Reporter's Notebook

Gaffe Track
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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.

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 62 Newer Notes

Gaffe Track: Trump Mocks a Disabled Reporter

The candidate: Donald Trump, of course.

The gaffe: During the dustup over Trump’s imagined massive Muslim celebrations in Jersey City after 9/11, one point of contention was a Washington Post article by Serge Kovaleski. Trump cited the story; Kovaleski, who suffers from a joint condition called arthrogryposis and is now a New York Times reporter, disputed Trump’s reading.  “Now the poor guy, you ought to see this guy. ‘Ah, I don’t know what I said! I don’t remember!’” Trump said, doing what looks a lot like a mocking physical impression of Kovaleski.

The defense: “I have no idea who this reporter, Serge Kovalski [sic], is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence,” Trump said in a statement. Kovaleski pointed out he has interviewed Trump at least a dozen times, going back to a tenure at the New York Daily News.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Oh, who knows? Mocking disabilities is generally considered verboten, but so are many other things Trump does. His steadfast refusal to back down on the matter, demanding an apology from the Times (really) just adds another freak attraction to the three-ring circus of his candidacy.

The lesson: It’s best to maintain plausible deniability, but failing that, implausible deniability can sometimes suffice.

James Glover II / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Perhaps it’s more the denouement of a gaffe. During a Facebook chat Tuesday, journalist-activist Jose Antonio Vargas criticized Clinton for referring to people who are in the country without official status as “illegal immigrants.” In response, she pledged to quit using the term.

The defense: The debate over how to refer to this group of people is heated and hardly resolved. The Associated Press, for example, in 2013 dropped “illegal immigrant” but also banned “undocumented immigrant” as imprecise and often untrue.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): In some ways, this is a microcosm of Clinton’s struggles: She comes from the ’60s, a long time ago, and she never seems so out of touch as when she deploys terminology that used to be acceptable but isn’t anymore. She also seems to periodically misstep, annoying progressives who don’t entirely trust her. But on the other hand, what are immigrant activists going to do? Back a Republican?

The lesson: Dude, ‘illegal immigrant’ is not the preferred nomenclature.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump, still somehow the GOP frontrunner

The gaffe: In an interview with Yahoo, Trump said … well, what exactly? “Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.” It sounds like Trump, who is allergic to specificity, just agreed with what was suggested. His own verbatim quotes are much vaguer:

We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule. And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.

The defense: It’s true that Trump didn’t put forth the ideas; he’s just incapable of saying no. But even if this is entrapment, surely it isn’t too much to ask that he speak against registering Muslims or forcing them to carry a Nazi-style special ID.

Why matters (or doesn’t): In a rational world, calling for, or even nodding along with, blatantly unconstitutional ideas like this would be disqualifying. In the real world, it’ll probably do nothing to hurt Trump and might even help him.

The moral: No one ever went broke overestimating American hysteria after a terrorist attack. They have, however, gone bust after over-leveraging hotels and casinos.

Jim Young / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: During the second Democratic debate Saturday, Bernie Sanders criticized Clinton for receiving donations from bankers. “I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked,” she said. “Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy. And it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.”

The defense: It is true that she was a senator from New York during the attacks, and that they struck the Financial District.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Who did Clinton think would buy this? Certainly not the left wing of the Democratic Party that sees her as too cozy with the finance world. Meanwhile, Republicans are more than happy to attack her for claiming that 9/11 is why bankers donate to her campaign. It’s too soon to know whether this gaffe will have much real impact, but it seems destined to be replayed over and over throughout the campaign.

The moral: As President Rudolph Giuliani showed, shameless invocation of 9/11 is a surefire path to the White House.

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: The Democrat was stumping in New Hampshire on Tuesday when a man in the audience asked a question about Carly Fiorina. “Every time I see her on TV, I want to reach through and strangle her,” he said. “I wouldn’t mess with you!” Clinton replied, cackling.

The defense: She’s right: You don’t want to mess with a guy who’s already discussed strangling another candidate.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): If you’re a candidate for president, you can’t just laugh and crack a joke when someone discusses strangling one of your Republican rivals. That’s especially true given the sexist jabs lobbed at Fiorina already in this campaign. Violence against women isn’t funny.

The lesson: Choking in the clutch when someone makes a strangulation joke may draw suffocatingly negative scrutiny.

The candidate: Ted Cruz

The gaffe: Asked how he’d account for lost federal revenue under tax cuts he’s proposed, the senator replied: “Five major agencies that I would eliminate: The IRS, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce and HUD.” (Cruz was missing the Department of Education.) As another Texan running for president once said, “Oops.”

The defense: Well, it’s harder to count to five than to Rick Perry’s three, give Cruz that.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): By the time Perry forgot the third agency he wanted to eliminate, he had already acquired a reputation as a flake. Cruz, a polished debater, doesn’t risk that. Still … ouch.

