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Gaffe Track: The 2016 Presidential Election in Blunders
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Every presidential campaign is full of unpredictable twists and turns. After a brief moment where it looked like the nation might slouch into a Bush-Clinton rematch, the 2016 election is taking its place in that line of strange journeys. The one sure thing: There will be gaffes.

Some will be humorous verbal slip-ups of the Bushian variety (“we ought to make the pie higher”), while others will seem more revealing of a candidate’s weaknesses (Herman Cain’s tetchy dismissal of questions about “Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan”). Some will seem important but ultimately have little effect (like “Bittergate”). Some will seem damaging but actually do little (Rick Perry’s “oops”), while others will seem minor at first but prove more damaging (Perry’s statement that those who oppose education for illegal immigrants “don’t have a heart.”) Some, like the latter Perry remark, will be Kinsley gaffes, where a politician accidentally tells the truth about facts or his own views. The very occasional gaffe will end up defining an entire cycle, as Mitt Romney’s secretly videotaped comment about “the 47 percent” did.

Knowing that the range of gaffes is wide, and that the import of a gaffe is often inflated (or overlooked) early on, Gaffe Track is The Atlantic’s bid to cover these gaffes with a consistent approach, creating a nearly real-time chronological inventory of the missteps, miscalculations, and misstatements of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Show None Newer Notes

Gaffe Track: That's No Sheriff's Badge, Donald

Rick Wilking / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump. Yep, again.

The gaffe: On July 2, Trump tweeted out an image featuring Hillary Clinton’s face over a background of cash, with a six-pointed star reading “Most corrupt candidate ever.” Many people immediately recognized this as an anti-Semitic dogwhistle, as the six-pointed Star of David is a symbol of Judaism. Trump deleted the tweet, then resent the same image with the star changed to a circle.

The defense: Trump argues that it was a sheriff’s badge, or perhaps a “basic” six-pointed star. But a sheriff’s badge wouldn’t make any sense in this context. There’s also the small problem that the image appears to have originated in a neo-Nazi-frequented message board, then traveled to an anti-Semitic Twitter account before being picked up by Trump.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Trump’s tweet has produced a heated debate over whether Trump is anti-Semitic. That argument is to a certain extent beside the point. It’s hard—though some diehards are finding ways—to ignore the pattern of Trump encouraging anti-Semitic and other racist elements, regardless of whether Trump himself bears any personal animus toward Jews. (One of his staunch defenders at this moment is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is Jewish.) Time and again, Trump has tweeted or retweeted material that originated with white supremacists. There was also, of course, the moment where he declined to condemn an endorsement from former KKK leader David Duke, and later tried to blame it on a bad earpiece. (Duke helpfully insists the star was a Star of David, by the way.) The white supremacists are certainly convinced that Trump is speaking to them with a wink and a nudge. In any case, Trump shows no remorse.

The lesson: This schmuck’s shtick is still a shanda.

Gaffe Track: Trump's Mash Note for Saddam

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The candidate: Donald J. Trump

The gaffe: Speaking in Raleigh, North Carolina, last night, Trump found the positive side of the late repressive, genocidal Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. "He was a bad guy—really bad guy. But you know what? He did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights. They didn't talk. They were terrorists. Over. Today, Iraq is Harvard for terrorism.”

The defense: There’s a coherent case that toppling Saddam was a grave error because it destabilized the Middle East and led to sectarian wars, broader regional dysfunction, and ISIS. Also, the Harvard remark is kind of hilarious trolling coming from a Penn grad.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Here’s a handy, one-word guide for presidential candidates on when to praise Saddam Hussein: “Never.” Whatever the case to be made that toppling Saddam was a bad idea, it’s not really the case Trump made. Instead, he praised a war criminal for his handling of enemies, and a known sponsor of terrorism for his killing of terrorists. (When Henry Kissinger makes the case for cozying up to repressive dictators because of American self-interest, he’s revered as a wise statesman, but when Trump does it, everyone is appalled—though maybe that says more about Kissinger than about Trump.) This isn’t the first time Trump has argued the world would be better off with Saddam in power, and it’s not even the first time he’s made the “Harvard of Terrorism” joke. But once again, the Republican has managed to trip on his own feet, distracting from condemnation of Hillary Clinton’s email. It’s a weird comment to make in North Carolina, a state with many Iraq veterans, though he also suggested in Greensboro that U.S. soldiers siphoned reconstruction funds. Anyway, all of this would ring a lot more true if Trump had been opposed to the Iraq war from the start. But despite his claims, he clearly supported it.

