When he began his run for president in 2015, as a television personality with a dubious business background (including numerous bankruptcies and defaulted loans) and serious personal baggage (including three wives and several self-described mistresses), Donald Trump struggled to be taken seriously. Since emerging as a frontrunner, however, and especially since winning office, he has often faced the opposite problem: getting people to realize when he’s joking.
This is a problem because Trump has a habit of saying outrageous, inflammatory and offensive things that he, or his minions, explain away as jokes, or with some variation of “He didn’t mean it.” This defense was memorably on display when he called the Access Hollywood tape “locker-room talk.” The most recent example came by way of the report by special counsel Robert Mueller in a footnote about Trump’s written response last November to a question about what Trump meant when he challenged Russian hackers to find emails that had been deleted from Hillary Clinton’s email server.
“I will tell you this: Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said at a press conference on July 27, 2016. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Trump’s explanation to special counsel prosecutors was that he “made the ... statement ‘in jest and sarcastically, as was apparent to any objective observer.’"
That’s plausible, although mainly because Mueller, and media reports over the years, have established that there were multiple lines of communication between the Trump campaign and people in Russia connected to the Kremlin. A serious request from Trump could have been conveyed much more discreetly.
But, as Mueller notes, the Kremlin apparently wasn’t in on the joke, because “within five hours of Trump's remark, a Russian intelligence service began targeting email accounts associated with Hillary Clinton for possible hacks.”
The subject of stolen emails has been a rich source of humor for Trump over the years. Thousands of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta (although not the ones deleted from Clinton’s own account, which have never turned up) were released during the 2016 campaign by the rogue web publisher WikiLeaks and media outlets. Although the content of the emails was, for the most part, innocuous, Trump seemed to revel in the embarrassment it caused his rivals. “I love WikiLeaks!” he exclaimed at a rally, one of more than 100 occasions on which he brought up the organization.
But don’t be fooled: It was all a big put-on, according to his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, who explained to Fox News host Chris Wallace last week that “clearly the president was making a joke during the 2016 campaign.” That was after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in London. He is facing U.S. charges related to the vast trove of military and diplomatic documents provided to WikiLeaks by Chelsea Manning. It was such a joke to Trump that he claims not to remember it, telling reporters after Assange’s arrest that “I know nothing about WikiLeaks.”
Another topic Trump has mined for humor is police brutality. “I believe he was making a joke at the time,” Sanders said when asked about the president’s remarks to a gathering of police officers, urging them, “Please don’t be too nice” to suspects when they are arrested. Also treason: “Can we call that treason?” Trump said last year, referring to the unenthusiastic response by congressional Democrats to his 2018 State of the Union speech. “Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.” To the humorless scolds who suggested that accusing the opposition party of treason smacked of fascism, Sanders had a message: Lighten up. Trump “was clearly joking,” she told reporters — just as he was when he said, emphatically and several times, that President Obama was literally the founder of the terrorist group ISIS. “THEY DON’T GET SARCASM?” Trump tweeted incredulously in response to a CNN account of his remarks.
Ratings challenged @CNN reports so seriously that I call President Obama (and Clinton) "the founder" of ISIS, & MVP. THEY DON'T GET SARCASM?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2016
Oddly, though, for someone who insists many of his most provocative remarks are jokes, Trump often uses “joke” as an insult, especially in tweets. Among the scores of people and institutions Trump has called a “joke” on Twitter over the years are The New York Times, CNN, Fox News (you read that right; it was when he was briefly feuding with the network after his confrontation with Megyn Kelly in 2016) the media as a whole, U.S. immigration policy, U.S. trade policy, U.S. healthcare policy, the filibuster rule in the Senate, the Oscars, the Emmys, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, Jon Stewart and Barack Obama.
Oh, and comedian Bill Maher, who might have taken it as a compliment. It was Maher who made an offer in 2013 to donate $5 million to charity if Trump could prove he was not the son of an orangutan, from whom Maher presumed Trump had inherited his hair.
Trump’s lawyers produced his birth certificate, “demonstrating that he is the son of Fred Trump, not an orangutan,” and sued Maher to pay up. “It's never a joke when someone reneges on a commitment that benefits worthy charities,” Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney and spokesman at the time, said stuffily.
The lawsuit, needless to say, went nowhere. Legal experts said no judge was likely to take it seriously, since it was obvious Maher was, in fact, joking. He is, after all, a satirist.
But it just goes to show some people have no sense of humor.
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