What did Trump say? Explaining the former president’s favorite talking points

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Former President Donald Trump has long made headlines with controversial comments about everything from immigration to trade, but translating those talking points isn't always easy. (Jackie Lay/NPR)

Former President Donald Trump has a history of using provocative language to draw headlines, stir up support and attack enemies.

His words, at times, have been his greatest weapons but also his biggest vulnerability.

In recent weeks, he has described Nov. 5, Election Day, as “liberation day” for “hardworking Americans” and “judgment day” for his political enemies. He has called undocumented immigrants who commit crimes “not people” and has claimed Jews who vote for Democrats hate Israel.

It’s not easy trying to make sense of what often appears to be indiscriminate attacks on migrants and political enemies, but Trump knows how to generate headlines, excite his base and provoke the left simultaneously.

He has described political correctness as a cancer that prevents honest discussion. He says that people are too easily offended and that the country doesn’t have time to worry so much about others’ feelings.

His language is also a political weapon — and a very effective one — to use against his enemies. It’s a tool that stokes his base and baits one of his favorite foils, the media.

NPR examined Trump’s campaign speeches, interviews and social media posts since he held his first rally last year in March, as well as additional relevant comments in recent years, to provide context to how his language reflects his political agenda. Here are a few of his most common talking points.

The U.S.-Mexico border

Nowhere has the former president pushed the boundaries of appropriate language more than on the issue of immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border.

He has described migrants as poisoning the blood of the country and calling those who commit crimes “animals.”

This demonization of migrants is not new. It has been a pillar of his political career ever since he announced his presidential campaign in 2015 and called Mexican immigrants rapists, bringing drugs and crime, while also saying that some are “good people.”

The border has now become one of the fieriest political issues ahead of the November elections as both sides, Democrats and Republicans, have been pointing fingers at the other to cast blame for a myriad of problems.

It’s a clear vulnerability for President Biden and the Democrats.

Biden has struggled with historic numbers of people coming across the border. It’s not just Republicans who are concerned. An increasing number of Democratic mayors and governors have raised real concerns about the drain of state and local resources in cities hundreds of miles from the border.

In a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, only 29% of respondents said they approve of how Biden is handling immigration. Republicans win the issue over Democrats by 12 percentage points when asked which party handles it better.

Critics say Trump is capitalizing on those concerns by playing up anti-immigrant sentiments.

While there is little evidence that undocumented immigrants commit more crimes than U.S.-born citizens, Trump and his supporters use anecdotal stories, such as the killing of 22-year-old nursing student Laken Riley, to paint an ominous picture about America being overrun by violent migrants.

During speeches in Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump accused Biden of creating a “border bloodbath.”

“This is country-changing, it’s country-threatening, and it’s country-wrecking,” Trump said in Michigan. “They have wrecked our country.”

What Trump has said:

“They’re poisoning the blood of our country. That’s what they’ve done. They poison — mental institutions and prisons all over the world. Not just in South America. Not just the three or four countries that we think about. But all over the world they’re coming into our country — from Africa, from Asia, all over the world. They’re pouring into our country.” —Dec. 16, 2023, New Hampshire rally

“They’re rough people, in many cases from jails, prisons, from mental institutions, insane asylums. You know, insane asylums — that’s Silence of the Lambs stuff.” —March 4, 2024, interview with Right Side Broadcasting Network

“Hannibal Lecter, anybody know Hannibal Lecter? We don’t want ’em in this country.” —March 4, 2024, interview with Right Side Broadcasting Network

A second Trump term

Trump has been accused of using autocratic language in this campaign that echoes rhetoric of strongman leaders of the past.

Rather than rejecting those comparisons, Trump has been wielding them as a means to stoke his base, stir up media attention and, in some ways, win back former supporters.

One example is when he sparked the anger and indignation of his many critics after declaring he wouldn’t be a dictator, “except for Day 1,” said Chris Stirewalt, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

He says you could see a flash in Trump’s eyes when Fox News host Sean Hannity provided Trump an opportunity to assure voters he wouldn’t abuse his power.

“He realizes he’s got a live one on the line, right?” explained Stirewalt, who is also the political editor for NewsNation. “He has the moment where he knows that the person who he’s talking to wants him to say the right thing. And he knows that the advantage comes in saying the wrong thing.”

Trump responded “only on Day 1,” so that he could close the border and start drilling.