The lesson: Praising Saddam can make a candidate’s image go from Baath to worse.

Gaffe Track: Trump Doesn't Understand SCOTUS

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: On Monday, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law restricting abortion clinics, a landmark in the decades-long battle over abortion. Yet Donald Trump was strangely quiet, not saying anything about the decision, which upset many Republicans. On Thursday, he finally weighed in. “Now if we had [the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia was living or if Scalia was replaced by me, you wouldn’t have had that. Okay? It would’ve been the opposite,” the presumptive GOP nominee said in a radio interview. The problem here is that the ruling was decided 5-3, so that either with a live Scalia or a Trump appointee, the math doesn’t add up.

The defense: The Court isn’t always subject to simple math—a jurist as brilliant as Scalia could perhaps have convinced another justice to join him—but there’s no indication that’s what Trump meant.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): The Supreme Court vacancy remains one of Trump's most potent talking points. Even some conservatives who fiercely dislike him would rather have him appointing justices than Hillary Clinton, who could hand lifetime appointments to liberals with long-reaching consequences. So it’s not a surprise that Trump would speak strongly about it. Still, the delay in response, followed by a questionable comment, can’t instill much confidence about his understanding of the justice system. Not that he’s alone: Bernie Sanders and Mike Huckabee have also delivered some howlers about how the Supreme Court works during this election cycle.

The lesson: Justice is blind, but she isn’t innumerate.

Gaffe Track: Trump's Wee Scottish Blunder

Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

The candidate: Donald J. Trump

The gaffe: Trump arrived in Scotland hot on the heels of the Brexit vote last week, ready to promote his Turnberry golf resort. He cheerily reported:

Och, ye daft minger. As my colleague James Fallows wrote, although the “Leave” side won, the Scots voted heavily for “Remain.”

The defense: How should Trump tell the difference between Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole? It’s not as if Trump has claimed a special affinity for Caledonia, his mother’s native land.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): The comment—along with Trump’s admission that he hadn’t spoken with foreign policy advisers about the Brexit vote—simply reinforces the idea that Trump knows nothing about, and moreover has no interest in learning about, policy issues. It shouldn’t hurt his standing with the Scots, though: They already despise him.

The lesson: When ye dinnae ken whit yer talkin aboot, haud yer wheesht.

Gaffe Track: Trump: 'Look at My African American Over Here!'

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: “Look at my African American over here!” Trump said in Redding, California, pointing to a man in the crowd. The comment came as the Republican nominee predicted strong black support and noted that an African American supporter had slugged a protestor at a previous event.

The defense: Despite sounding like a hilarious bowdlerized version of a rap lyric, this is in some ways genuine progress. Trump typically speaks about African Americans only as an abstract, distant group, and he usually uses the definite pronoun “the” rather than the possessive “my.”

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Trump is pioneering new levels in “Did he really say that?” Less offensive than some of his comments this week, this one is just jaw-droppingly weird. It’s not a coincidence that 89 percent of black voters in a recent CBS/New York Times poll backed Clinton, versus just 5 percent for Trump.

The lesson: If Trump wants more than one black supporter, he must refine his approach.

