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
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.

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.

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: 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.

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.