Presidential Lies and Presidential Jokes

by Neil H. Buchanan

There are so many unbelievable things coming out of the Trump White House that it has become a challenge even to choose column topics from among each day's new set of juicy (that is, highly disturbing) events.  While I am one of the people who does not believe that Trump and his people are doing this as a deliberate strategy, the effect is the same even if there is no method to their madness.  No one can keep up with the craziness.

For example, even as people chewed over whether Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch's description of Trump's attacks on the judiciary as "disheartening and demoralizing" were part of a conspiracy, Trump managed to make matters even stranger by rejecting facts (of course) that Republicans had already confirmed and then insulting someone (of course) who displeased him, in this case Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal.

What I found laugh-out-loud funny about Trump's attack on Blumenthal, however, was the reasoning behind Trump's claim that people should disbelieve Blumenthal's version of events.  Trump tweeted: "Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had (major lie), now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?"  (Blumenthal won his first election to the Senate in 2010 even after it had been revealed that he lied about his military service.)

In other words, Trump is saying that Blumenthal is a liar and thus has no credibility.  Once a liar, always a liar, such that anything coming out of Blumenthal's mouth should be immediately dismissed.  Agreeing with that logic, I say that we must reject the statements of everyone who has an established record of dishonesty -- especially the person who has set an unsurpassable record for being caught in pants-on-fire lies.

But Trump's clueless hypocrisy has itself by this point become old news.  We have already witnessed a complete change in the way the press and the public react to presidential lying, so much so that we barely even notice the pure gall of Trump's self-serving double standard.

We have not, however, seen nearly as many examples of Trump making jokes that misfire.  That is in part because Trump is obviously humorless, seeming only to find enjoyment when he is trying to harm his many perceived enemies.  Even so, his defenders are evidently aware that it is sometimes useful to defend Trump's outrageous statements by claiming that he was merely joking.

This was their defense after Reuters reported that Trump had told a gathering of sheriffs that he would "destroy" the career of an unnamed Texas state senator who had proposed a bill to prevent governments from keeping the seized assets of criminal suspects, even when the suspects were never convicted (or, in some cases, charged with a crime at all).  This is not exactly a subject that lends itself to high comedy.

Even so, the initial report noted that "some of the sheriffs laughed when Trump suggested he might want to 'destroy' the career of one Texas legislator."  Is that smattering of laughter enough to excuse the rather chilling implications of Trump's comments?  Hardly.  After all, people can laugh for a lot of reasons, and the mere fact that some of the sheriffs in the room laughed at Trump's remark proves nothing.

Most obviously, this is a select group of people, some of whom clearly were unhappy about the legislation in question.  They could be laughing malevolently at the idea of seeing an opponent harmed.  Moreover, there is every incentive for people to laugh when the president -- any president -- seems to want people to laugh.  It is nerve-wracking to meet the most powerful man on earth, and it is possible (even likely) that some people laughed in the belief that Trump must have been joking, because he could not possibly have meant what he just said.  Could he?

In a subsequent article, two New York Times reporters followed up on the response in Texas, where not everyone was amused.  The two state senators who had filed bills to change asset forfeiture laws, one Republican and one Democrat, are apparently quite sincere in their belief that the law needs to be changed.

Yet the Times article pretty strongly suggested that the story had been overblown.  First, it reported that Michael McCrumm, a former federal prosecutor in Texas, "believed Mr. Trump’s comment came close to crossing the line from a joke to a criminal act," but it then quoted McCrumm as saying: "It’s certainly up close to the line. I don’t think it’s over the line."

Even more definitively, the article ends with a quote from a University of Texas law professor who comes down solidly on the "it's only a joke" side of the line.  Nothing to see here, folks.  Even a liberal law professor agrees!

Here is the full quote from that professor:
"I am a liberal Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton, but I really think we should let up on Trump now and accept he is our president and wish him well.  Trying to obstruct him at every turn and even criminally charge him for what was clearly a joke is not helping this country one bit."
Why we should "let up on Trump now" is a mystery to me, to say the least.  Perhaps at some point I will write a column analyzing how anyone could issue such a statement, but here I will accept for the sake of argument the narrower claim that Trump actually was joking.  Is that the end of the matter?

Let us consider some other famous cases of presidents or near-presidents having made jokes that did not sit well with large numbers of people.  Trump's so-called joke still stands out as being problematic.