“After that, I’m not a dictator, OK?” Trump quipped to Hannity as the crowd in Iowa applauded.

Those fiery remarks set off a chain reaction of events and coverage. The media dissected the language, often repeating the dictator-for-a-day comments, and Trump’s supporters came out in mass, largely on conservative outlets, attacking the media for, they argued, taking the comments out of context.

Stirewalt says Trump also triggered what he called “the anti-anti-Trump immune response,” which means Trump reengaged former supporters, who may have felt he went too far on Jan. 6, 2021, and/or objected to his authoritarian tendencies, to come to his defense.

“What you get is the volleying back and forth between platoons on the left and the right,” Stirewalt said. “Some of it’s sincere — some of it’s rage, content for clicks and attention. And by the time you’re done, you have strength. Trump has managed to both inflame and distract his opponents, but also to further consolidate Republican support.”

What Trump has said:

“This guy turned out to be a Woke train wreck who, if the Fake News reporting is correct, was actually dealing with China to give them a heads up on the thinking of the President of the United States. This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” —Sept. 22, 2023, Truth Social, referring to Gen. Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

“Your victory will be our ultimate vindication, your liberty will be our ultimate reward, and the unprecedented success of the United States of America will be my ultimate and absolute revenge.” —Feb. 24, 2024, Trump’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference

“We’re going to put a 100% tariff on every single car that comes across the line, and you’re not going to be able to sell those guys if I get elected. Now, if I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a blood bath for the whole — that’s gonna be the least of it. It’s going to be a blood bath for the country. That’ll be the least of it.” —March 16, 2024, Dayton, Ohio

Reshaping the federal government

During a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump described himself as a “proud political dissident” and promised “judgment day” for political opponents.

He has vowed to “root out” political opponents whom he has described as “vermin,” echoing the language of authoritarian leaders who rose to power in Germany and Italy in the 1930s.

“The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within,” Trump said during a Veterans Day rally in New Hampshire.

The former president faces four different criminal trials related to allegations of interference in the 2020 election, fraud stemming from a hush money payment to an adult film star and mishandling of classified documents.

He has repeatedly claimed the prosecutions are a political witch hunt, and he has cast himself as a martyr who is being targeted by Democrats.

George Lakoff, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, says Trump often uses salesman tricks to frame a debate on his own terms. He knows how to use repetition to strengthen association.

He repeats phrases over and over on the campaign trail and on social media, such as fake news or that he’s going to obliterate “the deep state.” Those descriptions, right or wrong, are then repeated by others, such as the media in its coverage. They’re repeated again as opponents attack him over the use of such words.

“There is a neural reason for this,” Lakoff said. “The main thing is, if it’s in your brain and it’s activating the neural system, whatever is activating your neural system, then your brain makes it stronger.”

Trump has sought to employ the prosecutions against him to justify his own calls to overhaul the “deep state,” including those longtime federal lawyers who make up the Justice Department, as well as other federal agencies that he argues are politically biased against him.

He and his allies have begun to draft plans to overhaul the Justice Department as well as expand his presidential powers by ending protections for tens of thousands of federal employees so that they can be replaced with partisan loyalists.

What Trump has said:

“We pledge to you that we will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, that lie and steal and cheat on elections.” —Nov. 11, 2023, New Hampshire

“The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within. Our threat is from within.” —Nov. 11, 2023, New Hampshire

“In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today, I add, I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” —March 25, 2023, Waco, Texas

“Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state.” —March 25, 2023, Waco, Texas

Foreign policy

During a winter campaign rally, Trump said he told a NATO leader that he would encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to countries that were “delinquent” and had not paid bills they “owed” the NATO alliance.

His remarks set off a firestorm domestically and internationally, as Congress remains locked in a stalemate over whether to provide Ukraine with additional military assistance so that it can defend itself from the invasion by Russia.

As president, Trump sought to largely pull the United States out of foreign conflicts. But that hasn’t stopped him from making bold claims about the current armed conflicts raging in Europe and the Middle East.

He has repeatedly insisted that those conflicts are related to Biden’s election.

“Look what happened to our country,” Trump said at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “You have wars that never would have taken place. Russia would have never attacked Ukraine. Israel would have never been attacked. You wouldn’t have had inflation.”

If elected in November, Trump has vowed that both conflicts would be resolved fast. He has said he could end the war in Ukraine within 24 hours but has provided no details.

