President Trump has defied political conventions, challenged norms and upended traditions since he first rode down a gilded escalator at Trump Tower in mid-2015 and launched his improbable march to the White House.
On Sunday, he crossed another line: retweeting a doctored video from someone whose Twitter handle can’t be repeated in a family newspaper, showing Trump striking Hillary Clinton in the back with a golf ball and knocking her down.
The reaction was predictable. Critics were outraged. Supporters were gleeful. And social media lit up like a Christmas tree.
Perhaps the morning broadside was just Trump’s way of hitting back, a reminder of his pugilistic instincts honed by the raucous ethos of reality TV. In recent days, Clinton has called him a “clear and present danger” to American democracy, and noted that she won 2.9 million more votes than he did on election day, as she touts her memoir of the 2016 election, “What Happened.”
Still, the violent imagery — presumably meant as a joke — struck a jarring note two days before Trump is to deliver his first address to global leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, a gathering expected to focus on North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threat, and other weighty issues.
Trump spoke Saturday evening with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, and several senior aides took to the TV talk shows Sunday to press the case for what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” called efforts “designed to bring North Korea to the table for constructive, productive dialogue… To be clear, we seek a peaceful solution to this.”
Whether Trump helped that effort by mocking the North Korean leader in another tweet Sunday morning is anybody’s guess.
“I spoke with President Moon of South Korea last night. Asked him how Rocket Man is doing,” Trump wrote from his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. “Long gas lines forming in North Korea. Too bad!”
Few North Koreans own cars, and private travel inside the isolated country is extremely restricted. In any case, the latest two rounds of U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea did not include an oil embargo after China objected.
The White House was more circumspect in a description of Trump’s call with Moon that was issued to the media. The two leaders “committed to continuing to take steps to strengthen deterrence and defense capabilities,” it said.
While Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea has repeatedly stirred unease, it was the golf-themed GIF that grabbed the most attention Sunday.
The president has previously taken to Twitter to retweet animations, including one that depicted him pummeling a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his head. Another presidential Twitter share last month – but later deleted – showed a train hitting a person, again with a CNN logo imposed on the figure’s head.
Sunday’s doctored video, posted by a user whose Twitter output brims with vitriol against Clinton, apparently caught the president’s eye after he woke up, an hour when he likes to showcase his inner musings online.
The spliced footage shows Trump, in white pants and blazer, teeing up and swinging a club – and a flying golf ball striking Clinton in the back as she steps aboard an aircraft, causing her to stumble and fall. (The meme uses video from a 2011 trip to Yemen, when then-Secretary of State Clinton tripped and fell as she was boarding her jet, quickly helped up by an aide.)
Last year’s Democratic nominee has been on Trump’s mind in recent days, to judge from his Twitter feed. He revels in revisiting his election victory, and his political base delights in his Clinton-bashing. Democrats are not eager to see Clinton in the headlines again.
A day after her book appeared in stores Tuesday, Trump tweeted that “Crooked Hillary Clinton blames everybody (and every thing) but herself for her election loss,” he said. “She lost the debates and lost her direction! The ‘deplorables’ came back to haunt Hillary.”
Clinton’s account was also denounced from the White House podium, with spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders accusing her of pushing “false narratives.”
Clinton admits numerous personal mistakes in the book. But she also says Trump was helped by Russian meddling in the campaign and by then-FBI Director James B. Comey’s announcement 11 days before the election that agents were reviewing a new trove of her emails. Nothing ultimately was found.
Clinton responded to Trump’s midweek tweets by suggesting he read her earlier book, “It Takes a Village,” a picture book for children.
Many noted on social media that Clinton, as a former first lady, has lifetime protection from the Secret Service, which takes a dim view of threats of violence toward those it guards – even those meant lightheartedly.
Trump’s aides and supporters describe memes like the golf-ball video as jokes, or as inconsequential. On Sunday, a former Trump campaign strategist, David Urban, brushed off the latest controversy.
“Retweets do not equal endorsements,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
A common theme in the criticism of Trump was that the crude retweet, and others like it, demeaned the presidency.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), interviewed on ABC’s “This Week,” called it “distressing” that Trump would “tweet and retweet things as juvenile as that.” He added that “it doesn’t help…in terms of his stature — it doesn’t help in terms of the stature of our whole country.”
The president’s fans painted the president’s detractors as humorless or hypocrites or both, pointing to comedian Kathy Griffin’s posting in May of a photograph of herself holding a fake decapitated head of Trump.
Griffin apologized, then retracted the apology.