pile-up on the side of the road, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
But I wasn’t laughing.