First, there is Ronald Reagan's infamous joke that the U.S. was about to begin a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  In 1984, Reagan was preparing for a radio address and, while still off the air, he decided to deviate from the standard "testing, one ... two ... three" when checking his microphone.  Instead, he said: "My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you that I have signed legislation to outlaw Russia for ever. We begin bombing in five minutes."

Next, there is a similarly ghoulish 2007 joke by then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who changed the lyrics to the Beach Boys' song "Barbara Ann" to "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb" Iran.  McCain can be seen smiling impishly when he starts the joke, but he was apparently aware enough of its tastelessness that he never actually finished the line and quickly changed the subject.

Finally, consider Barack Obama's joke when he was the commencement speaker at Arizona State University in 2009.  As I recounted the story in a column last year: "Making light of the university's controversial decision not to confer an honorary degree on its commencement speaker (that is, himself), Obama laughed and said that obviously the IRS would investigate."  The audience laughed, but this incident has been distorted by Obama's detractors ever since to suggest that he would (and did) abuse the IRS's powers.

How can we compare these semi-failed efforts at presidential humor to Trump's recent statement?  In all cases, the immediate listeners seemed to "get it" (although the report of Trump's audience's reaction suggests that the mirth was not universal).  What else might be relevant?

As a matter of pure horror, it is obvious that Reagan's and McCain's statements are worse then Obama's and Trump's.  If all four men had actually been serious, after all, Reagan and McCain were talking about killing thousands or even millions of people, whereas Obama and Trump were not talking about using anything like lethal force.

Of course, that could be the best reason to take Reagan and McCain less seriously.  While both men cultivated reputations as being overly eager to go to war, it is easy to believe that they at least took seriously the gravity of actually starting all-out fighting.

Obama joked that the IRS would investigate the decision not to give him an honorary degree.  Although the threat of an investigation is itself not so bad, the threat of using the tax cops to punish those who displease a president -- if it were serious -- would involve Nixonian levels of malice.

It is essential to remember, however, that after years of investigations of the so-called IRS scandal, the Republicans never came up with anything resembling actionable evidence tying agency-level wrongdoing to Obama or his administration.  It initially looked like a low-level bureaucratic screw-up, and nearly four years later, it still looks that way.

By the end of Obama's term, in fact, frustrated Republicans were spinning conspiracy theories about destroyed evidence (that surely would have been damning, I tell you!) and attempting to destroy the career of the current IRS Commissioner (who had not even been in office when the initial wrongdoing was uncovered).

What makes Trump's supposed joke different, I think, is that it is so easy to believe that he meant what he said.  Again, Trump is notably humorless -- unlike Reagan, McCain, and Obama, all of whom earned reputations for wit.  It is easy to picture any of those three men being inspired to make their audiences laugh with self-deprecating humor.  Self-deprecation is not a trait that we have ever seen in Trump, who is the best ever at self-aggrandizement.  The best.  Totally tremendous.

Moreover, Obama's comment is easier to take as a joke because the stakes were so incredibly low.  We are honestly supposed to believe that he was worried about whether he received another honorary degree?  He only mentioned it in the speech because the university's decision had inspired intense public debate, and he defused the issue by joking about it.

By contrast, Trump not only made his name in large part by firing people, but he enthusiastically embraces a take-no-prisoners approach to politics.  He never lets anything go, and even after he defeats people, he continues to dance on their graves and exult in their demise.  He clearly believes that he should simply be allowed to do whatever he wants to do, and people who stand in his way must be destroyed.

A president who, in less than three weeks in office, has been attacking the judiciary and escalating his longstanding war with the "totally dishonest" press has already spent all of his political capital, and then some.  There is no more benefit of any doubt.

Trump's presidency is an ongoing experiment in how much he can expand and abuse the powers of his office.  When he casually says that he would like to destroy the career of someone of whom he has been aware for only a matter of seconds, simply because that person favors policies that Trump dislikes, that fits a very disturbing pattern.

Although I doubt that Trump was actually joking, let us again say for the sake of argument that he did not literally mean what he said.  How does his controversial joke compare with the others?

All four jokes were arguably tasteless, or at least regrettable.  Obama's does not fit a personal pattern, whereas the other three feed easily into what we know about those men.  Even though I could picture circumstances in which Reagan and McCain would have done what they joked about doing, however, I also cannot imagine them doing so lightly or with joy in their hearts.  And then there is Trump.