Spokesperson Heather Nauert (L) speaks as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dialogues with reporters in his plane while flying from Panama to Mexico, October 18, 2018. 
Brendan Smialowski/Pool via REUTERS

Team Trump’s challenge: playing the role of presidential interpreter

When announcing his controversial emergency declaration, Donald Trump accidentally told the truth. “I didn’t need to do this,” the president said about his gambit to circumvent Congress to build a border wall, “but I’d rather do it much faster…. I just want to get it done faster, that’s all.”

Perhaps realizing that these public comments cut off the administration’s legal position at the knees, the White House adopted a familiar posture: interpreting Trump’s words, translating them into something less damaging. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, for example, told Fox News that when the president said he didn’t “need” to issue a declaration, what he meant was that he “shouldn’t have to” issue a declaration.

It was an impossible spin to take seriously, but it was born of desperation. Trump’s own comments were an embarrassing and damaging mess, so it’s the responsibility of his team to pretend the president meant to say something more sensible.

All of this came to mind yesterday when CNN’s Jake Tapper spoke with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about this week’s bilateral talks with North Korea.

TAPPER: Do you think North Korea remains a nuclear threat?

POMPEO: Yes.

TAPPER: But the president said he doesn’t.

POMPEO: That’s not what he said…. I know precisely what he said.

For the record, Trump wrote last June, “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”

In fact, it was part of a series of premature and over-the-top celebratory boasts in which the Republican president, among other things, assured the world that he’d “solved” the problem posed by the rogue nuclear state.

“President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem,” Trump declared. “No longer – sleep well tonight!”

Pompeo realizes that Trump’s boasts were wrong, which left him in an awkward position yesterday. He could’ve pretended the president’s assessment was accurate; he could’ve acknowledged Trump’s errors; or he could’ve pretended his boss didn’t publish nonsense, hoping the rest of us would choose not to believe our lying eyes.

The secretary of state chose Door #3.