“There’s a very easy negotiation to take place. But I don’t want to tell you what it is because then I can’t use that negotiation — it’ll never work,” Trump told Fox’s Hannity last year. “But it’s a very easy negotiation to take place. I will have it solved within one day, a peace between them.”

Stirewalt says the secret to Trump talking about foreign policy is making it sound so easy and simple — even the most incredibly complex problems of the day — and people believe him.

“The authoritarian tendency in politics, not just in the United States but anywhere, is to say that there is a simple and easy answer,” Stirewalt said. “But the bad people will not let you obtain it because they’re weak — or they’re corrupt.”

Meanwhile, Trump has pressured lawmakers on Capitol Hill to oppose billions of dollars in additional aid for Ukraine. He has also seemed to go out of his way to avoid criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump’s approach to the war in Gaza has been a little more nuanced.

While they worked closely together during his administration, Trump was angry when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Biden after winning the 2020 presidential election.

He at first criticized Netanyahu for being unprepared for the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,200 people, and he complimented the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah when it stepped up attacks against Israel.

While he has since pledged strong support for Israel, Trump has also called on Netanyahu to end the war and has warned that Israel was losing the PR war.

“What I said very plainly is get it over with, and let’s get back to peace and stop killing people,” Trump told The Hugh Hewitt Show. “And that’s a very simple statement. Get it over with. They’ve got to finish what they finish. They have to get it done. Get it over with, and get it over with fast, because we have to, you have to get back to normalcy and peace.”

What Trump has said:

Time magazine: You think you could work better with [Israeli politician] Benny Gantz than [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in a second term?

Trump: I think Benny Gantz is good, but I’m not prepared to say that. I haven’t spoken to him about it. But you have some very good people that I’ve gotten to know in Israel that could do a good job.

Time: Do you think —

Trump: And I will say this: Bibi Netanyahu rightfully has been criticized for what took place on October 7.

Interview with Time magazine, published April 30, 2024

“You didn’t pay? You’re delinquent? No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills.” —Feb. 10, 2024, rally in Conway, South Carolina

“You know, Hezbollah is very smart. They’re all very smart.” —Oct. 11, 2023, speech in West Palm Beach, Florida

“Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion. They hate everything about Israel, and they should be ashamed of themselves.” —interview with former Trump administration senior adviser Sebastian Gorka on March 18, 2023


Trump’s abortion stances are all about politics. He has repeatedly changed his positions over the years — in 2016, he told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews during a town hall that if abortion were outlawed, “there has to be some form of punishment” for women seeking abortions. He later retracted that statement.

As president, he supported a 20-week federal abortion ban, pushing the Senate to pass it. He also repeatedly took credit for the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. But by the time of the 2024 presidential campaign — when Roe was overturned, meaning a federal ban would be possible — his position on a federal ban was unclear.

Notably, he went the entire Republican primary without clarifying his stance on abortion, instead saying he would bring together both sides — abortion-rights supporters and abortion-rights opponents — and negotiate a compromise policy.

When he has spoken about abortion policy during this year’s campaign, he has often stressed one point in particular: that he wants to win.

He said exactly that again when he made an abortion policy announcement on April 8. In that announcement, he said that he wants states to make their own policies and that he supports exceptions to protect a mother’s life, as well as for pregnancies caused by incest or rape. He later added, “But we must win. We have to win.”

Trump is attempting to walk a careful line on abortion. On the one hand, he wants to maintain the favor of the abortion-rights opponents who have long been the Republican base. But on the other hand, he understands that most Americans are not abortion hard-liners and that tight restrictions have proved unpopular in several statewide elections.

In addition, he has not taken a position on sweeping abortion restrictions proposed in Project 2025 — a road map for a conservative presidency written by a coalition of right-wing groups. Those restrictions include curtailing access to abortion pills, as well as using the Comstock Act — a 19th-century law intended to stop indecency — to prohibit the mailing of any goods used in abortions.

What Trump has said:

Time magazine: Are you comfortable if states decide to punish women who access abortions after the procedure is banned?

Trump: Are you talking about number of weeks?

Time: Yeah. Let’s say there’s a 15-week ban —

Trump: Again, that’s going to be — I don’t have to be comfortable or uncomfortable. The states are going to make that decision. The states are going to have to be comfortable or uncomfortable, not me.

