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 None Newer Notes

Gaffe Track: Hillary Says Wall Street Loves Her Because 9/11

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.

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.

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.

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.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

The candidate: You’re not going to believe this, but Donald Trump

The gaffe: Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump made some statements about Israel and the peace process that didn’t go over so well. But he also unspooled a string of anti-Semitic stereotypes:

  • “I’m a negotiator like you folks were negotiators.”
  • “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken.”
  • “I don’t want any of your money.
  • “Stupidly, you want to give money. Trump doesn’t want money.”
  • “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.”

Oy. Trump didn’t quite say Jews are moneygrubbers, but he came pretty, pretty close.

The defense: We’ll turn this over to the RJC’s spokesman, who suggests it’s OK to make Jewish jokes if you make them to Jews (or something): “Donald Trump is well aware of the composition of our board and our audience—one that includes many successful business men and women as well as dealmakers like him.”

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Who knows? There are lots of things that aren’t permitted in polite company that Trump does all the time. It’s a bit rich to see GOP grandees suddenly appalled by these jokes—after all, he’s been trading in racist stereotypes throughout the campaign.

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

Mike Blake / Reuters

The candidate: Donald J. “Yes, I’m Still Here” Trump

The gaffe: During the December 15 debate, moderator Hugh Hewitt asked Trump what his priority is in the nuclear triad. Trump ignored the question, warning against Syrian nuclear proliferation. Hewitt tried again. “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” Trump managed to say, clearly having no idea what the nuclear triad is.

The defense: Yes, that’s what the question was about, defense. Even if Trump didn’t get that. (Marco Rubio picked up the baton, smoothly clarifying: “The triad is our ability of the United States to conduct nuclear attacks using airplanes, using missiles launched from silos or from the ground, and also from our nuclear subs’ ability to attack.”)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): James Fallows writes: “If realities mattered in this race, what Trump has just revealed would be fundamentally disqualifying ignorance for someone seeking a position of command responsibility.” That “if” is important. Back in the innocent days of September when we kicked off Gaffe Track, the first entry was about Trump botching a clever foreign-policy question from Hugh Hewitt. At the time, he was leading his nearest opponent by 14 points in the polls. Today? He leads by 17, and is enjoying his biggest overall polling numbers.

The lesson: If at first you don’t know foreign policy, there’s no compelling reason to try, try, triad again.

The candidate: Marco Rubio

The gaffe: Speaking to CBS News, the Republican blasted the omnibus spending bill. “I want these votes to start to matter again.” The only problem: As John Dickerson pointed out, Rubio skipped the vote. “In essence, not voting for it is a vote against it,” Rubio said.

The defense: He certainly didn’t vote for it! Rubio’s vote wouldn’t have flipped the result anyway.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Earlier in the campaign, Rubio KO’d attacks on his missed votes with a brutal shutdown of Jeb Bush. But his tongue-tied answer—which belongs in the awkward quote hall of fame along with “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” and “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it”—will reawaken the controversy. His argument implies (as a Bush super PAC staffer noted) opposition to plenty of other bills he says he supported but missed the votes on. Ted Cruz, who Rubio had on a back foot on immigration, was quick to point out he’d returned to D.C. to vote against the omnibus. On the other hand, Cruz used exactly the same rationale when he missed the vote on Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s nomination.

The lesson: Speaking nonsense about suffrage causes nothing but suffering.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The candidate: Jeb‽ Bush

The gaffe: Here’s the Republican speaking at an event in Lexington, South Carolina, on Wednesday, where he was introduced by State Senator Katrina Shealy.

When I was governor, in 16 months we had eight hurricanes and four tropical storms. One of them was called Katrina. I don’t know why your great state senator reminds me of a hurricane. But she does. She’s strong and she’s fierce, but she’s solving problems at the state capitol. You should be honored to have her as your elected official, I hope you agree with that. That should be your nickname. In the Bush family, we always give out nicknames. Yours is now Hurricane Katrina.

The defense: Shealy says her family also calls her that. Besides, as Bush family nicknames go, this isn’t the worst. (Sorry, Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove.)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Where to start? First, It’s generally impolite to liken a person to a natural disaster that killed 1,200 people. Second, Jeb Bush’s struggle to differentiate himself from his brother is no longer his biggest challenge—he’s got bigger ones now—but one questions the wisdom of jocularly reminding voters of an incident that became a metonym for his brother’s (or any president’s) mismanagement. Also, storms don’t generally solve problems in state capitols.