The lesson: Never underestimate the importance of education.

“CHUG!” (John Locher / AP)

The candidate: Marco Rubio

The gaffe: It’s a classic political question: Which candidate would voters want to have a beer with? But when someone turned the question on Marco Rubio, the Republican came up with an odd answer.

Yes, that’s right: He wants to have a beer with a practicing Muslim who is not yet of drinking age.

The defense: Malala is pretty darn cool.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Look, Marco Rubio is the most dudely candidate in the race, right? Is there a bigger bro in the field? Martin O’Malley, maybe, but he always seems to be trying too hard. It comes naturally to Rubio. This is a guy who can’t help but talk about the Dolphins constantly, even when they are 3-4. And yet the answer he comes up with isn’t Marino but Malala. Is this just awkward pandering, or is it the new masculinity?

The lesson: At least he didn’t say Roger Ailes. Or Karl Lagerfeld. Or even Walt Weiss.

Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Speaking on Friday at an NAACP banquet in South Carolina, Clinton said she would help ex-convicts’ employment chances by preventing employers from including a check box where applicants must disclose any criminal record. “I will take steps to ban the box so former presidents won’t have to declare their criminal history at the very start of the hiring process,” she said.

The defense: It’s pretty clear she meant to say “prisoners,” not “presidents,” but then you knew that. Besides, when’s the last time a former president had to apply for a job?

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Slate calls it a Freudian slip. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, wasn’t convicted of any crimes, but he was impeached by the House. And Hillary Clinton’s State Department email is at the center of several investigations— though there’s no evidence that any of them is aimed at criminal misconduct on her part.

The lesson: Don’t give voters any reason to remember what happened in the 1990s. It’s Whitewater under the bridge.

Mike Stone / Reuters

The candidate: Jeb Bush, scion of the nation’s ancien regime.

The gaffe: During last week’s Republican debate, Bush tried to pile on to Marco Rubio for missing votes during his day job. “The Senate, what is it like a French work week? You get like three days where you have to show up?” Au contraire, scolded the French ambassador, who noted that France has a longer average work week than the Germans. Désolé, Bush said Tuesday, apologizing.

The defense: Zut alors! Who doesn’t love to bash the French?

Why it matters (or doesn’t): What better microcosm of Bush’s campaign manqué is there? He tries to attack a rival, gets steamrolled by the rival in the contretemps, and finally ends up apologizing to the butt of his joke. It’s a double own-goal—and his misunderstanding of continental labor is all the more embarrassing since Bush likes to present himself as the only bien-pensant foreign-policy candidate in the GOP field.

The moral: When your bon mot is so déclassé that you end up surrendering to the French, your campaign is truly not the crème de la crème.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

The candidate: Chris Christie

The gaffe: The New Jersey governor committed a cardinal sin on Sunday: He spoke in the quiet car. Gawker, which, uh, scooped the story, reported Christie was yelling; his spokesman and other accounts said he was merely chatting on a cell phone. (To be fair, Christie is not known for speaking at low volumes.)

The defense: “The governor promptly left once he realized the serious nature of his mistake and enjoyed the rest of his time on the train from the cafe car,” his spokeswoman said in a statement. “Sincere apologies to all the patrons of the quiet car that were offended.”

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Christie just lost the crucial Acela Corridor frequent-rider vote. Also, dude, learn from Lanny Davis’s mistakes.

The moral: It’s better to talk in the quiet car and remind people you’re running for president than keep mum and have them forget.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The candidate: Horatio Alger Donald Trump

The gaffe: You might think Trump, as the son of a multimillionaire real-estate developer, might have had some advantages in life—education, knowledge, entree into the real-estate world. You would be wrong, Trump said on Today, today: “It has not been easy for me ... My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.”

The defense: Trump’s argument is that his father was an outer-borough guy, and he had to break into Manhattan. (That distinction should play in Peoria.)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Mitt Romney, whom Trump likes to mock, was widely mocked for even suggesting in 2012 that ordinary people might do this: “Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.”

The moral: If your dad cut you a check that big, your privilege needs one, too.

Scott Morgan / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Trump retweeted the following after a poll showed him slipping to second in the first caucus state: “@mygreenhippo #BenCarson is now leading in the #polls in #Iowa. Too much#Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the brain? #Trump #GOP.”

The defense: Trump claims an intern was responsible:

Maybe. But perhaps the intern’s name is Donald J. Trump. Trump has said he sometimes dictates tweets and sometimes does it himself—something reporters have witnessed—and this isn’t far off from other stuff he’s tweeted.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): It’s not a good idea to insult Iowa voters if you wish to win their vote. It’s also not a great idea to insult a company whose stock you own.

The moral: Never tweet.