Joseph Sohm /

How the White House Started Taking Trump Seriously

Over a few months, the Obama administration went from resisting the “temptation” to weigh in to calling out the Republican front-runner’s “fake hair.”

In the first days after Don­ald Trump de­clared his bid for the pres­id­ency, the White House didn’t seem con­cerned. Des­pite Trump’s poin­ted mud­sling­ing and in­fam­ous in­vect­ives, the ad­min­is­tra­tion took the high road, de­clin­ing op­por­tun­it­ies to weigh in.

But then, un­ex­pec­tedly, Trump climbed to the top of the GOP primary pack—and stayed put there. The White House could no longer ig­nore him: Pres­id­ent Obama and Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden let their ire seep in­to pub­lic re­marks (the veep, as usu­al, tip­ping his hand more plainly), and, hop­ing to render the rest of the GOP field col­lat­er­al dam­age, of­fi­cials took every op­por­tun­ity to tie oth­er Re­pub­lic­an con­tenders to Trump. As the months went on, their mes­sages grew more ur­gent—and more like those of Trump him­self.

Here’s a look at the White House’s evolving mes­sage on the Re­pub­lic­an front-run­ner.

Ju­ly 20: Res­ist­ing “the tempta­tion to weigh in”

After Trump slammed dec­or­ated Vi­et­nam war vet­er­an Sen. John Mc­Cain by say­ing he wasn’t ac­tu­ally a war hero, cri­ti­cism from all sides was swift. But when White House press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est was asked wheth­er Trump owed vet­er­ans an apo­logy, the White House spokes­man de­clined to get in­volved. “I’ve res­isted the tempta­tion to weigh in,” Earn­est told re­port­ers, “even though I’ve had ample op­por­tun­ity to do so.”

Sept. 10: De­clin­ing to take the bait

At a rally op­pos­ing the pres­id­ent’s deal to pre­vent Ir­an from de­vel­op­ing a nuc­le­ar weapon, Trump twice as­ser­ted that the coun­try was led by “very, very stu­pid people.”

“No,” he replied simply, to laughter from the press corps.

Sept. 15: A “sick mes­sage” of xeno­pho­bia

The first White House of­fi­cial to speak can­didly on Trump was, un­sur­pris­ingly, the no­tori­ously un­filtered vice pres­id­ent, Joe Biden. As Trump’s anti-im­mig­rant rhet­or­ic—ac­cus­ing those from Mex­ico of be­ing rap­ists and call­ing to de­port all 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants already in the coun­try—swelled, Biden bluntly ma­ligned the GOP front-run­ner to a group of Lati­nos gathered at his home.

“There’s one guy ab­so­lutely den­ig­rat­ing an en­tire group of people, ap­peal­ing to the baser side of hu­man nature, work­ing on this no­tion of xeno­pho­bia in a way that hasn’t oc­curred in a long time.

“This isn’t about Demo­crat-Re­pub­lic­an. It’s about a sick mes­sage,” Biden con­tin­ued. “This mes­sage has been tried on Amer­ica many times be­fore. We al­ways, al­ways, al­ways, al­ways over­come.”

Sept. 16: Get­ting un­der Obama’s skin

The next day, it ap­peared that Trump was get­ting to Obama, too. 

“In the echo cham­ber that is pres­id­en­tial polit­ics, everything is dark and everything is ter­rible,” Obama lamen­ted at the Busi­ness Roundtable headquar­ters in Wash­ing­ton. Pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates “don’t seem to of­fer many solu­tions for the dis­as­ters that they per­ceive, but they’re quick to tell you who to blame.”

And, re­buff­ing Trump’s con­tro­ver­sial slo­gan, “Make Amer­ica Great Again,” the pres­id­ent in­sisted, “Amer­ic­an is great right now. Amer­ica is win­ning right now.”

Sept. 18: The rest of the GOP field is just as bad

As Trump’s perch atop the GOP primary pack crys­tal­lized, the press sec­ret­ary shif­ted tac­tics: Rather than stay above the fray, he wove a com­mon thread between Trump and the rest of the Re­pub­lic­an con­tenders. When quer­ied about Trump’s fail­ure to cor­rect a man who called the pres­id­ent a Muslim, Earn­est re­called oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans who had ques­tioned Obama’s Chris­ti­an faith and U.S. cit­izen­ship.

“Mr. Trump isn’t the first Re­pub­lic­an politi­cian to coun­ten­ance these kinds of views in or­der to win votes,” Earn­est told re­port­ers. “In fact, that’s pre­cisely what every Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate is do­ing when they de­clined to de­nounce Mr. Trump’s cyn­ic­al strategy, be­cause they’re look­ing for those same votes.”

Nov. 3: Bring­ing up the bank­ruptcy

A suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, Trump was taken ser­i­ously in some quar­ters when he claimed that Fed­er­al Re­serve Chair Janet Yel­len was keep­ing in­terest rates low for polit­ic­al reas­ons. “That’s an eco­nom­ic ob­ser­va­tion made by someone who at least tells the coun­try he has some ex­per­i­ence in real es­tate,” a re­port­er noted to Earn­est at the press brief­ing.

“And some­body who has de­clared bank­ruptcy like four times, too,” Earn­est quipped, to laughter among the press corps. “So con­sider that ad­vice—con­sider the source of that ad­vice.”

Dec. 8/9: The “Muslim ban” break­ing point

Trump’s pro­pos­al to ban Muslim im­mig­rants from en­ter­ing the U.S. earned him con­dem­na­tion across the coun­try. But it was the White House’s pre­pared diatribe, slick with punchy Trump­isms, that was most not­able. The day after the cam­paign un­veiled the pro­pos­al, Earn­est lobbed care­fully cur­ated in­sults at the real es­tate mogul, de­clar­ing that his bigotry dis­qual­i­fied him from seek­ing the pres­id­ency.

“The Trump cam­paign for months now has had a dust­bin-of-his­tory-like qual­ity to it, from the vacu­ous slo­gan­eer­ing to the out­right lies to even the fake hair—the whole car­ni­val-bark­er routine that we’ve seen for some time now,” he said. And he quickly moved to link Trump’s ac­tions to his peers in the GOP. “The ques­tion now is about the rest of the Re­pub­lic­an Party and wheth­er or not they’re go­ing to be dragged in­to the dust­bin of his­tory with him. And right now, the cur­rent tra­ject­ory is not very good.”

The next day, Obama took a more im­pli­cit swipe. At an an­niversary event to com­mem­or­ate the rat­i­fic­a­tion of the 13th Amend­ment, which ab­ol­ished slavery, the tar­get of Obama’s words was clear.

Ad­van­cing the coun­try’s ideals re­quires Amer­ic­ans “to re­mem­ber that our free­dom is bound up with the free­dom of oth­ers. Re­gard­less of what they look like or where they come from or what their last name is,” he said, and, slowly enun­ci­at­ing his words, his voice rose: “Or what faith they prac­tice.”

(Image via Joseph Sohm /