US & Canada

Taking Trump literally and seriously

President-elect Donald Trump talks with workers during a visit to the Carrier factory, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Indianapolis, Ind Image copyright AP

"This is the problem with the media," says Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump's former campaign manager.

"You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally.

"The American people didn't. They understood it."

Is he saying that the US president-elect never intended to keep his campaign promises?

Whilst I was recently reporting from the US, evidence of that seemed to be mounting.

On his first official outing since the election, Mr Trump appeared at the Carrier Corp factory in Indiana to claim credit for saving more than 1,000 jobs that were due to be moved to Mexico.

He glossed over the fact that another 1,000 jobs will still leave the US.

He also used the occasion to admit he had never really expected to be asked to live up to his frequent pledges to keep those jobs in the US.

When he said, "we're not going to let Carrier leave", it was just a "euphemism", he explained.

Only when he saw Carrier workers on TV, shortly after the election, did he realise they actually expected him to keep his campaign promise.

The deal he has done to keep those jobs in Indiana is highly controversial.

His frank confession that he didn't think he'd have to do it doesn't bode well for the hundreds of other promises he made during the campaign.

'Read between the lines'

Talking to Trump voters in the neighbouring state of Ohio, I found that they had never really taken his promises too literally.

Joe Tellup, who was a campaign volunteer, told me that you had to "read between the lines" to understand what Mr Trump was really saying.

Everyone I spoke to seemed remarkably sanguine about reports that Mr Trump is already rethinking his positions on Obamacare and his threats to prosecute Hillary Clinton.

Eddie Swope, a retired autoworker, said simply, "politicking and campaigning is one thing - governing is another".

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Members of the media watch who is coming and going from Trump Tower

Earlier that week, Mr Trump unleashed a series of tweets condemning Mrs Clinton for taking part in an electoral recount in Wisconsin and claiming he "won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally".

I admit I fell straight into the trap of taking him literally, puzzling over whether he actually believes some of the crazy conspiracy theories doing the rounds on the internet, or whether he is happy to spread stories he knows are not true.

Now I suspect there may be a deeper motive behind some of Trump's more erratic Twitter outbursts.

He knew that journalists would respond to his unsubstantiated claims with banner headlines attacking his total lack of evidence for these wild assertions.

That may be just what he wanted them to do.

In previous years that kind of news coverage would have been deeply damaging to a president-elect trying to win the confidence of the nation.

But now, his supporters are outraged that their guy is once again being attacked by a biased and hostile press.

He is effectively turning the media into the opposition, therefore neutralising their criticism of other, more serious issues, such as how his business interests could pose a very serious conflict of interest once he takes office.

Salena Zito, writing in the Atlantic magazine, summed up Trump's election campaign by saying: "The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally."

But can the press really stop taking literally what the president-elect says?

That's quite a dilemma for the next four years.

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