Our current president has suggested that there may be “tapes” (in quotation marks) of his conversations with the recently fired FBI Director. In the past he suggested that President Barack Obama had his “wires tapped” (also in quotation marks).
Those suggestions may or may not be true, but the focus of this post is the quotation marks themselves, and the broad latitude they give the president to interpret or redefine the truth.
In his view, placing something in quotes automatically makes a figurative example out of a literal statement, and in doing so gives him complete deniability: If pressed, he never said there were actual “tapes”, he meant that some form of recording took place. He never said his telephone wires were actually “tapped”, he meant there was some form of electronic surveillance.
These two are disturbing semantic examples of “what he said” vs. what he really meant, but in the bigger picture they’re not life-threatening. But now imagine the president commenting on a serious global situation — one that might involve American lives or changing power structures — and those quotation marks become awfully important.
To accept these quotation marks as normal is to set a dangerous precedent. It’s not enough for the press to simply point them out and clarify their intent. In fact, to do that is to continue playing by his rules.
An important part of the job of President of the United States is to clearly and unambiguously articulate ideas and policies. Vagueness and vagaries are unacceptable at this level. The press and the public must forcefully hold this president and his administration to that standard.