The moral: Leave the the woman-as-hurricane metaphors to Neil Young.

Jeb Bush receives a rifle at a 2003 NRA banquet. (Scott Audette / AP)

The candidate: Jeb Bush

The gaffe: As Andrew Kaczynski notes, Bush has boasted on multiple occasions that he won the NRA’s statesman of the year award, having received the honor from then-NRA President Charlton Heston. Small detail: The NRA does not, and never has, given out such an award. What a blunder(buss)!

The defense: “In recounting the story, Jeb was mistaken and conflated multiple events unintentionally,” a spokesman said. “Jeb has a lifetime A+ rating from the NRA.” The spokesman also noted that the NRA branded legislation Bush signed as Florida governor the “Six Pack of Freedom.” For the record: We recommend restraint when mixing six-packs and firearms. The campaign bit the bullet and removed social-media posts referring to the award.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Candidates (and news anchors) have, uh, taken flak for such misrememberings. Pundits and rivals may snipe at him, but does anyone really doubt Bush’s support for gun rights? He still has that A+ rating, plus the fancy ceremonial rifle in the photo above, which he received at a 2003 NRA banquet.

The moral: Jeb’s campaign is under the gun, but he still needs to keep his powder dry and avoid going off half-cocked.

Patrick Semansky / AP

The candidate: Ben Carson

The gaffe: Speaking to a fifth-grade class in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the good doctor asked, “Who’s the worst student?” Almost everyone pointed to the same child. Nothing like shaming a 10-year-old to put some pizzazz in a campaign event.

The defense: Carson likes to talk about how he felt like the dumbest kid in his class growing up. But this wasn’t a setup to make the dumbest kid feel smarter, it was just, well, dumb: “I figured people would be pointing around to all different people who they didn’t like,” he said later. The kid at least seemed pretty chill about it. “Knowing Seth, I think he’d take it in stride,” his mom said. “He’s very well-liked by all the students."

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This is a guy who’s obviously ready for the delicate diplomatic interactions required of a head of state. Seriously, who does this?

The moral: It takes serious smarts to go to Yale and become a decorated neurosurgeon, but there’s no emotional-intelligence requirement.

The candidate: Ted Cruz

The gaffe: During a campaign stop in Iowa, Cruz was asked about Hillary Clinton’s comments about Benghazi. “In my house, if my daughter Catherine, the five-year-old, says something she knows to be false, she gets a spanking,” Cruz said. “Well, in America, the voters have a way of administering a spanking.” Bruh, did you really just talk about spanking Hillary Clinton?

The defense: Cruz wasn’t advocating, like, actually spanking Clinton. See, it’s an analogy.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This isn’t exactly a campaign-ending gaffe for Cruz, but it’s weird, especially for a guy who’s usually very polished and on-message. It’s a weird image to grasp for, and Cruz is getting some flak for talking about spanking—though many American parents also believe strongly in the value of some modest corporal punishment.

The moral: Spare the Rodham, spoil the child.

The candidate: The Right Reverend Donald J. Trump

The gaffe: As Molly Ball reports, the Republican frontrunner (still, yes?) was at Liberty University. It was a good chance to prove his fidelity to Christianity, often questioned by skeptics. So how’d he do? “Two Corinthians, right? Two Corinthians 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame. Where the spirit of the Lord—right?—is, there is liberty!” Though one speaks with the tongues of men or of angels, that’s Second Corinthians to most folks.

The defense: Shouldn’t we really call it “the Second Epistle to the Corinthians” if we want to be persnickety? Besides, you know who criticized obsessive fidelity to textual traditions at the expense of true belief and essential meaning? This guy.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Trump’s rivals surely hope that this gaffe means that the last shall be first, and the first last. But although this is a thorn in the flesh for his campaign, it is not the last Trump, gone in the twinkling of an eye. Trump’s theological shallowness has been evident for some time, and yet he leads among evangelical voters. The powers that be among Christian conservatives have criticized him, to no avail. Trump will be helped by the fact that Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty’s president, essentially called Trump a man after his own heart. (These are all, of course, phrases that Trump might know if he spent some quality time with the King James Version.)

The lesson: For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.