Itâ€™s tempting to view President Donald Trumpâ€™s many grievance-filled tweets as angry, indiscriminate lashing out against political opponents. Itâ€™s unhinged! Itâ€™s unpresidential! Theyâ€™re â€śrage tweets!â€ť Etc.
Often, though, if you look closely, youâ€™ll see some design. Behind the invective and often-incorrect claims will be a controversial suggestion with some built-in plausible deniability. He will be saying something without actually saying it.
Heâ€™ll send the desired message to his supporters - a dog whistle - but when the media asks him and his aides, theyâ€™ll say he wasnâ€™t really saying that. In the process, heâ€™ll foment culture war and controversy.
Such appears to be the case with his tweets about Puerto Rico on Tuesday morning, along with an aideâ€™s explanation of them.
In two Trump tweets about Puerto Rico and a cable-news appearance from a top White House spokesman later that morning, both Trump and the spokesman talked about Puerto Rico as if it werenâ€™t part of the United States. And they did so in a way that couldnâ€™t help but make you think this might be deliberate.
In his tweets, Trump both accused the hurricane-ravaged island of â€śonly tak(ing) from USAâ€ť and said that it will â€ścontinue to hurt our Farmers and States with these massive payments.â€ť
Puerto Rico is part of the United States. Like any state, it both contributes to and accepts help from the federal government. That may be in a way that people like Trump view as unbalanced, but itâ€™s difficult to picture Trump talking about a state as â€śonly tak(ing) from the USA.â€ť
Puerto Rico also employs farmers which are â€śour farmers,â€ť but they donâ€™t seem to factor into Trumpâ€™s concept of â€śour Farmers.â€ť Trumpâ€™s reference to the idea that Puerto Rico is taking resources from â€śour . . . Statesâ€ť is also a curious formulation.
The combination of those three things at the very least seems to betray Trumpâ€™s attitude that Puerto Rico is a lesser part of the United States.
Later, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley appeared on MSNBC. In an interview with Hallie Jackson, Gidley twice referred to Puerto Rico as a â€ścountry,â€ť which it is not. Itâ€™s important to note that this came after he correctly labeled it a â€śterritoryâ€ť twice. Gidley was also asked about the â€ścountryâ€ť comments at the end of the interview, at which point he apologized and said it was a mistake. He agreed it was a â€śslip of the tongue.â€ť
Jackson, to her credit, pressed the point. She had just grilled Gidley on Trumpâ€™s apparent other-izing of Puerto Rico, after all, and this seemed a conspicuous mix-up from someone who had been dispatched to talk about that. Gidley again assured that it wasnâ€™t intentional.
â€śNo, that was - a slip of the tongue is not on purpose, Hallie,â€ť Gidley said. â€śThat would, by definition, be a slip of the tongue.â€ť
That skepticism is not misplaced. Whatever you think of the reasons for Trumpâ€™s attitude toward Puerto Rico, thereâ€™s no question heâ€™s trying to diminish it.
The question from there is whether heâ€™s doing that because thatâ€™s just what he believes and heâ€™s truly upset about its use of federal funds, or whether he sees some kind of political advantage in it (or both!).
Even just the day before, he oddly referred to it as a â€śplaceâ€ť - in quotation marks - in a tweet. Thatâ€™s four references in less than 24 hours that suggested it was less-than. At some point, we canâ€™t dismiss all of these things as coincidences.
And a spokesman going on cable news and calling Puerto Rico a â€ścountryâ€ť would only seem to fan the flames of the fire Trump has lit on this issue.
Aaron Blake is senior political reporter, writing for The Fix.