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 14 Newer Notes

Gaffe Track: Donald's Watching More Non-Existent Videos

Eric Thayer / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: On Wednesday, the Republican nominee talked about watching a video of American officials unloading cash in Iran. The cash was real—a Wall Street Journal scoop revealed it—but there was no video. Trump’s spokeswoman admitted that to The Washington Post, saying he was referring to a different video. And yet on Thursday, Trump once again claimed to have watched the video. “I woke up yesterday and I saw $400 million—different currencies, they probably don’t want our currency—being flown to Iran,” he said in Maine on Thursday. “You know it was interesting, because a tape was made, with the airplane coming in, nice airplane, and the money coming off I guess. That was given to us, has to be, by the Iranians. You know why the tape was given to us? Because they want to embarrass our country.”

The defense: The first time Trump made the claim, it was plausible he was just confused. But now?

Why it matters (or doesn’t): There are two possibilities, neither especially flattering. One is that the campaign knows Trump is mistaken, but no one bothered to tell the candidate, leaving him to make a public gaffe. Another is that Trump knows quite well and doesn’t care. It takes a special sort of brazenness, and a certain kind of faith in one’s base, and probably a certain sort of delusion about how politics works, to assume that you can get away with lying about this. It’s not the first time Trump has claimed to have seen a video that didn’t exist—like when he described tape of Muslims supposedly celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey. So maybe Trump really does believe he saw the tape. Which isn’t a good sign either.

The moral: The camera doesn’t lie, but the candidate might.

Dave Kaup / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Speaking in Omaha on Tuesday, the Democrat said, “Trump wants to cut taxes for the super rich,” she said, to boos. “Well, we’re not going there, my friends. I’m telling you right now, we’re going to write fairer rules for the middle class and we”—here’s where things get interesting. Some people heard what she said as “are going to raise taxes for the middle class.” But on a closer listen, she’s clearly saying “aren’t.”

The defense: Even if Clinton had said “are,” it would be a clear slip of the tongue, not a declaration of policy. Clinton has promised not to raised taxes on anyone making up to $250,000—significantly higher than most reasonable definitions of the middle class, although anti-tax groups argue she’d do so anyway through backdoor methods.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Some conservatives will take this as a Kinsley gaffe, the classic variety in which a candidate accidentally tells the truth, but substantively, there’s not much here. Not since Fritz Mondale has a Democratic candidate been willing to say he or she will raise taxes on the middle class, and Mondale got shellacked. Clinton’s not about to emulate him.

The lesson: Mumbles risk grumbles and campaign fumbles.

Dave Kaup / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Speaking to Fox News’ Chris Wallace on July 30, Clinton said of her email scandal, “[FBI] Director [James] Comey said my answers were truthful, and what I’ve said is consistent with what I have told the American people, that there were decisions discussed and made to classify retroactively certain of the emails.” Except as The Washington Post explains, that’s not what he said at all. While Comey said Clinton had not lied to the FBI and recommended against charging her, he was also clear that she had emailed classified material.

The defense: Clinton is right that Comey deemed her not to have lied to the FBI, at least.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): As my colleague Ron Fournier writes, Clinton’s insistence on continuing to lie about what Comey said is puzzling. Even as she has apologized for using the server and escaped indictment, she apparently can’t bring herself to simply eat crow and move on, and instead misstates easily available facts. For a candidate already facing serious trust issues with much of the electorate, that seems unwise. Luckily for her, Trump has decided to launch a feud with Gold Star parents, propose appeasing Putin, and say the election is rigged, distracting a great deal of attention.

The lesson: Keep it straight and the election could be signed, sealed, and delivered to Clinton. Otherwise, the fact-check is in the email.

Rebecca Cook / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: USA Today’s Kirsten Powers asked Trump about the allegations of sexual harassment that toppled Fox News honcho Roger Ailes. When Trump downplayed them, she asked how he’d feel if his daughter was harassed. “I would like to think she would find another career or find another company if that was the case,” he said. Tuesday morning, Trump’s son Eric tried to clean it up. While saying harassment should be reported and dealt with, he added, “I don’t think she would allow herself to be subjected to that.”

