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.

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Gary Johnson's Foreign-Leader Fail

The candidate: Gary Johnson

The gaffe: At a town hall on MSNBC, Chris Matthews asked the Libertarian nominee, “Who’s your favorite foreign leader?” That’s a pretty weird question, and one that might be useless. If, you know, Johnson could have answered it. “Anywhere, any continent,” Matthews prodded. “I guess I’m having an Aleppo moment,” Johnson said, referring to his recent failure to recall the Syrian city and center of slaughter. “I’m giving you the whole world!” Matthews said. “I know,” Johnson replied ruefully. He offered “the former president of Mexico” but couldn’t name him.

The defense: William Weld, his running mate and a Bill Clinton nominee for ambassador to Mexico in the ’90s, offered Angela Merkel, with full teutonic pronunciation.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): For so many voters, this election is a choice between two undesirable options. Set aside whether Clinton and Trump are equally distasteful for the moment; just recognize that Johnson has an exceptionally low bar to clear. And yet again, he has shown that he’s unable to clear it.

The moral: It’s Sisi as pie, but if you’re un-Abe-le to name a single leader, you May be Putin your candidacy in danger—it might even be the Enda the road.

Mike Segar / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Speaking about veterans’ issues Monday morning, Trump was discussing suicides among ex-servicemembers. “When people come back from war and combat and they see maybe what a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over, and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it,” he said, implying that PTSD victims were weak.

The defense: Trump, who likes to project strength in all circumstances, looks to have been trying to flatter his audience. It didn’t appear Trump was trying to ridicule victims; it was just a thoughtless comment.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Let us count the ways this remark is bad. First, it blames those suffering for PTSD, suggesting they are not strong. Second, it’s scientifically bankrupt: No doctor would agree that PTSD is a sign of weakness. Third, it spotlights the fact that Trump avoided facing combat to test his own “strength,” obtaining draft deferments. Fourth, it fits in a string of comments ridiculing veterans, starting with saying he didn’t like John McCain because he was captured. Fifth, it’s another example of Trump’s insensitivity about mental illness. (“If I looked like Rosie [O’Donnell], I’d struggle with depression too,” he once said.)

The lesson: A politician who didn’t fight in battle should not question the mental strength of those who won their Purple Hearts the hard way.

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Here’s the Republican candidate in Reno Wednesday: “Heroin overdoses are surging and meth overdoses in Nev-ah-duh. Nev-AHH-duh. And you know what I said? You know what I said? I said when I came out here, I said, ‘Nobody says it the other way, it has to be Nev-ah-da.’  And If you don’t say it correctly—and it didn’t happen to me, but it happened to a friend of mine, he was killed.”

The defense: They do in fact pronounce this word wrong, as famed champion of Hispanophone culture Donald Trump was right to point out. Then again, it’s their state, man.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Have you ever talked to a Nevadan about this? It’s worse than getting between a Tar Heel and a Texan arguing about barbecue. Besides, who goes to a swing state and tells voters there that they pronounce their own state wrong? Jon Ralston reports it may be a joke, and indeed, Trump obviously understood the sensitivity or he wouldn’t have gone on the riff—which only raises the question of why he thought the joke was funny.

The lesson: Mispronouncing the Silver State’s name is the worst gamble in a state where casinos are legal.

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: “Make sure you get out and vote November 28,” the Republican nominee told voters in Panama City, Florida, on Tuesday. Small problem: Election Day is November 8, 20 days earlier. Hundreds of political reporters’ hearts stopped for a moment as they considered the idea there were three extra weeks of this to go.

The defense: Two words: 57 states.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Hey, it’s an old-school, slip-of-the-tongue gaffe for Trump, who has been more prone to the unwise or outrageous than the simply mistaken! It doesn’t matter at all, though it’s hard not to think about Trump’s get-out-the-vote operation, which by all indications is much smaller and more challenged than Hillary Clinton’s. Given that, it’s all the more important that he give supporters the right date.

The lesson: If you can’t count days, you can’t count on votes.

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Speaking on MSNBC, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway ticked off some of her candidate’s proposals: “a ten-point Veterans Administration reform plan, five-point plan to defeat Islam...” Wait, hold on a second.

The defense: She’s presumably referring to shahada, salat, zakat, sawm, and hajj. Wait, no, those are the five pillars of Islam.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Conway had a slip of the tongue, and she presumably meant ISIS, but because Trump has repeatedly demonized Muslims—calling for a ban on Muslim immigration, for example—it looks like a Kinsley gaffe, that treasured tradition where a candidate, or in this case an aide, accidentally tells the truth.

The lesson: Kellyanne Conway is the friendly public face of the Trump campaign, but Shia can’t mosque his policy toward Islam with a Sunni disposition.

Donald Trump poses with employees at his Doral Country Club Tuesday morning.
Donald Trump poses with employees at his Doral Country Club Tuesday morning. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: During a campaign swing on Tuesday morning in Miami, the Republican tried to capitalize on the news that insurance premiums under the Affordable Care Act are set to rise by as much as 25 percent next year.

Later, Eli Stokols says, a reporters asked if Trump’s employees were covered by Obamacare or by employer-sponsored coverage, and he replied, “Some of them, but most of them no.” Here’s the problem: Employers are required to provide insurance to anyone working more than 30 hours a week. So either Trump is lying, or he doesn’t understand what Obamacare is, or both.

The defense: Really, hardly anyone understands Obamacare, right? I’ve asked both the Trump campaign and the Trump Organization to explain if they have employees who are purchasing insurance through the markets created by Obamacare. (No one is “on” Obamacare, which, unlike Medicare or Medicaid, is not an actual insurance plan.) Meanwhile, Trump later told Fox News, “We don’t use Obamacare,” which is obviously true, because no employer “uses” Obamacare.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Obamacare has been a remarkable non-factor in the race this year, although policy has largely been a sideshow overall. One reason is that for all the ACA’s flaws, Trump’s proposal for a replacement doesn’t really do anything to explain how he would replace the law. One reason for that might be that Trump has no idea what the law does and would rather offer empty, nonsensical jabs at it.

The lesson: Refusal to understand the law is one preexisting condition the Affordable Care Act doesn’t cover.