Interview with Time magazine, published April 30, 2024

“The states will determine [their abortion policies] by vote or legislation or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land — in this case, the law of the state. Many states will be different. Many will have a different number of weeks, or some will have more conservative than others. … Always go by your heart. But we must win. We have to win.” —April 8, 2024, Truth Social

“The number of weeks, now, people are agreeing on 15, and I’m thinking in terms of that, and it’ll come out to something that’s very reasonable. But people are really, even hard-liners, are agreeing, seems to be 15 weeks, seems to be a number that people are agreeing at. But I’ll make that announcement at the appropriate time.” —Sid & Friends in the Morning, WABC, March 19, 2024

Trump: People are starting to think of 15 weeks. That seems to be a number that people are talking about right now.

Kristen Welker: Would you sign that?

Trump: I would sit down with both sides and negotiate something, and we’ll end up with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years. I’m not going to say I would or I wouldn’t.

Trump: Both sides will come together. And for the first time in 52 years, you’ll have an issue that we can put behind us at the federal level. It could be state or it could be federal. I don’t frankly care.

Meet the Press, NBC, Sept. 16, 2023

“I support the three exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. And I think it’s very hard politically if you don’t support, but you have to go with your heart. You have to go with what you believe, and you have to rely on your heart for that.” —speech to the Concerned Women for America, Sept. 15, 2023

“After 50 years of failure, with nobody coming even close, I was able to kill Roe v. Wade, much to the ‘shock’ of everyone.” —May 17, 2023, Truth Social

“It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations in the MidTerms. … It was the ‘abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters.” —Jan. 1, 2023, Truth Social

“I call upon the Senate to pass this important law and send it to my desk for signing,” referring to the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have banned abortions nationwide after 20 weeks of gestation. —Jan. 19, 2018, March for Life

“The answer is, there has to be some form of punishment.” —March 30, 2016, MSNBC town hall

What Trump hasn’t said:

Trump refused to answer whether a fetus has constitutional rights in that September 2023 Meet the Press interview.

In addition, Trump has not weighed in on the main abortion proposals included in Project 2025. One proposal calls on the Food and Drug Administration to roll back rules making abortion pills more available or to even rescind approval of the pills altogether. The other proposal calls for invoking the Comstock Act, an anti-indecency law, to halt the mailing or transporting of any goods used in providing abortions. That move would greatly restrict abortions, even in states where abortion is legal. NPR asked Trump’s campaign what his position is on the Comstock Act. The campaign wouldn’t answer directly.

Trade and tariffs

Trump is unfailingly strident in how he talks about trade, proposing policies that are deeply protectionist. His communication about that protectionism is central to his political persona — he uses trade as a way to telegraph that he is business savvy, not to mention that he is tough and wants the U.S. to not get “ripped off.”

This involves suggesting tariff levels that are unheard of in modern U.S. trade policy. During this election cycle, Trump has reportedly discussed tariffs of 60% and, in one speech, of 100%.

There is also a full Trump presidential term of trade policy to observe. As president, Trump started a trade war with China. He also imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, with the rationale that those tariffs were in the interest of national security because they increased U.S. self-reliance for defense supplies. The right-leaning Tax Foundation, estimates that while Trump’s tariffs did create revenue, they will also cost nearly 170,000 jobs in the long run. Their research also found that the Biden administration kept many of Trump’s tariffs in place.

In his discussions of trade throughout his political career, however, Trump has at times exhibited indifference to, or even a lack of understanding of, how trade works. For example, he has talked about trade deficits as if they are indications that a country is losing money. He also has cast bilateral trade deals as superior to multilateral deals. Most trade experts disagree with that take. Furthermore, while he casts tariffs as beneficial for Americans, tariffs also often end up raising prices for American consumers. Finally, he often talks about trade deals as policies with winners and losers, when the goal of trade deals is to allow all parties to benefit.

It is also worth noting that while Trump’s trade policy is aimed at protecting American industry, it is also deeply concerned with domestic politics — it’s a way to court votes, particularly in industrial states.

