PoliticsDonald Trump Can't Make a Joke
David Litt, ex-Obama speechwriter, on the Donald's un-presidential sense of humor
This was Donald Trump’s response, delivered before sunrise last week, to those upset that he accused President Obama of founding ISIS. Remarkably, this was not the first time the GOP candidate and his supporters invoked “just kidding” in defense. Last Tuesday, Mr. Trump suggested that so-called "Second Amendment people" take up arms against the government if Hillary Clinton wins. (This is the charitable interpretation of his remarks. The less-charitable version is that they should kill her.) While one half of the Trump Train scrambled to spin the comments, the other half wondered what all the fuss was about.
“This was a joke,” explained Corey Lewandowski, ex-Trump campaign manager and CNN talking head, to Chris Cuomo on CNN's New Day. “He wasn’t inciting violence.”
Like most Trump apologies, this one displays a surprising ignorance of decency. If a pre-teen texts "ur gross JK lol" to a classmate, that’s bullying, not joking. Surely a presidential candidate can be held to the same standard as someone born after Beyoncé’s solo career.
But the just-kidding defense reveals an even deeper ignorance at the heart of the Donald Trump Campaign: like all words uttered by a Commander in Chief, presidential jokes matter. From 2012 to 2015, I was the lead writer on the monologue for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I’ve written dozens and dozens of jokes for President Obama. (Hundreds and hundreds, if you count the ones that got cut.) As Trump’s supporters would surely be quick to point out, joking allowed President Obama to get away with saying things that would otherwise cross a line. In 2014 we mocked conservative pundits for their love affair with Vladimir Putin. A year later, with the help of Keegan-Michael Key as “Luther the Anger Translator,” the president railed against climate change deniers in Congress.
But that doesn’t mean there were no rules whatsoever. When I worked at the White House, two topics were firmly off limits.
The first was what a chaperone at a middle-school dance might refer to as “body humor.” Over the years, the president made plenty of jokes about Chris Christie’s politics, but never once made fun of his size. That’s no accident. Size was again an issue in 2012, albeit in slightly different fashion, when Joe Biden spoke glowingly of the president’s “big stick.” I’m pretty sure he was referring to foreign policy. We got plenty of joke pitches on the subject nonetheless. Some of them were hilarious – every bit as funny as anything that made it into the president’s speech—but there was never a chance we would use them. A joke about a president’s anatomy is not something you want America’s parents to have to explain to their kids.
(Of course, after one of the now-nominee’s one liners at a debate this spring, CNN was forced to run the headline, “Donald Trump defends size of his penis.” Hillary Clinton’s not the only one breaking barriers this year.)
The second off-limits topic was more serious than the first: we would never, ever, send President Obama a joke about national security. This wasn’t a matter of politeness, or political correctness. This was a matter of keeping America safe. The world is full of propagandists who would like nothing more than to take the Commander-in-Chief’s words out of context. Fairly or unfairly, part of being president is denying them that chance. Just as importantly, when you’re president, you never know when the next crisis or tragedy could unfold. Plenty of joke writers ask themselves whether their material is appropriate. Presidential joke writers have go further. Will their material still be appropriate, no matter what happens next month or next week?
Of course, joking around isn’t the most important thing a president does. In fact, that’s precisely the point: nothing a president does is unimportant. Actions may speak louder than words, but if you’re Commander-in-Chief, every word is an action unto itself.
Ironically, no one knows this better than Mr. Trump. I didn’t write the president’s 2011 Correspondents’ Dinner riff filleting the GOP’s new standard-bearer. But I was in the room when it happened. I saw the Donald turn a shade that Crayola might describe as “Humiliated Narcissist Red.” Other public figures might have smiled. He glowered and steamed through the entire performance, like a pre-Maria Captain von Trapp.
Maybe as the audience laughed at his expense, Mr. Trump realized the power of a president’s words. Maybe he understood that jokes from the bully pulpit have consequences. Maybe, for one brief moment, he knew how important it is that a president wield language with skill and precision.
Then again, maybe he just doesn’t get sarcasm.