Should a president ever use words like that? Of course not. Would it be beneath the dignity of his office? Certainly. If he did, would he be the first president to use caustic language? Don’t kid yourself.
But here’s the thing: Donald Trump, a fixture on Twitter, may have less self-awareness than any president about what he can and cannot say in a room full of people in the age of social media. And because he has rejected the norms of American political life, his words will never be safe from attack.
The rules of both conduct and combat have changed in Washington. And Trump, the most divisive president of the last century, is largely responsible for that development. As a candidate, and now as president, he has kept railing against the political establishment, promising to drain the very swamp from which politicians derive their sustenance.
Why then, would the president expect anything that he says that might prove to be embarrassing not to be used against him? Words matter.
Donald Trump, a fixture on Twitter, may have less self-awareness than any president about what he can and cannot say in a room full of people in the age of social media. And because he has rejected the norms of American political life, his words will never be safe from attack.
Lyndon Johnson used to bark at members of his cabinet and congress while perched on the toilet. The talk was, we are told, robust. It was also confidential.
John Kennedy invited reporters and members of both political parties into his office for drinks and the kind of frank talk that everyone in the room understood – or shall we call it collusion? — would be neither reported nor repeated.
Ronald Reagan, famous for consuming jelly beans, also quaffed scotch in private with Democratic Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. No transcripts of their colloquies were made. And it is widely believed that during the course of those conversations, many political compromises were hatched.
Trump will never have the benefit of such candor. Understanding when a conversation is off-the-record is anathema to him. His unfiltered stream-of-consciousness cannot be tweaked to comply with traditional rules of attribution. That, plus his unmatched instinct for infuriating people who do not agree with him, puts him at a social, but also strategic, disadvantage.
And so, whatever the president said or did not say about Haiti, or Africa, was almost certain to be remembered and repeated – or perhaps exaggerated and degraded — and then leaked to an overwhelmingly left-leaning news media intent on driving him from office.
Was there any understanding, implicit or otherwise, that the conversation was off-the-record? It doesn’t matter. Since Trump refuses to play by the rules of the Beltway, he can never expect to have his tiniest utterance held in confidence.
Words matter. A “like, really smart” guy will learn that lesson, and remember it forever.