Donald Trump tried to quash the latest controversy engulfing his campaign on Friday by claiming that he was not serious when he insisted on multiple occasions this week that President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the “founders” of the Islamic State terrorist group — an allegation that amounts to treason.
The clarification raised new questions about the Republican presidential nominee’s ability to communicate clearly to the American public. It also put his surrogates, who have strained to defend him during a tumultuous stretch, in the awkward position of having to explain remarks that he might not mean.
After making the suggestion at a rally on Wednesday night, Trump doubled down on the assertion on Thursday, insisting in interviews that he really did intend to say that the president and Clinton created ISIS. But in an early-morning Twitter post, Trump said that he was just being sarcastic.
The turnabout was a reversal from just a day ago, when Trump said in a number of interviews that he was indeed serious about the charge. When the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt tried to help Trump soften the remark by reminding him that Obama wants to destroy ISIS, the Republican presidential nominee would not have it.
“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do,” Trump said. “He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”
The latest firestorm comes as Trump has been trying to refocus his campaign on the economy amid declining poll numbers. Trump and Clinton gave dueling economic speeches in Michigan this week.
On Friday, Trump tried again to return to that subject. Taking again to Twitter, he warned that Clinton’s proposals would come with higher taxes and he said that he found her speech boring.
Trump has used the sarcasm defense before. In late July, after he drew widespread criticism by appearing to suggest that the Russians should hack Clinton’s emails, he later explained his remarks by saying, “Of course I’m being sarcastic.” The approach allows Trump to push the limits of political speech and dial it back as needed.
“I think it’s a pattern of him testing certain messages that resonate with his fans, seeing how they play, and then ‘clarifying’ one way or another depending on the reaction,” said Ruth Sherman, a communications expert who has been monitoring the language used by both candidates. “But I also think he’s clever about his statements and knows they are vague enough to be filtered through various lenses.”
Instead of toning things down for a general election audience, Trump has taken an even more caustic tone in recent days as his poll numbers have continued to tumble. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released on Friday showed Trump trailing Clinton by large margins in North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado and locked in a tight race in Florida.
While Trump generally tries to avoid apologizing for provocative things that he says, he often accuses his critics of misconstruing his words or misunderstanding his sense of humor. But as he faces heightened scrutiny during the final months of the presidential campaign, Trump’s jokes have put his loyal allies in the uncomfortable position of having to publicly stand up for him no matter how provocative his remarks.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who is one of Trump’s most prominent surrogates, went to great lengths to defend the candidate in an interview with CNN on Thursday.
“I think what he’s saying there is legitimate, political commentary,” Giuliani said when questioned about the veracity of Trump’s assertion about Obama and Clinton having founded the Islamic State. “It is true in a sense that before Obama, ISIS was an almost unknown, small little organization, he who called it the jayvee, totally wrong, and here’s why it happened, because he withdrew the truce from Iraq.”
Most mainstream Republicans try to argue that the Obama administration, in which Clinton served as secretary of state, allowed ISIS to fester by failing to aggressively manage the situation in the Middle East. Trump appeared to insinuate that they were actually in cahoots.
Ahead of rallies in Pennsylvania on Friday, Trump continued to lash out on Twitter at the news media for harping on his every word and for being biased against him. He mocked the “poor, pathetic” television pundits who try to figure him out and said, “They can’t!”
Some Democrats scoffed at Trump’s excuse as more evidence that he is unfit to be president.
“What I’m looking for is a president who has a good sense of humor about ISIS, assassinations, and Russian cyber warfare,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut wrote, sarcastically, in a post on Twitter.