One of the dumbest games played in Washington is when politicians say nice things about other politicians but insist they aren't "endorsing" them.
President Trump is now playing that game with the far-right candidate for French president, Marine Le Pen.
After French police officers were shot in Paris on Thursday, Trump quickly pointed the finger at terrorism — before the motive had been publicly determined. "That's a very, very terrible thing that's going on in the world today," Trump said at a White House news conference with the Italian prime minister. "But it looks like another terrorist attack. And what can you say? It just never ends. We have to be strong, and we have to be vigilant."
By Friday morning, Trump nodded subtly toward Le Pen's candidacy, suggesting that the shooting would impact the election in a "big" way. And the implication was unmistakable.
Trump may have simply been echoing media reports, including from The Washington Post, that the events could affect the election and help Le Pen. The leader of the far-right National Front party has emerged as a surprise force in the tightly contested first round of voting Sunday, and her views on international norms, Islam and immigration are similar to Trump's own hard-line, nationalist stances. A Le Pen victory would clearly be cast as an extension of the nationalist sentiment characterizing both Brexit and Trump's win.
And then Trump gave an interview to AP reporter Julie Pace, in which he said Le Pen was "the strongest on what’s been going on in France."
"She's the strongest on borders, and she's the strongest on what's been going on in France," Trump said. "Whoever is the toughest on radical Islamic terrorism, and whoever is the toughest at the borders will do well in the election."
Pressed on whether that was an endorsement, Trump said it wasn't. He suggested he was merely putting on his political prognosticator hat.
"Everybody is making predictions on who is going to win," he said. "I'm no different than you."
Except he is. He's the president. And while the media often handicaps foreign elections and candidates' strengths and weaknesses — it's part of our job — presidents and other world leaders avoid doing so for fear of looking like they are trying to tip the scales in another country.
Trump also just happened to underscore an issue that he feels is of the utmost importance — it was the subject of his first controversial executive action, the travel ban — and then pointed to Le Pen as clearly the best candidate on that issue. That's no coincidence.
And it's not like Trump spends lots of his time weighing in on foreign politics, if he even follows them. The one issue you could point to is Brexit. Like he just did with Le Pen, Trump suggested that the British referendum option to leave the European Union would win but said he wasn't endorsing it.
"I think the migration has been a horrible thing for Europe,” Trump said at the time. “A lot of that was pushed by the E.U. I would say that they’re better off without it, personally, but I’m not making that as a recommendation. Just my feeling.”
Sound familiar? After Brexit passed, Trump quickly made it his own, frequently pointing to his prediction that it would prevail.
When you combine all of this with the fact that Le Pen's policies are so close to his own on issues of immigration and national sovereignty, it's clear what's going on here. And if Trump isn't actually supporting Le Pen, the White House should probably take this opportunity to dispute that characterization. Because Trump is really making it sound that way.