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Trump's go-to excuse

Photo: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last week's cover of Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, shows a smug President Trump — backed by Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's Xi Jinping and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and proclaims "Das Zeitalter der Autokraten," the age of the autocrats.

Why it matters: It's a common enough perception of Trump. So his description of North Korea's Kim Jong-un to Fox News' Steve Doocy on Friday got lots of coverage.

  • "Hey, he’s the head of a country. And I mean he is the strong head. ... He speaks and his people sit up at attention. [Pointing to the West Wing.] I want my people to do the same."
  • Asked about the comment a few minutes later during his first-ever gaggle on the North Lawn, Trump said: "I’m kidding. You don’t understand sarcasm. Who are you with? Wait, wait, who are you with? Who are you with? ... You’re with CNN!  Hey, you are the worst."

Rewind some tape, and you find that this White House has used the "just kidding — you don't get it" response before:

  • When Trump suggested to laughter by supporters that it was "treasonous" that Democrats were so stone-faced during his State of the Union address, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said he was "clearly joking."
  • Asked during the campaign about his suggestion that Russia help Hillary Clinton find her emails, Trump said: "Of course I'm being sarcastic."
  • When Trump was criticized even by law enforcement for telling officers they shouldn't "be too nice" to suspects ("Like, don't hit their head, and they just killed somebody"), Sanders said: "I believe he was making a joke at the time."
  • After Trump called it "great" that Xi is "now president for life" ("Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday"), he said at a rally: "I'm joking about being president for life."
  • When asked about Trump's remark that he'd like to "compare IQ tests" with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (who had called his boss a moron), Sanders said Trump "made a joke — nothing more than that."

Trump used the line in real time to take the edge off a tweet he clearly believes: "Lowest rated Oscars in HISTORY. Problem is, we don’t have Stars anymore - except your President (just kidding, of course)!"

A couple of reactions to this defense:

  • Max Boot, WashPost national security columnist, after the Xi remark: "The president’s comments are no laughing matter even if they were intended humorously, which is far from clear. ... That there is truth in wit as well as wine is now widely recognized."
  • David Litt, a speechwriter for former President Barack Obama, told Reuters' Roberta Rampton after the "sit up at attention" comment: “Maybe Donald Trump is the kind of dry, deadpan humorist who does great material about how terrific dictators are - but if that’s the case, he should wait until he retires as president to start breaking out that particular part of his act."

Be smart: Jokes are funnier if you don't have to say they're jokes.