On “Covfefe,” Donald Trump and Donald Rumsfeld

Today’s Twitter distraction was President Trump’s early morning tweet: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe…”:

In one sign of just how device-addicted and sleep-deprived America has become, people instantly began trying to decode the meaning of this strange word “covfefe.” All the hub-bub occurred despite the obvious fact that this was a typo for the word “coverage.” “Coverage” is what makes sense in the context of this abandoned tweet. Clearly the President was continuing his tireless campaign to demonize journalists who are simply doing their jobs by reporting on his numerous failings and misdeeds.

There are legitimate mysteries here. Did Trump have a stroke mid-tweet? Does he have fat fingers? Why was he tweeting at midnight? Was this a particularly absurd auto-correct failure? All of these are interesting questions. But the fact that “covfefe” was supposed to be “coverage” is obvious, and a no-brainer.

All of the breathless jokes about what it could possibly mean are lame.

Today’s episode reminded me of Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal words:

“There are known knowns…there are known unknowns…there are unknown unknowns.”

Just as with “covfefe,” many people pretended that Rumsfeld’s meaning was unclear. In fact it was perfectly intelligible and logical — we know that we know certain facts, we know that we don’t know other facts, and (yes) we are unaware of what we don’t know in still other situations. Had Rumsfeld added “unknown knowns” to this formulation — that is, things we know implicitly but could not state if asked to do so explicitly — we could make a handy dandy two-by-two table.

Everything that Rumsfeld said made perfect and complete sense.

So what was the issue? The messenger, of course. Rumseld made this statement in February 2002, as the Bush administration was ginning up its lies about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. This is what led to Colin Powell’s disastrous presentation at the UN in early 2003, and our ill-considered invasion of Iraq a short while later.

Given the stakes of that 2002 discussion, people were right to assume that Rumsfeld was trying to get one over on the American people. He utilized a rhetorical technique to make it seem as though the question of WMDs was more unsettled than it was, as a way to deceive the nation and blunder us into war.

That is grotesque. But the word and sentence-level meaning of Rumsfeld’s statement was perfectly clear, even obvious. All of the mock confusion stemmed from who said these words, not the words themselves. Same goes for “covfefe.”