Despite months of insisting he’s a straight talker with “the best words,” Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump spent nearly all week cleaning up the mess his own words created.
On Friday, Trump tweeted that his claim that President Barack Obama founded ISIS, with Hillary Clinton as co-founder, was “sarcasm.”
Yet his characterization came less than 24 hours after telling reporters he meant “exactly” what he’d said, and after repeating the same line to three different crowds full of fans and at least two reporters on Thursday. Pressed by conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, who suggested that Trump meant that the president’s policies had created the unrest that lead to ISIS, Trump reiterated that his claim was literal.
“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton,” Trump said, later telling an NBC affiliate NJTV he “meant exactly that.”
Then, even after clarifying the meaning of a remark that he initially said was crystal clear, Trump once again sounded a confusing note, telling a crowd in Pennsylvania Friday afternoon that he was "being sarcastic...but not that sarcastic, to be honest with you.”
Trump has insisted that his success is tied to being a straight talker — willing to tell it like it is, political correctness be damned! But amid falling poll numbers and an attempted pivot marked by a major policy address that offered up his second tax plan of the campaign, most of the week was spent trying to figure out what Trump actually meant each day.
Before Thursday and Friday were dominated by talk about who founded ISIS — for the record, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi did — the Trump campaign spent Tuesday and Wednesday defending a remark many interpreted as a hint or joke about assassinating Clinton.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” the GOP presidential nominee said while discussing what would happen if Clinton was elected on Tuesday. “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
On Fox News on Wednesday night, Trump said he meant that gun rights advocates could mobilize a political movement to stop her election.
“There can be no other interpretation. Even reporters have told me. I mean, give me a break,” he said.
These two unforced errors took up almost three days of the news cycle Trump depends on — he hasn’t spent a single dollar on national advertising yet, so media coverage is largely voters' only televised access to him. It kept Trump from capitalizing on points of criticism that have surfaced for rival Clinton this week, including the father of the Orlando shooter showing up at one of her events and a conservative watchdog group releasing a trove of new emails that appeared to show Clinton aides mixing government business with Clinton foundation work, despite Clinton’s promise to cut ties from the foundation while serving the government.
Exactly a week ago today, Trump was working to clarify a third point of contention and confusion.
“The plane I saw on television was the hostage plane in Geneva, Switzerland, not the plane carrying $400 million in cash going to Iran!” Trump tweeted Friday morning, after insisting for several days that he’d seen “top secret” video footage of the United States delivering cash to the Iranian government, That comment came after The Wall Street Journal last week reported that a large cash transfer had been sent to Iran the same day the president announced Iran would release several American prisoners, leading some to believe it was effectively a payment.
There is no evidence that the video Trump described ever existed, but there is a video of Trump insisting he has "the best words."