White House press secretary Sean Spicer delivers his first statement in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017. SHAWN THEW / EPA

Sean Spicer’s newest trick: debating the meaning of the word ‘is’

The Rachel Maddow Show, 4/18/17, 9:00 PM ET

Trump foreign policy antics raise question, Stupid or nefarious?

Rachel Maddow looks at recent awkward behavior by the Trump administration and the difficulty foreign policy experts are having determining whether the administration is woefully incompetent or deliberate and calculating.
Donald Trump’s White House has already struggled with tough questions about its credibility, but yesterday brought a rather brutal turn of events. Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s efforts to clean up the mess aren’t going well.

Let’s quickly review. Last week, Donald Trump said he’s “sending an armada” to the Korean peninsula, in response to rising tensions with North Korea. He wasn’t alone: Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Sean Spicer all said publicly, over the course of a few days, that the United States had dispatched an aircraft carrier and its support ships – the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group – to head towards the Korean peninsula.

That didn’t happen. The USS Carl Vinson was actually 3,000 miles away, headed in the opposite direction. This raised a variety of questions, including some obvious ones: did the Trump administration simply lie? Was the aircraft carrier supposed to head towards North Korea but fail to do so? Did the Trump administration lose track of this aircraft carrier strike group?

Today, after having a chance to think about it, Spicer rolled out his best defense. The Huffington Post reported:
Spicer … denied that Trump misspoke when he talked about the ships. “The president said that we have an armada going towards the peninsula. That’s a fact, it happened,” Spicer said.

But then Spicer corrected himself, noting that it had not in fact happened. “It is happening, rather,” he said.
Oh dear, we’re headed into a debate over the meaning of “is.”

Look, there’s no need to make this more complicated than it is. Trump, Spicer, and other administration officials said the USS Carl Vinson was on its way towards Korea. They spoke about this in present tense – if the White House press secretary doesn’t believe that, he can check his own transcript – and these officials said nothing about future events.

Looking specifically at the president’s comments, there’s an important difference between “We are sending an armada,” which is what Trump said, and “We will send an armada,” which isn’t what Trump said.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but when the Commander in Chief of the world’s strongest fighting force says “we are” doing something about national security that we’re not actually doing, that does real harm to the nation’s credibility. It only makes matters worse when his press secretary adds, “That’s a fact, it happened. It is happening, rather.”

Falsehoods don’t become facts if you have to change the tense and wait for them to eventually come true.

The damage abroad may prove to be real. The Wall Street Journal quoted a South Korean presidential candidate saying, “What [President Donald Trump] said was very important for the national security of South Korea. If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says.”

Donald Trump, Foreign Policy and North Korea

Sean Spicer's newest trick: debating the meaning of the word 'is'