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 4 Newer Notes

Trump Says PTSD Patients Aren't 'Strong'

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: 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.

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Speaking to a nearly all-white crowd in rural Kenansville, North Carolina, Tuesday, Donald Trump reprised earlier statements about inner cities, with a twist. “We're going to rebuild our inner cities because our African American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they've ever been in before. Ever. Ever. Ever," he said. “You take a look at the inner cities, you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street. They're worse—I mean, honestly, places like Afghanistan are safer than some of our inner cities. And I think it's resonating.” As many people with a basic understanding of American history pointed out, this overlooks a couple other periods, including segregation, violent vote suppression, and the lifetime enslavement of millions of people forcibly brought to the U.S.

The defense: Trump is almost certainly not speaking literally here; he’s just trying to make the case that black voters should not continue to support the Democratic Party.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Trump continues to say he’s courting black voters, and while his numbers have risen somewhat—from historically bad levels for a modern Republican—national polls suggest they’re still not especially strong. This comment is mostly pointlessly dumb hyperbole, though many African Americans understandably took unkindly to Trump’s previous suggestions that black communities are uniformly inner-city dens of violence and ignorance.

The lesson: Don’t take history lessons from a man who can’t even remember the day of the September 11 attacks correctly.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Speaking on September 16, Trump criticized Hillary Clinton for her support for gun control. (His premise, that Clinton wants to repeal the Second Amendment, is of course untrue.) “I think that her bodyguards should drop all weapons,” the Republican nominee said. “I think they should disarm. Immediately. Let’s see what happens to her. Take their guns away, O.K. It’ll be very dangerous.”

The defense: The Trump campaign isn’t really bothering to defend the comment.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): What’s truly remarkable about this comment is not the political gamesmanship; everyone does that. This statement is notable because just last month Trump was making jokes about how Second Amendment backers could potentially assassinate Clinton. It’s a neat trick: First, plant suggestions for your opponent to be killed; then call for her to drop her security detail. This, like many other Trump comments, would have been disqualifying for any other candidate.

The lesson: Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with assassination jokes.

Paul Sakuma / AP

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Speaking at a fundraiser on September 9, Clinton said, “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables.’ Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

The defense: The short version, as articulated more fully by my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that Clinton was factually correct. She partially walked back her statement, saying, “Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that's never a good idea,” but also sticking by her basic point: “It's deplorable that Trump has built his campaign largely on prejudice and paranoia and given a national platform to hateful views and voices, including by retweeting fringe bigots with a few dozen followers and spreading their message to 11 million people. It's deplorable that he's attacked a federal judge for his ‘Mexican heritage,’ bullied a Gold Star family because of their Muslim faith, and promoted the lie that our first black president is not a true American.”

Why it matters (or doesn’t): It’s never a good idea to publicly write off a quarter of the electorate as “deplorable,” even if they’re voters that Clinton was never in a million years going to win. This comment is already shaping up to be one of those defining gaffes of a campaign—the narrative-making soundbites that are remembered for years to come, like Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe or Barack Obama’s bitter-clingers moment. The silver lining for Clinton is that those comments rarely make much difference, as I explored here. Also, as Greg Sargent notes, most Americans say they agree that Trump and his campaign are prejudiced.

The lesson: If you describe your opponents as hell in a handbasket, that's where your own prospects might end up.

The candidate: Gary Johnson, making his debut here two days after Jill Stein. Welcome!

The gaffe: On Morning Joe on Thursday, Mike Barnicle asked the Libertarian nominee what he’d do about the Syrian city of Aleppo if nominated. His answer was pretty atrocious:

“And what is Aleppo?” Once informed that it was a city in Syria, he offered a somewhat meandering canned answer on Syria, though he didn’t really say what he’d do there.

The defense: Johnson says he’s “incredibly frustrated with himself,” and basically acknowledged he didn’t know the city. To his credit, when Mark Halperin asked if it should “be a big flap,” Johnson replied, “Well, sure it should!”

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Johnson and the Libertarian Party have a golden chance this year—Donald Trump is widely reviled by many conservatives, and he’s especially weak on foreign policy, where he’s shown next to no real knowledge. But Johnson keeps squandering opportunities to show disaffected Republicans and conservatives he’s a good alternative—on DACA, on religious freedom, and now on Syria. There’s a reason Johnson seems to have hit a ceiling at less than 10 percent in the polls—well short of the 15 percent he needs to qualify for the presidential debates.

