Hey, just kidding.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said Thursday that he was merely being sarcastic when he said that Russia should look into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.
But presidential and political scholars say Trump’s remarks are no laughing matter and yet another worrisome example of the man who wants to be president acting very unpresidential.
They say Trump has yet to grasp that words, especially those from an aspiring world leader, can have serious consequences at home and abroad.
“You have to be very careful with your words,” said Lance deHaven-Smith, an emeritus public policy professor at Florida State University. “It’s not for nothing that diplomacy is diplomatic.”
Trump sent shock waves through the political and foreign affairs communities Wednesday when he said that he hopes Russia either has or can get its hands on some of Clinton’s deleted emails from her tenure as secretary of state.
My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.
Ronald Reagan, in sound check remarks
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said during a Florida news conference. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Trump seemed to reinforce his comments with a tweet, saying, “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally-deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!”
The invitation by a presidential candidate for a foreign power that’s sometimes hostile toward the United States to insert itself into the country’s election process was so astounding that it was widely denounced. Even among politicians who support Trump, some called it misguided.
“Most likely, Donald Trump was simply making light of Hillary Clinton setting up her own homebrew email server that trafficked in classified information and her sending insecure emails from the soil of known foreign adversaries,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, the California Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee and has endorsed Trump. “Nevertheless, now that he is officially a candidate for president, Trump should consider that his public comments will receive much more scrutiny than before – especially when it comes to U.S. foreign relations.”
Thursday, Trump said he wasn’t serious.
“Of course, I’m being sarcastic,” he said in an interview on “Fox & Friends,” where he tried to shift the topic to the unflattering Democratic National Committee emails that were made public by WikiLeaks ahead of the party’s convention.
If Trump was being tongue-in-check, a lot of people didn’t get it.
Alan Brinkley, a Columbia University historian, said, “The fact Trump is trying to back away from his reckless comments is understandable – but the press should not indulge his excuse that he was just kidding.”
“This is not a man who is known for his subtle and wry humor,” Brinkley added.
Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political science professor, said that by making bombastic statements and then trying to walk them back, Trump is eroding his believability, a valuable commodity for a domestic and world leader.
“A president’s words and actions have consequences. It certainly matters in the norms of diplomatic discourse, world leaders are used to stability,” Goldford said. “Trump seems to think that saying ‘just kidding’ will put the egg back together. You keep doing that and people won’t take you at face value.”
Trump’s comments about Russia could prove problematic because they shift attention away from Clinton and onto his previous positive comments about Putin, said deHaven-Smith said.
Over the years, Trump has said Putin is doing a “great job in rebuilding the image of Russia;” that “he’s done a really great job in outsmarting our country;” and that “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country.”
“His statements about Putin have become the story,” he said.
Trump seems to think that saying ‘just kidding’ will put the egg back together. You keep doing that, and people won’t take you at face value.
Dennis Goldford, a Drake University
Throughout the election season, Trump has resisted calls from some of his campaign advisers and family members to dial back the off-the-cuff remarks and appear more presidential – advice that he has ignored.
But it’s a lesson that most White House aspirants and occupants and other politicians follow.
George W. Bush said one of the things that he quickly learned when he first ran for president in 1999 was to weigh his words carefully because what he said had impact worldwide.
When Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken was elected to the Senate in 2009, he quickly shelved his television persona for that of a serious lawmaker.
When he appeared onstage at the Democratic National Convention Monday with comedian Sarah Silverman to try to soothe angry Bernie Sanders supporters, Franken noted, “You see, Sarah’s the comedian and she gets the joke and I’m the politician now.…”
Even sitting presidents have learned that not carefully choosing their words can cause havoc. Ronald Reagan, while conducting a sound check for a weekly radio address in 1984, playfully said “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Moscow was outraged when it heard recordings of Reagan’s remarks, and Soviet defense forces were reportedly placed on alert.
While many presidential and political scholars were shocked by Trump’s Russia remarks, several doubt it will have any impact on his presidential campaign.
“Donald Trump didn’t enter this race to appear presidential,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider College. “Trump has broken the all the rules. It’s hard to say he’ll be held accountable in an age when all the rules have been broken.”