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Trump has the right to ‘rhetorical hyperbole,’ says judge — but that doesn’t make it presidential

In dismissing Stormy Daniels' defamation suit, we are left with the same withering assessment of the president's lack of seriousness.

There is always a tweet, and its aftermath. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
There is always a tweet, and its aftermath. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As if it wasn’t already glaringly apparent, a federal judge has, in his dismissal of adult film star Stormy Daniels’ defamation suit against President Donald Trump, offered an officially adjudicated assessment that the president’s words and behavior are not to be considered earnestly.

Or, to put it more bluntly, this judge has ruled that Trump is an unserious president.

In a ruling handed down Monday, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero — who is also overseeing Daniels’ pending lawsuit about her non-disclosure agreement — sided with the president and dismissed the adult-film actor’s defamation suit against Trump. Daniels filed the suit after the president, in a tweet, referred to her contention that a man had threatened her in an effort to dissuade her from speaking publicly about her alleged affair with the president as “a total con job.” 

In his dismissal decision, Otero wrote that it was fair game for the President of the United States to employ gross and over-the-top language to make a self-serving point. “The Court agrees with Mr. Trump’s argument because the tweet in question constitutes ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ normally associated with politics and public discourse in the United States. The First Amendment protects this type of rhetorical statement.”

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Careful parsing of Otero’s dismissal points directly to the clear-eyed understanding of an absence of seriousness in the Oval Office. The judge found that “rhetorical hyperbole” — a literary device used to draw contrast and attention — is normal in everyday conversation.

And yes, this is undoubtably true. For example, I might say: “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse,” and no one would mistake my words as being literally intended.

But this sort of casual conversation and imprecision in language is not what most Americans associate with normal verbiage when spoken by an American president. Of course, nothing about Trump or his grip on our national life is normal, and nearly everything that Trump does or says is aberrant. Trump doesn’t evince any concern that presidential rhetoric — which has the potential to move markets, sow conflicts, and engender panic — needs to be guarded, grave, and precise so as to not create chaos. Rather, he seems to relish in the absurdity of his sophomoric antics.

As if to underline this point, Trump immediate took to Twitter to gloat over Otero’s decision, heaping an extra scoop of rhetorical hyperbole on this sorry episode by insulting Daniels — crudely calling her a “horseface” — and pledging to attack Michael Avenatti, whom Trump referred to as Daniels’ “3rd rate lawyer.”

Not everyone — including some Republicans — are down with Trump’s vulgar, locker-room behavior. Appearing recently on Fox NewsAri Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, panned the current president’s frat-boy antics. “This is where the president is his own worst enemy,” Fleischer said. “He doesn’t need to call anybody horseface. You just don’t do that when you’re the president. . . . The president can counterpunch so hard, he often hits himself.”

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Of course, to Trump’s supporters, it’s just good-old-boy fun, nothing to be overly concerned about — even it it’s the most powerful man in the world confusing and alarming everyone on the planet with this callow, unhinged rhetoric.

Consider, for example, a Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this year which found that “of the minority that approved of Trump’s job performance, a majority – a bit under 60 percent – indicated that the rationale for their support stemmed from his personality and approach to the job vs. his policies or values.”

Linguists, such as Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary, are having a field day analyzing not only what Trump says, but how he says it. In a recent National Public Radio commentary, King noted the work of several language scholars who have examined the way Trump uses simple modifiers and braggadocios to persuade his audience.  King quoted linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff, who notes:

Language that fits that worldview activates that worldview, strengthening it, while turning off the other worldview and weakening it. The more Trump’s views are discussed in the media, the more they are activated and the stronger they get, both in the minds of hardcore conservatives and in the minds of moderate progressives.

This is true even if you are attacking Trump’s views. The reason is that negating a frame activates that frame . . . . It doesn’t matter if you are promoting Trump or attacking Trump, you are helping Trump.

In other words, there’s a message embedded within Trump’s maddening hyperbole. It doesn’t matter to him — or his followers — that he’s comes across as an ignoramus. Quite the contrary — it bonds them to him. 

But for everyone outside this sliver of the president’s supporters, Trump comes across as a reckless and narcissistic, too over-the-top in his responses to critics, and too quick to offer up a foolish utterance — all of which distracts from the gravitas of his office and duties.

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A frivolous president is a puzzling challenge to those of us who want the leader of the free world to be clear, articulate, and level-headed in all his public statements and actions. There are those who remain forever in wait, expecting and hoping that one day he will recognize the seriousness of his office and make some attempt at statesmanship. Alas, the vigil continues as Trump romps with unabated glee over the august role he plays in the public’s eye.

“I’m president and you’re not,” Trump recently told CBS’ Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes.”

It was the sort of comment — casual, colloquial, contemptuous, and canned — that brings tears of joy to the eyes of Trump’s core supporters. So what, if it the president is name calling and behaving — to use Vanity Fair’s Erika Harwood’s apt description — as “any seventh grader would pass on for being too obvious.”

Trump’s core supporters are enamored of the idea of an unserious president. Trump certainly shows no signs of disappointing them, no matter how much damage it does to the office of the president.