Gaffe Track: Trump's Attack on a 'Mexican' Judge

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: The presumptive Republican nominee spent nearly 15 minutes in an hour-long speech on Friday blasting Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge overseeing a class-action suit against the so-called Trump University. “The judge was appointed by Barack Obama, federal judge. Frankly, he should recuse himself because he’s given us ruling after ruling after ruling, negative, negative, negative,” Trump said, adding, “What happens is the judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that’s fine.” The judge was born and raised in Indiana, though his parents emigrated from Mexico.

The defense: Is holding its head in its hands, probably.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This one’s a twofer. First, there’s the unseemly racial argument—an implication that a federal judge is unfit to preside in a case because of his ethnicity, a conflict of interest that in turn is a result of Trump’s attacks on Mexicans. (There’s a novel legal strategy: Slander groups to which judges belong, then demand the judges’ recusals.) Second, there’s the dubious strategic logic of attacking a judge who will rule over one’s own case.

The lesson: Justice may be blind, but judges are not deaf.

Gaffe Track: Hillary Clinton's 'Vennghazi'

Chris Barna

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Vennghazi! The candidate’s Twitter account, on Friday, shared a diagram that purported to demonstrate the great overlap in support for universal background checks between American gun-owners and … Americans?  

The problem: The chart makes no sense. It’s chartjunk that is, most simply … a mismatch of data visualization style (Venn diagram) and data being visualized. As Vox helpfully chartsplains:

The general point is true: The great majority of Americans do support universal background checks, including the great majority of gun owners.

But this is simply not how Venn diagrams work. The circles are completely wrong. They should, for one, overlap entirely, since the gun owners referenced in this are all Americans. And the circle for Americans should be much, much bigger than the circle for gun owners, since gun owners make up just one segment of the US population. (That is, unless, the Clinton campaign is literally saying that a lot of gun owners are un-American, which is a very, very hot take for a risk-averse campaign.)

The defense: None given so far.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): It doesn’t, really. But the dataviz also doesn’t look great coming from a campaign whose candidate is selling herself, in part, in terms of her wonkiness and mastery of detail. One of the true/false questions in the “Is Hillary Clinton qualified to be president?” quiz—which the campaign tweeted out earlier today, a couple of hours before the Vennghazi chart—reads: “Hillary was a driving force behind raising the minimum wage in New York and nationally, co-sponsoring or introducing bills to do it eight different times as senator.” (Spoiler, for those still awake: It’s true.)

The lesson: While perhaps the chart wants what it wants, sometimes it’s best to know Venn to hold ‘em—and know Venn to fold ‘em.

Gaffe Track: Trump's Spokesman Snafu

Mary Altaffer / AP

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Some outlets have noted that Trump used to speak to reporters under an alias, claiming to be either “John Miller” or “John Barron,” spokesmen for himself. On May 13, The Washington Post reported on a recording, in which “John Miller” speaks with a syntax and voice that is pretty unmistakably Trumpian. That’s weird, but here’s the gaffe: Trump denied that he had ever used the aliases, even though he admitted to having used “John Barron” while he was under oath in a deposition years ago.

The defense: All’s fair in (lying about) love

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Trump has a rather rocky relationship with truth, but this is a weird one: Caught in a mildly embarrassing, or at best simply eccentric practice, he’s lied blatantly—or else he’s admitted to perjuring himself. The unnecessary dissimulation is simply bizarre. It would be a serious blow to a normal presidential candidate. But …

The lesson: A man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client. A man who represents himself as someone else has a fool for a spokesman.

Gaffe Track: Take the Skinheads Voting

Chris Tilley / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Trump is signing up prospective delegates ahead of the California primary. Those who have signed up and been approved by the campaign include venture capitalist Peter Thiel, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and, uh, William Johnson, who is a self-described white nationalist and leads a major white nationalist party. (Mother Jones first made the connection.)

