How Can You Tell If Donald Trump Is Serious?

The White House is making a habit of labeling outrageous claims “jokes” after the fact.

Gretchen Ertl / Reuters

The Trump administration has been at the center of a few wild claims in recent weeks, but there’s an explanation. To put it in the native patois of Trump’s signature form, Twitter:

lol jk!

For two straight days, Press Secretary Sean Spicer has played off comments made by President Trump and members of his team as simple jokes. Monday saw Kellyanne Conway quoted in The Record, a New Jersey newspaper, saying,  “What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other. You can surveil someone through their phones, certainly through their television sets—any number of ways.” She added, in the line that launched a thousand memes, that there are “microwaves that turn into cameras.” During Tuesday’s press briefing, Spicer conceded that your Maytag is “not a sound way of surveilling someone” and insisted that she was speaking “in jest.”

If she was joking, she apparently made no indication of it to reporter Mike Kelly, who clearly took her seriously. “Conway did not offer any evidence to back up her claim,” Kelly wrote solemnly.

Spicer played the comedy card on Monday too, during a typically surreal press briefing. Reporters were curious about the White House’s stance on unemployment numbers, which he and his team derided as fake when he was a candidate yet celebrated as real now that he was in office.

“I guess the question is, when can we trust the president when he says something is phony and when he says it’s real?” wondered NBC’s Peter Alexander. Spicer said Trump can be trusted. “How can we believe that [the employment report] is real when you just told us that it was phony then, but now it’s real?” Alexander replied.

After skirmishing for a few minutes, Spicer concluded that the press, and the people, should take the president’s statements seriously—“if he’s not joking, of course.”

This is a nifty piece of rhetoric. How is anyone to know whether Trump is joking? As Philip Bump noted after Monday’s exchange, that’s very difficult to tell. Trump doesn’t really tell jokes in any sort of traditional sense. At the Al Smith Dinner in October, during which candidates typically offer good-natured ribbing of each other, Hillary Clinton delivered a fairly standard spiel. Trump, by contrast, drew boos and stunned silence for his routine, which wasn’t really a series of jokes so much as a series of insults.

Trump has tried to claim inflammatory claims were just jokes before. In August, he called Barack Obama the “founder” of ISIS. It was a weird sort of claim, in that Trump almost certainly didn’t literally mean that Obama had founded ISIS (although given Trump’s tendency to pal around with Alex Jones, one can never be too sure). Instead, he seemed to mean that Obama’s policies had fostered ISIS. A debatable assertion, to be sure, but not an insane one. Yet the following day he went on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show and insisted, “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do.” Finally, later, he claimed he had been “sarcastic” all along. That’s not how sarcasm works, and the claim didn’t make sense given his comments on Hewitt’s show. Trump also pleaded sarcasm after getting up at a press conference and encouraging Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s State Department emails.

This is a maneuver familiar to anyone who attended junior high school: When you screw up, just claim you were kidding and that everyone else missed the joke.

Even if you were to take Trump’s claim that he was joking seriously (so to speak), it would be nearly impossible to tell when he is and when he isn’t, since he speaks with an unusually consistent tone and because, as my colleague Alex Wagner and Chuck Todd have observed, Trump almost never really laughs.

If you have a joke, however, there must be a butt for that joke. And in these cases, it is typically the press. In Act I, Conway made her “microwave” remarks, which every context clue would suggest were simply a silly gaffe, weird flight of fancy (based, perhaps, on WikiLeaks dump of CIA documents last week). In Act II, reporters, correctly sizing Conway’s comments up as ridiculous but overplaying their significance, spent the next 24 hours or so reporting, analyzing, aggregating, and fact-checking them. In Act III, Sean Spicer wrote the whole thing off as just a big joke—thus making the media look immensely silly for having chased after a shiny bauble for a day.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether the Trump team is comprised of bumbling fools, unable to get their stories straight, or Machiavellian geniuses, constantly distracting the press from the real story. It’s a false dichotomy, for reasons that become clear in this case. As a rebuttal tactic, the “just kidding!” line is not especially sophisticated; indeed, it’s almost certainly born of desperation. But it serves its purpose of ridiculing the media here, especially within the longer narrative of Trump’s tension with reporters, and given his supporters’ deep skepticism of the press.

This is, however, pernicious. The emerging pattern is that Trump (or an aide) speaks without really considering the effects of a statement, and then decides well after the fact whether the statement was a joke or serious. Such a paradigm makes diplomacy nearly impossible. If Obama’s failed “red line” was deleterious to American interests, how much worse is it when every statement is potentially subject to ex post facto relegation to joke status? The same problem naturally applies to domestic political discourse. If citizens aren’t sure at any given time whether the president is kidding or not, it’s impossible to set up factual boundaries or make empirical conclusions. Which might be exactly the point.