What Trump has said:

“I think when companies come in and they dump their products in the United States, they should pay automatically. Let’s say a 10% tax. That money would be used to pay off debt.” —Interview on Fox Business, Aug. 18, 2023

“It is the policy of my Administration to represent the American people and their financial well-being in all negot[i]ations, particularly the American worker, and to create fair and economically beneficial trade deals that serve their interests. Additionally, in order to ensure these outcomes, it is the intention of my Administration to deal directly with individual countries on a one-on-one (or bilateral) basis in negotiating future trade deals.” —Presidential Memorandum Regarding Withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Negotiations and Agreement, Jan. 23, 2017

“Trade wars are good, and easy to win.” —Twitter, March 2, 2018

“This is not merely an economic disaster, but it’s a security disaster. We want to build our ships, we want to build our planes, we want to build our military equipment with steel, with aluminum from our country. And now we’re finally taking action to correct this long-overdue problem.” —speech at White House, March 8, 2018

“Every time I see a weak politician asking to stop Trade talks or the use of Tariffs to counter unfair Tariffs, I wonder, what can they be thinking? Are we just going to continue and let our farmers and country get ripped off? Lost $817 Billion on Trade last year. No weakness!” —Twitter, July 25, 2018

Trans issues

Transgender issues weren’t a major national issue in 2016 they way they are now. Similarly, Trump in 2016 was neither as vocal about nor as stridently opposed to transgender rights. When the topic did come up in a 2016 Today show segment, he said he wanted people to use whatever bathrooms they wanted.

But as president, Trump took several actions to curb transgender rights — excluding transgender individuals from the military, allowing health care professionals to discriminate against them and allowing homeless shelters to exclude them.

And as transgender issues have become central to political culture wars — and as anti-transgender activists have increasingly focused their attention on transgender kids — Trump has become increasingly vocal about the topic as well. He refers to gender-affirming care for minors as “mutilation” and regularly says in his stump speech that transgender girls shouldn’t play girls’ sports — one of his most reliable applause lines.

Often, he wraps transgender issues in with school vaccine and mask mandates, as well as the teaching of what opponents call “critical race theory,” as a way of packaging these social issues as educational policy.

What Trump has said:

“On Day 1, I will sign a new executive order to cut federal funding for any school pushing critical race theory, transgender insanity or other inappropriate racial, sexual or political content onto the lives of our children. I will not give one penny to any school that has a vaccine mandate or a mask mandate. And as I very embarrassingly said before, I will keep men out of women’s sports.” —April 13, 2024, rally in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania

“On Day 1, I will revoke Joe Biden’s cruel policies on so-called gender affirming care. … I will sign a new executive order instructing every federal agency to cease all programs that promote the concept of sex and gender transition at any age. … My Department of Education will inform states and school districts that if any teacher or school officials suggest to a child that they could be trapped in the wrong body, they will be faced with severe consequences, including potential civil rights violations for sex discrimination.” —Jan. 31, 2023, video originally posted on Truth Social, listing an array of anti-transgender policies that Trump would pursue as president

Trump: Leave it the way it is. North Carolina, what they’re going through with all of the business that’s leaving and all of the strife — and that’s on both sides — you leave it the way it is. There have been very few complaints the way it is. People go. They use the bathroom that they feel is appropriate. There has been so little trouble. And the problem with what happened in North Carolina is the strife and the economic — I mean, the economic punishment that they’re taking. …

Matt Lauer: So if Caitlyn Jenner were to walk into Trump Tower and want to use the bathroom, you would be fine with her using any bathroom she chooses?

Trump: That is correct.

—April 21, 2016, NBC’s Today

“The Departments believe that, in this context, there must be due regard for the primary role of the States and local school districts in establishing educational policy. In these circumstances, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice have decided to withdraw and rescind the above-referenced guidance documents in order to further and more completely consider the legal issues involved.” —Feb. 22, 2017, letter from Trump administration Education and Justice department officials, referring to rescinding Obama-era rules that allowed students to use bathrooms and facilities based on their gender identity

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow … Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming … victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” —July 26, 2017, Twitter (three tweets: 1, 2, 3)

“We’re going back to the plain meaning of those terms, which is based on biological sex.” —Trump official Roger Severino of the Department of Health and Human Services, May 24, 2019, on a proposed (and later finalized) rule ending Obama-era protections for transgender people against discrimination in health care

“The proposed rule permits Shelter Providers to consider a range of factors in making such determinations, including privacy, safety, practical concerns, religious beliefs, any relevant considerations under civil rights and nondiscrimination authorities, the individual’s sex as reflected in official government documents, as well as the gender which a person identifies with.” —July 1, 2020, proposed Department of Housing and Urban Development rule allowing single-sex shelters to turn people away based on their gender identity

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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