As NBC’s Chuck Todd and others have noticed, President Trump is almost never seen laughing. Trump has a range of expressions suggestive of mirth — a self-satisfied smile, a knowing smirk, a sardonic grin — but laughter isn’t among them.
But as his own aides can attest, he does have a sense of humor. When he was asked Thursday about Russian President Vladimir Putin purging over half of the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and seizing two diplomatic compounds, Trump responded with a light-hearted joke about one of the most serious diplomatic confrontations between the two superpowers since the Cold War.
“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down on payroll, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people, because now we have a smaller payroll,” Trump told reporters from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he is vacationing. “There’s no real reason for them to go back. So I greatly appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to cut our payroll of the United States. We’ll save a lot of money.”
Flanked by two stone-faced officials, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Vice President Mike Pence, Trump made his remarks with a near-smile, suggesting enough self-awareness to foresee the uproar yet another compliment of Putin would bring.
In case there was any doubt, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders explained to the New York Times: “He was being sarcastic.”
It was the same explanation Sanders gave last month after Trump’s remarks to law enforcement officials, in which he warned them against being “too nice” to suspected criminals, a comment widely interpreted as endorsing extrajudicial corporal punishment.
“I believe he was making a joke at the time,” Sanders said at a press briefing. As she left the room, a reporter tried to ask if the president found police brutality funny. Sanders ignored him.
Of course, a president who enjoys joking about firing Cabinet members or threatening the careers of senators who thwart him — in their presence — could find the humor in almost anything. The president’s spokespeople and surrogates are frequently tasked with cleaning up outrageous statements, and recasting them as jokes is a clever way to shift the burden from Trump’s intention to the listener’s interpretation.
That defense should raise two questions: Was he joking? If he was, why was it funny to him? If there is a grain of truth in every joke, Trump’s sense of humor should be revealing. Instead, the after-the-fact insistence that he was merely being tongue-in-cheek has morphed into a tactic distancing him from his own statements. Presumably, the targets of his jokes — including U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and Sen. Dean Heller — are, as longtime politicians, able to laugh off Trump’s jabs. One can hope that, if the occasion arises, Kim Jong Un will take the same attitude.
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