The defense: The Republican has said he “would be the best for women” and that “Nobody has more respect for women than Donald Trump!”

Why it matters (or doesn’t): As Powers notes, Trump’s answer falls short for several reasons. It overlooks the fact that not all women can easily just leave a job. Moreover, it pushes the illegality of harassment off to the side, while placing the burden to rectify the situation on victims of sexual harassment. Eric Trump’s answer, meanwhile, implies that victims of harassment are somehow not “strong.” These sorts of statements matter because they’re liable to alienate women, a group with which Trump already trails badly—57-43 in a recent CNN poll; his unfavorable rating with women is even worse.

The lesson: Don’t blame the victim, especially if the victim is a voter.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Speaking to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “He's not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand. He's not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.” Stephanopoulos pointed out that Russia had already annexed Crimea. The response was classic Trump: This is all proof of how terrible Obama is, but also it’s not really so bad. He confirmed that he would consider recognizing the annexation: “But, you know, the people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

The defense: It’s Obama’s fault, or something.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): At first glance, this looks like a classic example of Trump just not really knowing what he’s talking about, a trait that endears him to supporters (he’s a non-politician!) and terrifies opponents (he’s dangerously ignorant!). But on closer glance, this is evidence of Trump’s radically different approach to foreign policy. In his worldview, Russia seizing sovereign territory in violation of international law is acceptable. He even parrots the Kremlin line that Crimeans have a right to self-determination—further evidence of a close alignment between Putin and Trump.

The lesson: A politician shouldn’t Kiev his opponents ammunition with unforced errors—but then again, the only Sebastopol that matters is on election day.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: On Thursday, Khizr Khan, the father of slain U.S. Army solider Humayun Khan, delivered the most memorable moment of either party convention. Speaking at the DNC, Khan said, “Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son ‘the best of America.’ If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America.” Khan continued asked whether Trump had ever read the Constitution and said, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.” Asked about that by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump first questioned why Khizr Khan’s wife Ghazala did not speak. “If you look at his wife, she was standing there,” he said. “She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. Then Trump said he’d sacrificed: “I think I've made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I've created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I've done, I've had tremendous success.” A somewhat incredulous Stephanopoulos asked if those were really sacrifices. “Oh, sure. I think they're sacrifices,” Trump said.

The defense: The Trump campaign sent out the full transcript of his remarks Sunday, suggesting they were exculpatory. Not so much.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): At this early stage, this looks like one of the rare gaffes that might stick. Khizr Khan’s speech was devastating, with a grieving immigrant father whose son died for the United States calling Trump out for proposing a ban on Muslims entering the country. Trump’s response was to make a snarky remark (for the record, Ghazala Khan, who has spoken in interviews, said she was too emotional to speak) and then to claim, incredibly, that having a successful business career was somewhat an equivalent sacrifice to having a son die in combat. (Trump, a non-veteran, once likened his quest to avoid STDs to the Vietnam War.) The comment speaks for itself, but not in a good way. Just wait: Trump might still make it worse. Sunday morning, he defended his right to counterpunch at Khan Sunday morning:

The lesson: Sacrificing oneself on the altar of propriety and respectability does not qualify as self-abnegation.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The candidate: Donald J. … Crump? Can’t really recall.

The gaffe: During a July 27 news conference—yep, the same one where he called on Russia to release hacked U.S. government information—the Republican repeatedly referred to Tim Kaine, the U.S. senator from Virginia who is Hillary Clinton’s running mate, as a New Jerseyan.

The defense: Trump seems to have been confusing Kaine with Tom Kean, a Republican who was Garden State governor, and whose name is pronounced “cane.” No word on the whereabouts of Herman Cain.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This is one of the more ephemeral gaffes, and pales in importance compared to his bizarre plea to Russia. (The whole press conference was weird.) Mostly, it suggests Trump either can’t or doesn’t care to master the details of politics.

The lesson: If you’re going for a Kaine break, be careful you don’t graze Kean instead.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.