Why The Trump Transcripts Are So Maddening To Read

And why we should still keep reading every word.

Image: mpclemens

A transcript is a record of fact. Which is why the verbatim transcript of interviews with President Trump are fast becoming the political news fetish object of the current moment. Sure, a transcript can be cleaned up, and different media companies treat the Trump’s speaking with varying standards (of the two most recent interviews, CBS cleans out the uhs and ums, the Associated Press doesn’t, for instance). But with Trump, you can’t extract from either sort of transcript any personal truths that are blind to the objective truths that the transcript presents. You couldn’t say, no, this is actually a president, this is exactly how a leader ought to talk and reason, because even with the uhs and ums cleaned out and the spoken sentences made to look like written ones, Trump’s discourse isn’t coherent. The sentences are grammatical (mainly because he keeps them so simple), there’s little disfluency. This isn’t the word salad of, say, a Sarah Palin. This is coherence salad. One example:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I never spoke to him about it. Honestly, he’s never asked me about it. I said, number one, I’m under audit. Right now, I’m under audit. After the audit is complete. It’s a routine audit, but I have a very big tax return. You’ve seen the pictures. My tax return is probably higher than that from the floor. When you look at other people’s tax return, even other wealthy people, their tax return is this big. My tax return is this high.

The expert reader of transcripts is torn when it comes to these. On one hand, you know that a verbatim transcript offers language that’s not quite speaking and not quite writing, which is why it can be unsettling. We don’t speak the way we write, and the transcript, though it’s a text, doesn’t look much like writing. Dwight Eisenhower was frequently mocked for his “garbled syntax,” and his speechwriter, Arthur Larson, defended him with a legitimate point in his memoir: “Before anybody makes fun of the alleged garbled syntax of Eisenhower’s answers as literally reported syllable by syllable in the papers,” he wrote, “let him just once read an equally literal stenographic transcript of something he himself has said, in a congressional hearing, or in an extemporaneous speech, or on a witness stand.”

And yet what you find in a Trump transcript is even weirder. A lot of the commentary about any particular Trump interview covers the facticity of his claims, his retreading of campaign material, the dodges. While such parsing is necessary, it ignores something more basic: the amount of work that a reader has to do to interpret the talking to make it coherent. Linguists talk about coherence as a connectivity of themes, as the progression of ideas, or as a perceivable consistency among all the things a speaker wants to achieve. We’re used to making sense out of superficially disconnected sentences — we do it every day, with each other — but Trump requires much more work because he commits to everything and yet nothing. There’s little sign of a struggle to stay on topic or to stay within the conversational frame. Take, for instance, this:

TRUMP:…First of all I think he’s a great man. I think he will be a great, great justice of the Supreme Court…I’ve always heard that that’s [meaning appointing a justice] the biggest thing. Now, I would say that defense is the biggest thing. You know, to be honest, there are a number of things.

Or this:

TRUMP: I have great relationships with Congress. I think we’re doing very well and I think we have a great foundation for future things. We’re going to be applying, I shouldn’t tell you this, but we’re going to be announcing, probably on Wednesday, tax reform. And it’s — we’ve worked on it long and hard. And you’ve got to understand, I’ve only been here now 93 days, 92 days. President Obama took 17 months to do Obamacare. I’ve been here 92 days but I’ve only been working on the health care, you know I had to get like a little bit of grounding right? Health care started after 30 day(s), so I’ve been working on health care for 60 days. …You know, we’re very close. And it’s a great plan, you know, we have to get it approved.

This is the talking of someone with power, the sort of power that doesn’t come from consensus-building and organizing. We don’t really need a transcript to tell us this, but it’s there. Trump talks to occupy space and run down the clock. He’s prompted to speak by a question but rarely answers the question; he only has to talk long enough to execute his turn in the conversation before the questioner wrests it away. That’s the extent of the coherence. Otherwise, he cajoles, he lies, he brags, he cuts down, and the effect on the transcript reader is nowhere near what Trump can have intended.

At the same time, reading a transcript by a sitting president plunges you deep into your own expectations for what a president ought to sound like. That is what Arthur Larson didn’t touch on in his defense of Eisenhower: politicians desire the accuracy of the recorded (and therefore the precisely reproduced) quote, but not the ramifications of the accuracy. In truth, the U.S. presidency has a long, troubled relationship with the verbatim. The first president who explicitly asked not to be quoted verbatim was the famously taciturn Calvin Coolidge. (He was also the first one to speak on the radio, in 1923.) He met regularly with journalists and didn’t allow them to quote him directly or even write down exactly what he said. For my book Um…, I found an exchange in which Coolidge chewed out a reporter he saw taking shorthand notes:

“Are you taking down in shorthand what I say?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now I don’t think that is right. I don’t think that is the proper thing to do,” Coolidge said. “I don’t object to you taking notes to what I say, but I don’t quite throw my communications to the conference into anything like finished style or anything that perhaps would naturally be associated with a presidential utterance.”

Like Coolidge, Harry Truman also forbad journalists to quote him verbatim. Recording equipment was first put into the Oval Office by FDR because he was tired of being misquoted, but he (and subsequent presidents) retained control over the recordings and transcripts.

The culture of journalism has evolved its own tastes toward the vérité. In the late 1980s, political columnist Maureen Dowd came to prominence partly based on her cheeky willingness to quote George H. W. Bush verbatim. Many of those same quotes sent writers searching for diagnoses of aphasia or other pathology for Bush and later for his son.

It’s also true that our ideals of “sounding presidential” are rooted in our own times. If we had recordings of past presidents, we likely wouldn’t find them very presidential either to the ear or on the page. Thomas Jefferson, for example, who embodies many of the traits that we expect from an American president (except for the slave-owning, of course), was apparently such a fumbly talker that he didn’t give any speeches, and when he did, they were brief. But again: even Trump transcripts are not normal.

It’s also quite possible that Trump’s speech is just the speaking of an old man.

As adults without any neurological disease get older, the grammatical complexity of their sentences declines (people in their twenties use an average of 3 clauses per sentence; people in their seventies average about 1.4). The density of propositional content in their sentences declines, as do word-finding abilities (which explains, by the way, Trump’s restricted repertoire of, say, adjectives: “horrible,” “terrific,” “great,” “big,” “nice”). In studies of the coherence of a discourse, the older talkers are less able to stay on topic, even though sentence to sentence remain connected to each other. However, older speakers produce more coherent discourse when they’re talking with younger people — as Trump often is. The younger speaker — or the interviewer — “appears to scaffold the performance of their elderly partner by introducing ideas and phrases that can then be developed by the elderly individual,” wrote Lauren Saling and others in a 2014 research article in The Journal of Gerontology.

This is what we do next: we weaponize the verbatim transcript. Stop cleaning the transcripts; stop displaying soundbites and printing cleaned quotes. Print the whole thing, each and every time. Annotate them, don’t cherry pick. Any given speech or interview is not a continuous series of soundbites, the juiciest of which gets passed along. Rather, a soundbite is extracted like a jewel from the mud. A transcript offers a chance to make sense of the mud of regular talking, so let’s get the mud of Trump’s regular talking to work against him, amplified by the inherent weirdness of the transcript. The verbatim transcript is the chink in the autocrat’s armor — as long as you have a free press in which to print them.

Michael Erard is the author of Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean and Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.