By tripling down on his comments that President Obama was the “founder of ISIS,” Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump proved futile reporters’ repeated attempts to clarify that he “meant” something different.
Trump told supporters during an August 10 campaign stop, “‘In many respects, you know, [ISIS] honor[s] President Obama ... He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS.” On August 11, Trump repeated the line on CNBC’s Squawk Box.
Some media figures, including conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, attempted to clean up Trump’s comments and explain what he really “meant,” claiming that Trump’s comments were “not literal,” but just a poorly worded criticism of President Obama’s terror policies.
Hewitt hosted Trump on August 11 and tried desperately to help Trump walk back his comments, guiding him by saying, “I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum [for ISIS], he lost the peace.”
But Trump immediately refuted Hewitt’s assertion, responding, “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do.”
Hewitt tried again, saying, “[B]y using the term founder, they’re hitting with you on this again. Mistake?”
Trump again denied that he meant something different than what he said: “No, it’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it. I think they’re liking it.”
This exchange perfectly exemplifies why the media figures who repeatedly try to rehab Trump’s statements consistently miss the mark. Some in the media have explained why attempts at Trump cleanups are unwarranted altogether. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro wrote:
It doesn't really matter what Trump meant. It matters what he said — a reckless comment that might or might not be outrageous, depending on your interpretation. This has happened over and over during the campaign, and it would happen, with much higher stakes, during his presidency.
What the president says matters. Presidents' comments can move markets, create policy, inflame foreign tensions, and even start wars. It is therefore important that presidents be careful.
Yet media figures’ attempts to clarify what Trump really means also surfaced on August 9, when several conservative commentators tried to interpret Trump’s remark that “Second Amendment people” could do something to prevent Hillary Clinton picking Supreme Court nominees.
Those attempting to rewrite Trump’s intent -- be it for his comments about ISIS, the Second Amendment, or for the inevitable next round of outrageous comments -- are coming dangerously close to mirroring the role of a Trump surrogate.