Nearly every day, President-elect Donald Trump’s press aides are beseeched to clarify, tame or shed context on his torrent of tweets that have flustered congressional leaders, corporate chieftains and heads of state.
The spin operation has settled on a stock answer that may yet become an administration motto: “The tweet speaks for itself.”
The phrase, and closely related variants, have begun popping up with increasing frequency among the president-elect’s spokespeople in a Trump-era update to the Washington tradition of responding to a question confidently without actually answering it. It joins a parade of such notable political locutions as “It is what it is,” “I’m not aware of any conversations” and “I’m not going to get ahead of the president.”
Such dodges are usually driven by aides’ fears of attaching their bosses to too many promises. Trump has been known to contradict lieutenants — and even himself — after they try to explain away his most controversial statements.
Trump’s aides also cite another motivation: They often have no idea what the next president is liable to tweet at any given moment. Trump, who is unlike previous presidents in using Twitter to speak unpredictably and directly to the public, sees the medium as essential to his appeal and his ability to stamp the news with his agenda.
"He drives the train on this," Sean Spicer, Trump’s incoming White House press secretary, told Democratic strategist David Axelrod during an interview at the University of Chicago last week.
Spicer’s comments came amid a busy week on Trump’s Twitter feed. Only hours earlier, Trump had sounded off about congressional ethics, the auto industry, Obamacare, Guantanamo Bay and the entertainment lineup at his inaugural festivities. Trump would later comment about a wall along the border with Mexico and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings as the new host of “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
Partway through the tweet-o-rama, Spicer was asked what exactly Trump meant by some of these fragmented declarations. Did a threat to impose a border tax on the Chevy Cruze relate to a broader trade policy that would include all companies and all countries, or just General Motors and Mexico?
“The tweet on General Motors speaks for itself,” Spicer said during his daily conference call with reporters.
And what about the taunts of North Korea, arguably the world’s most volatile regime, over its nuclear capabilities?
“Again, that speaks for itself,” Spicer said.
A week earlier, Spicer offered a similar assessment when asked to elaborate on a dust-up between Trump and President Obama.
“With respect to the tweets, they speak for themselves,” Spicer said. “I think very clearly.”
That was not long after another spokesman, Jason Miller, dismissed tweets about the electoral college as speaking for themselves. Ditto for Russian hacking and Trump’s unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud.
Tweets, of course, do not speak. They are lines, no more than 140 characters, broadcast to the world, lacking the context of a 40-page policy paper or even a full paragraph tossed off during a backyard barbecue. And the utterings of the next president often prompt a slew of questions about how they relate to policy or international diplomacy and whether they promote falsehoods or increase global instability.
Trump is different from other politicians, who tend to imply things and speak in signals, leaving journalists and pundits to interpret their true meaning, says John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguist.
“He isn’t a politician,” McWhorter said in an email.
“When he sends a tweet, he isn’t signaling,” McWhorter added. “He’s saying what he said.”
Though the tweets can appear random, Spicer told Axelrod that they are in fact strategic.
“His tweets, his phone calls, his meetings — he is a very, very, very strategic thinker,” Spicer said. “He understands the outcome he wants to achieve and kind of works backwards and uses the tools at his disposal to achieve that goal. And he’s done it with huge success.”
Trump’s tweet volume and intensity tends to increase when others, such as members of Congress, begin to attract their own media coverage. He also fans new controversies that sometimes distract from others that may prove more damaging.
His advisors and supporters have learned that Trump likes to have the last word. Trying to explain away his most provocative statements or dismiss them as hyperbole can backfire.
When his vice president-elect, Mike Pence, tried during the campaign to nudge Trump’s comments on Syria to gel with his party’s more mainstream defense hawks, Trump pushed back.
"He and I haven't spoken, and he and I disagree," Trump said in an October debate.
And when conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt tried to reframe Trump’s assertion that Obama “founded ISIS” as a figurative result of a feckless policy, Trump refused to back down.
"No, I meant he's the founder of ISIS," Trump said emphatically in August. "I do."
Politicians and their handlers used to say “no comment” when they wanted to cut off a question. William Safire, the late New York Times language columnist and former speechwriter for President Nixon, declared that locution outdated a decade ago, writing that it had become too easily dismissed as “a brushoff by a clumsy amateur.”
“The trick to assertive deflection is in ducking a question in a way that sounds forthright,” Safire wrote.
In the age of Twitter, Trump’s communications team may have nonetheless hit on a deflection even older than “no comment.”
Mark Liberman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has researched the linguistics of politics, tied the roots of the phrase “The tweet speaks for itself” to Cicero in the first century B.C.
“The facts, O judges, speak for themselves,” Cicero wrote in Latin. “Facts, which are always of the greatest weight in a cause.”
Cicero then went on to give his own version of what those facts said, Liberman pointed out in an email.
“Politicians and their spokesweasels” may have begun employing Cicero’s tactic, Liberman said, “pretty soon after journalists started making unwelcome requests for clarification.”
Times editorial library director Cary Schneider contributed to this report.