Covfefe. Trump tweeted it and the internet went crazy. Everyone assumed it was exactly what it looked like -- a 70-year-old man on the internet late at night, ready to go to sleep, and bitching for the hundred-millionth time about the terrible, awful, very bad press coverage he gets. But was that what was going on, or did Trump, the master of distraction and diversion, just strike again?
First came the tweet, followed by its deletion, which cemented the belief that it was a hilarious error. But before breakfast on Wednesday Trump sent this cryptic message:
Later in the day Sean Spicer was asked about the covfefe tweets at the daily press briefing. Spicer replied, "The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant." He refused to elaborate further.
But while everyone else was puzzling over covfefe, a "small group of people" claimed to have it figured out. And, of course, to them it made Trump look like a genius.
USA Newsflash is one of those right-wing fake news sites that basically just makes up shit. So when I saw their story about covfefe and the claim that it is actually an Arabic phrase (spelled cov fe'fe in our alphabet) that means "I will stand up," I was highly skeptical. I went to Google Translate and tried it for myself. And I got this:
The Google translation actually fits the context of Trump's tweet. "Despite the constant negative press I will stand up." And he was recently in Saudi Arabia, where he could have picked up on some of the words and expressions used by his hosts.
That explanation appeared to be good enough for the right-wing blogosphere. Google "cov fe'fe" and most of the top hits are from blogs and tweets of Trump allies. Were they the "small group of people" Sean Spicer was talking about?
But if that is the translation, why have no Arabic speakers or linguists come out and publicly said that yes, covfefe means "I will stand up?" As far as I can tell, the mainstream media hasn't found anybody who has confirmed the meaning of the word. On the contrary, Politifact found a professor of Arabic who says the translation is incorrect.
"This is incorrect; Arabic has no [v]. To be more specific, this is inaccurate as far as Standard Arabic, Levantine Arabic (Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian) and Egyptian Arabic are concerned. My guess is that it is inaccurate in any Arabic dialect; however, although I manage with the other varieties, I do not claim to have native or native-like intuition about them," said Youssef A. Haddad, Associate Professor of Arabic Language & Linguistics at the University of Florida.
It's also interesting that when you type "cov fe'fe" into Google Translate it shows you Arabic characters that are transcribed in Roman letters as "sawf faqaf." That also translates into "I will stand up." And if you type the word as Trump did -- "covfefe" -- without spaces or accent, Google Translate suggests the word is Samoan.
So, was this an attempt by a bleary-eyed septuagenarian to write the word "coverage" as he nodded off to sleep, as quickly became the conventional wisdom about the affair? Or was something else going on?
To start with, tweets don't send themselves. If Trump was falling asleep as he tweeted, how did it ever get sent? Did he hit the "Tweet" button accidentally as his last act before sleep overcame him? Did he realize his error before nodding off and decide it wasn't worth bothering with until a few hours later when he deleted it? It's possible, but Trump's history suggests that the whole affair may have been not a mistake at all.
Donald Trump is in way over his head as president, but there are some things that we have to acknowledge he does well and one of those things is distraction. The Guardian laid out Trump's some of Trump's past distractions, like his attempt to take the spotlight off Michael Flynn's problems, in a March 21 article. The covfefe tweet fits the pattern.
Trump had recently returned from a trip where he lectured our democratic allies and specifically told the Saudis, one of our decidedly undemocratic "allies," that he was not going to lecture them. He met with Pope Francis, who seemed less than thrilled. Then he came home to more bad news about the Russia probe: former FBI director Comey is preparing to testify before Congress, and the investigation is reportedly hitting Trump's family in the form of Jared Kushner. Add in the discussion of the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and the report that the Trump administration is planning on returning two Russian diplomatic facilities, seized by the Obama administration in the wake of the Russian election meddling, to the Kremlin. None of those things are going to help Trump's awful approval ratings. Therefore, time for another distraction.
So you send the tweet and delete it a little later to make it look like a mistake, but not so quickly that almost nobody sees it. There's distraction part A. Next you send a cryptic tweet that makes everyone suspect that you were trying to cover your ass from the first one. By now you've eaten up a good deal of one news cycle.
Next comes distraction part B: the daily news briefing. Somebody asks the question you knew was going to be coming about the tweets. And your press secretary offers an opaque response that answers exactly nothing, causing more puzzlement. At about the same time that "small group of people" who have gotten the memo run with a story explaining what a genius Trump is. And another news cycle is consumed. Russia, Jared, and the Paris Accords are pushed to the back burner. Mission accomplished.
I still like my mental image of Trump in teddy bear jammies, having milk and cookies and screwing up bigly with his tweet before nodding off. But when you look at everything that has gone on since "covfefe" hit the internet, it looks just as likely that we have been played for suckers again by the reality tv star in the White House. After all, suckering people is the one thing he's any good at.