A mere twelve days after President Trump was sworn into office, the Associated Press (AP) published what would have been a startling report—if it were true. The report claimed that “President Donald Trump threatened in a phone call with his Mexican counterpart to send U.S. troops to stop ‘bad hombres down there’ unless the Mexican military does more to control them.”
The AP quoted a portion of what it claimed was “an excerpt of a transcript of the conversation” that it had obtained:
“You have a bunch of bad hombres down there,’ Trump told Pena Nieto, according to the excerpt given to AP. ‘You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”
The only problem is that quotes are both inaccurate and severely taken out of context, according to the full transcript of the phone call, which was recently obtained and published by The Washington Post. If the transcripts are accurate, then it reveals a journalistic failure on behalf of the AP, and would suggest they were duped.
Here’s the passage from which the AP’s excerpt likely took (portions of which I’ve bolded to indicate the portions that most resemble the AP’s quotes):
“So we have a lot of problems with Mexico farther than the economic problem. We are becoming a drug-addicted nation and most the drugs are coming from Mexico or certainly from the southern border. But I will say this – you have that problem too. You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with, and we are willing to help you with that big-league. But they have to be knocked out and you have not done a good job of knocking them out. We have a massive drug problem where kids are becoming addicted to drugs because drugs are being sold for less money than candy because there is so much of it. So we have to work together to knock that out. And I know this is a tough group of people, and maybe your military is afraid of them, but our military is not afraid of them, and we will help you with that 100 percent because it is out of control – totally out of control.”
As the transcript reveals, large portions of the conversation were omitted from the purported excerpt given to the AP. Not only that, but the excerpt given to the AP did not even contain accurate quotes, the impact of which was an entirely anti-contextual depiction of the conversation.
Even though the AP readily admitted that “[t]he excerpt of the call did not detail who exactly Trump considered ‘bad hombres,’ nor did it make clear the tone and context of the remark,” nor did it “contain Mexican President Enrique Nieto’s response,” the AP still ran with it anyway. Perhaps the first sign that the story should not have run was, as the AP said, that the “person with access to the official transcript of the phone call provided only that portion of the conversation” to the AP.
Contrary to the AP’s report, President Trump did not “threaten . . . to send U.S. troops” to stop “bad hombres” in Mexico. Instead President Trump offered military assistance in fighting drug cartels. A subtle difference, but still one that changes the tone of the conversation.
Moreover, the AP did not even get the word modifying “hombres” correct. The Post transcript suggests the President said “tough hombres,” not “bad hombres.” The distinction is subtle, but noteworthy. In most contexts, “tough” is more complementary than “bad.” But it can also be used negatively, to be sure. For example, in 1999 when he was considering running for President as a member of the Reform Party, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Trump “called Russian President Boris Yeltsin ‘a disaster’ and ‘one tough hombre’ who suffers from ‘a major alcohol problem.”
President Trump also did not assert that Mexico’s military was “scared,” but rather pondered the possibility that it was scared as an explanation for the seeming lack of advancement in the fight against the drug cartels. Again, a subtle, but still significant, difference.
Prior to the release of the transcripts, President Trump’s call to the Mexican president was portrayed as confirming Trump’s bad temperament. But the full context of the conversation reveals that such a characterization, implied in the AP’s report, is unwarranted.
In an age where many right-leaning Americans feel victimized by the national press corps, the AP is not helping the case the broader press is trying to make in the wake of the 2016 election, which is that the press is objective, neutral, and fair in its political coverage. Moreover, even though some might consider this mistake “small” in scope, it is not small to those who have already lost faith in the press as an institution.