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: Trump's Tactical Nuclear Stumble

Jim Bourg / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: There were many strange moments in the GOP front-runner’s interview with the editorial board of The Washington Post: when he hit on an editor. When he called for looser libel laws. When he discussed his glove size. But some attention has fallen on his answer to Post Publisher Fred Ryan, who asked him whether he’d use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS. In simple terms, that’s a smaller bomb, aimed not at destroying a whole city, but for battlefield use. “I don’t want to use, I don’t want to start the process of nuclear,” Trump replied, then veered into electoral politics. “Remember the one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counterpuncher. Rubio hit me. Bush hit me. When I said low energy, he’s a low-energy individual, he hit me first. I spent, by the way he spent 18 million dollars’ worth of negative ads on me.” Ryan gently reminded him the question was about ISIS, not Marco or Jeb. Trump bailed: “I’ll tell you one thing, this is a very good looking group of people here. Could I just go around so I know who the hell I’m talking to?”

The defense: You can’t prove definitively that he doesn’t know what a tactical nuclear weapon is or that he hasn’t through through the issue. You can only strongly infer it.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Oh come on, this is Trump: All that matters is that he sounds “tough.” He’s been talking about nukes for more than 30 years and yet he seems to have learned nothing about them. But it’s reasonable to expect a prospective president to have a more fully developed answer on nuclear weapons than mentioning his vanquished electoral opponents—especially when that candidate has demonstrated his ignorance about nuclear weapons in the past.

The lesson: A man who bombs an interview might be a risky bet to control the bombs.

Nancy Wiechec / Reuters

The candidate: Ted Cruz

The gaffe: The Texas Republican recently named Frank Gaffney as a foreign-policy adviser. Gaffney is outspoken on Islam, and often makes inflammatory and inaccurate statements; the Southern Poverty Law Center named him to its hate list. In 2009, Gaffney called Obama “the first Muslim president,” laying out reasons to suspect he was a crypto-Muslim. Asked about that statement on Monday, Cruz refused to disclaim it, telling Wolf Blitzer, “I'm not interested in playing the media 'gotcha game' of 'Here's every quote everyone who's supporting you has ever said at any point, do you agree with every statement?' That's silliness.”

The defense: In general, it’s hard to hold a candidate to account for every statement any adviser has made.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): That general defense doesn’t really hold up here. Is there any context in which Gaffney’s comments might not be over the line? Besides, presumably Cruz chose Gaffney because of the signal it sends that he is willing to be tough on Islam. It’s possible (though hardly flattering) that Cruz isn’t aware of this specific Gaffney remark, but to be unaware of this aspect of his record is to be unaware of Gaffney’s entire MO. This is a guy who has also claimed that everyone from Hillary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin to famed GOP anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist are agents for Islamism.

The lesson: With friends like this, you’re bound to attract enemies.

The candidate: Hillary Clinton, with an assist from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio

The gaffe: Appearing at New York City’s annual Inner Circle Dinner, the Democrat conducted an awkward skit with the mayor. She thanked him for his endorsement, while ribbing him for taking his sweet time to deliver it. “Sorry Hillary, I was running on C.P. time,” de Blasio said, a reference to “colored people time,” the idea that African Americans tend to run late—a joke that can be funny when delivered by a black person, but doesn’t fly from Hillary Clinton and Bill de Blasio. (Sorry, it doesn’t count that Blaz’s wife is black, or that Bill Clinton was once called “the first black president.”) Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., who is black, delivered the next line, saying he didn’t “like jokes like that.” Clinton tentatively offered the punchline: The mayor went “cautious politician time,” she said, adding, “I’ve been there.”

Why it matters (or doesn’t): It’s true that Clinton has been criticized for being too cautious, but she should have been more cautious about this. It’s not so much that the skit is racist—hey, it’s a bait-and-switch that satirizes people’s racism!—as that it’s awkward and stereotype-driven, and isn’t all that funny. That said, it’s probably not a huge deal. The Inner Circle Dinner is a hotspot for ill-advised politician performances. Remember that time Donald Trump motorboated then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, dressed in drag?

The lesson: If she could turn back time, if she could find a way, she’d take back this skit.

Scott Audette / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: The Republican frontrunner was campaigning in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, doing his typical free-associational rap—mentioning that he’d gone to the University of Pennsylvania and so on. Mid-spiel he wondered “How’s Joe Paterno? We gonna bring that back? Right? How about that—how about that whole deal?” Yes, how is Joe Paterno? Oh, right—the legendary Penn State football coach has been dead since January 2012.

The defense: USA Today speculates that maybe he was referring to a statue of Paterno that had been removed. Sure, why not?

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Paterno, you’ll recall, was fired after a massive child-molestation scandal involving an assistant coach. Since then, there’s been some effort to rehabilitate JoePa’s legacy. Pandering to local sports allegiances is standard political fare and all—like an effort to put back the statue—but this is just plain weird. Either Trump didn’t know Paterno was dead, which is awkward, or he did, which is much stranger.

The lesson: A legendary Nittany Lion, dead, can’t help Trump beat Lyin’ Ted.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

The candidate: John Kasich. Yes, he’s still here!

The gaffe: The Ohio governor is making his possibly-last-ditch effort in New York, and on Friday, he spoke at St. Lawrence University, where a woman asked him how he would help her “feel safer and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment, and rape.” Kasich started out well, talking about access to rape kits, confidential reporting, and other counseling. He said the issue is important to him because he has 16-year-old twin daughters. And then he couldn’t help himself, and added: “Well, I would give you, I’d also give you one bit of advice. Don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol. OK? Don’t do that.”

The defense: At least he didn’t say they should wear head-to-toe robes or only socialize with men to whom they are directly related.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Kasich wants to portray himself as the moderate alternative to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz—you know, the one who won’t turn away women from the GOP in droves, the way they will. But that’s harder to do when he can’t stop making exceptionally awkward comments involving women, like when he bragged about women leaving their kitchens to campaign for him in 1978, or told a college student that he didn’t have Taylor Swift tickets for her, or, as in this case, suggested that a reasonable precaution against rape for college women is to avoid parties where alcohol is being served. That’s a little like telling them to avoid classes where textbooks are assigned. And as many people pointed out, it sounds a lot like blaming women who go to such parties for being raped. (Later on Friday, Kasich moved to tamp down anger, tweeting, in part, “Only one person is at fault in a sexual assault, and that’s the assailant.”

The lesson: When your campaign’s on the rocks, don’t tell young women to be tee-totalers.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The candidate: Son of New York Donald Trump

The gaffe: Campaigning in Buffalo on Monday, Trump misstated the date of, oh, the deadliest attack on American soil and the most traumatic event in the history of his home city. “I was down there, and I watched our police and our firemen, down on 7-Eleven, down at the World Trade Center, right after it came down,” he said. “And I saw the greatest people I’ve ever seen in action.”

The defense: In Latin, the prefix “sept-” denotes seven. Unfortunately for Trump, the Roman calendar is no longer in use, so that September is the ninth month—hence 9/11.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): You’d think a guy from New York would be pretty solid on 9/11, right? But no. This is the same guy who invented a fake memory of Muslims in New Jersey cheering for the towers’ collapse. This isn’t even an obscure question. On the other hand, usually when politicians gaffe about 7-Eleven, it’s much more offensive—just ask Joe Biden—so maybe we should just be grateful.

The lesson: If you’re a guy from 212, you should know the 411 about 9/11, but at least no one brought 311 into this.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.