The Slatest

What Did Trump Mean When He Said Putin Used the “N-Word” and Doesn’t Respect Obama?

Donald Trump holds a press conference on Wednesday in Doral, Florida.

Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Donald Trump gave a wide-ranging and bizarre press conference on Wednesday that the Washington Post described as “falsehood-laden.”

Getting the most attention out of the event was Trump’s request that Russia hack and release some of Hillary Clinton’s emails from her time as secretary of state.

But perhaps even more bizarre was another portion of the event in which Trump made a puzzling reference to Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, and “the N-word.” Here’s the quote in question:

Putin has said things over the last year that are really bad things. He mentioned the N-word one time. I was shocked to hear him mention the N-word. You know what the N-word is, right? He mentioned it. I was shocked. He has a total lack of respect for President Obama. No. 1, he doesn’t like him and No. 2, he doesn’t respect him.

Several journalists (including myself) initially took this to mean that Trump was suggesting that Putin had referred to the president using a racial slur. Indeed, the cryptic nature of Trump’s comments suggest that if he wasn’t outright saying this, then it least might have been a dog whistle to some of his more racist supporters. Basically, he may have been intentionally vague in order to be provocative, or to throw some red meat to the worst elements of his coalition.

But there is no sourcing whatsoever saying that Putin actually ever used that racial epithet. And the few instances to him saying the word in reference to Obama come from random message boards. This would seem to indicate that Trump was not talking about the racial epithet, at least not explicitly.

The more likely answer is that by “N-word,” Trump meant “nuclear.”

There are at least two recent references to Putin either discussing or considering the possibility of using nuclear weapons, either of which Trump might have been referring to.

First, in December, the English-language Russian propaganda network Russia Today reported that Putin had suggested that Russia was capable of using nuclear weapons in the fight against ISIS, saying the country had cruise missiles capable of being outfitted with nukes.

“We now see that these are new, modern and highly effective high-precision weapons that can be equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads,” he said. “Naturally we do not need that in fighting terrorists and I hope it will never be needed.”

It would be odd, though, for Trump to criticize Putin for refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in the fight against ISIS when he himself has done the same thing. Also, earlier in the press conference, Trump said he’d like to partner with Russia in battling ISIS. “There’s nothing I can think of that I’d rather do than have Russia friendly as opposed to the way they are right now so that we can go and knock out ISIS together,” he said.

So that doesn’t appear to be the “nuclear” reference in question. The other option that I found was a less definitive report, but one that made more sense in this context. In February, the conspiracy theory espousing website Infowars cited former AP and Newsweek reporter Robert Parry, who now edits the website Consortium News, to report that Putin had threatened NATO ally Turkey with the use of tactical nuclear weapons were it to invade Syria.

“A source close to Russian President Vladimir Putin told me that the Russians have warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Moscow is prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons if necessary to save their troops in the face of a Turkish-Saudi onslaught,” Parry wrote. “Since Turkey is a member of NATO, any such conflict could quickly escalate into a full-scale nuclear confrontation.”

If this was the “N-word” usage in question, it would make sense. Trump in the past has not been afraid to parrot unsubstantiated reports as fact. He has appeared on the radio program of Alex Jones, who operates the site Infowars. And the premise here—that Putin was using the concept of nuclear weapons to threaten U.S. interests—would seem to make some sense in the context of Trump’s remarks.

I have reached out to Trump’s press team and to his press secretary Hope Hicks asking them to clarify the comments but had not heard back from them as of publication time.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.