The defense: Trump aides blamed a “database error” and said Johnson was erroneously included in a delegate list. But Mother Jones posted correspondence between him and the campaign that casts doubt on the claim.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Trump is allegedly trying to reach out to minorities—“the African Americans” and “the Hispanics,” as he calls them. Asked about his awkward/offensive overtures, GOP Chair Reince Priebus sadly shook his head and said, “He’s trying.” Is he, though? On the one hand, Trump has disavowed Johnson before, condemning robocalls he funded and returning a small donation. Maybe this is just an oversight—though Trump’s on-again, off-again flirtation with David Duke makes it hard to know for sure. If it is just disorganization, does that make things any better? That’s not exactly a vote of confidence in his ability to run a campaign. Or, y’know, the United States. Even worse, it may now be too late for Johnson to be removed from the delegate rolls.

The lesson: A Caucasian nationalist isn’t just a guy who prefers caucuses to primaries.

Gaffe Track: Dios Mío, What Is Donald Trump Doing Now

The candidate: Donald J. Trump

The gaffe: I mean.

The defense: I’d probably eat that, if maybe I were really hungry, probably drunk, and willing to waste $13.50 on mediocre Mexican food.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): So Trump has a problem with Hispanic voters—something like eight in 10 of them have an unfavorable view of him. Trump decides to work on that issue by ordering an Americanized faux-Mexican meal to mark an Americanized faux-Mexican holiday. Amigo, let me give you a tip: They don’t dislike you because they think you eat burgers. They dislike you because you’ve run on xenophobic rhetoric, suggesting that many Hispanics are rapists and criminals. At least he left out the “the” this time.

The lesson: No Hispanic voter is going to be eloted just because some moronga who’s been flautaing his dislike for Mexicans digs into a taco bowl. Unless this is part of some master flan, it’s a queso political malpractice. Save the hard shells for your hairdo.

Gaffe Track: Hillary Clinton's 'Off the Reservation' Misstep

Jim Bourg / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Speaking last Friday to Jake Tapper, Clinton dismissed attacks from Donald Trump: “I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave and how they speak.” One question is whether she was referring to her husband. (She says no.) Another question: Why did she use this outdated phrase, which many Native Americans—as well as others—find offensive?

The defense: Clinton, who apologized, doesn’t seem to have used the phrase maliciously. It’s been been commonly used in political contexts, as Kee Malesky writes in a great explainer.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): In general, it’s a bad idea to use offensive racist terms, or even borderline ones. Clinton ought to know better. (Although Donald Trump going after her for it—“the Indians have gotten wild,” he said—is risible.) One of the peculiarities of her campaign is that despite her reputation for caution, this isn’t her first such blunder: In November, she apologized for referring to “illegal immigrants,” no longer the preferred nomenclature on the left.

The lesson: Adopt her liberal stances if you must, but leave questionable comments about Native Americans to Elizabeth Warren.

Gaffe Track: Relatable Guy Ted Cruz Rhapsodizes About the 'Basketball Ring'

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

The candidate: Ted Cruz

The gaffe: Tuesday night, while Donald Trump was destroying him in the Northeast, the Texas senator was in Knightsville, Indiana, at the gym where Hoosiers was filmed. Cruz said he loved the movie, adding, “The amazing thing is, that basketball ring in Indiana, it's the same height as it is New York City and every other place in this country.” Alley-oops! Talk about a Princeton offense! Referring to the hoop as the “basketball ring” is a technical foul in basketball-crazy Indiana.

The defense: The San Antonio Spurs couldn’t defend this one.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Cruz isn’t the most friendly, chummy dude in the race—there’s a reason that The New York Times this week profiled David Panton, one of the few close friends he has. Wherever Cruz has gone, from Princeton to Harvard Law to the Senate, he’s alienated people. But everyone loves Hoosiers, right? It’s a great way to connect to normal folks, as long as you don’t botch a basic piece of jargon. (Cruz could stand to take some tips from his doppelgänger, Duke guard Grayson Allen.) Impressively, Cruz’s awkwardness and Hillary Clinton’s stiffness have left a Manhattan billionaire as the most relatable likely nominee in the race.

The lesson: Defense wins rings. Doofuses mislabel them.