The lesson: A presidential hopeful shouldn’t have to Raqqa his brain or have a Road to Damascus moment to remember the biggest city in Syria.

Dominick Reuter / Reuters

The candidate: Jill Stein, making her first appearance in this space. Welcome, doctor!

The gaffe: The Green Party candidate was headed to Ohio last week for a rally at Capital University. As you may know, that’s in suburban Columbus. As it turns out, Stein’s team did not, which is why they had her fly into Cincinnati, an almost-two-hour drive away. Her speech had to be delayed while the candidate drove in, as The Columbus Dispatch’s Randy Ludlow reported.

The defense: “This is what happens when people don't have private travel agents and private jets at their disposal. These are the issues that every day people face when they travel,” Stein’s press secretary wrote me in an email. That’s a pretty good line except, um, is it really true that everyday people fly into the wrong city regularly?

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This is really just a funny-haha sort of gaffe—entertaining but with no policy implications. However, an insurgent campaign like Stein’s doesn’t have much margin for error, and she’s already been hurt by peculiar comments made by her running mate and for that matter herself. There are a lot of things you can’t control in politics, but airline tickets are usually one.

The lesson: Flying economy is no excuse for being late to criticize the economy.

Henry Romero / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: On Wednesday, the Republican nominee traveled to Mexico City to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. At a press conference, the men were asked if they’d discussed Trump’s promise to make Mexico pay for a border wall. “Who pays for the wall? We didn’t discuss it,” Trump said. (Listen for yourself here.) Later, Peña Nieto issued a statement claiming he had ruled it out. Then Trump’s campaign issued a statement that didn’t dispute that. Then on Thursday, on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, Trump claimed he had said that they did discuss it:

(Listen here: Trump: 'Hillary Moves Slow On Everything & We Will Have Softening On Immigration')

It’s a fantastic claim, in the sense of being both amazing and also being a fantasy; anyone can listen to Trump’s press conference and hear clearly what he said.

The defense: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Why it matters (or doesn’t):

The lesson: The walls have ears, whether they are discussed or not—and so do the rest of us.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Jake Anantha is an 18-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina, man who is half-Indian and was, until Thursday night, a fervent Trump supporter looking forward to casting his first vote for president for the Republican. But when he went to Trump’s rally in Charlotte, he was ejected—he believes because of the color of his skin. “I told him I've never been to another rally in my life. I’m a huge Trump supporter. I would never protest against Trump,” he told CNN. “I do think it’s because I’m brown.”

The defense: Security told Anantha that he looked just like a man who’d caused trouble at previous ralli...—wait, no, that doesn’t actually make it any better.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): On a basic level, it’s not a good idea to alienate your supporters, especially when you’re already down by several points in the polls. (Anantha now says he’ll perhaps vote for Gary Johnson.) The incident offers ammunition to anyone who thinks the Trump campaign is driven by racial resentment and dislike of minorities. On the plus side, Trump doesn’t really have enough minority supporters for this to make a dent.

The lesson: If you support candidates who back racial profiling, you might get racially profiled at their rallies.

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Who’s that standing behind the Democratic nominee during a rally in Kissimmee, Florida? Oh, just Seddique Mateen, the father of Orlando nightclub gunman Omar Mateen and a man who has espoused pro-Taliban and anti-gay views, in addition to peculiar statements suggesting he holds some power in Afghanistan.

The defense: In a statement to WPTV, the Clinton campaign said, “The rally was a 3,000-person, open-door event for the public. This individual wasn't invited as a guest and the campaign was unaware of his attendance until after the event.” (Mateen also said he had just decided to go.)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This isn’t a major gaffe by the candidate, but it’s sort of baffling. Sure, events are open to the public, but how did staffers allow their boss to get in a situation where she was standing in front of Mateen, sitting somewhat prominently in the grandstand? He’s not the name you want in headlines with Hillary Clinton. Perhaps Trump was right: “We have no idea where they come from, we have no idea who the hell they are. We know they believe in certain things that we don’t want to believe in.”

The lesson: Screen anyone who might appear on screen.

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.