All the Times Trump Has Been “Surprised” Since the Election

Nobody knew this stuff could be so complicated!

US President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office on Wednesday.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Because Trump’s vocabulary is so limited, every word in his quiver has a big job to do. This is especially true of the word “surprised.” To hear the president tell it, he is frequently surprised: when his supporters do bad things and when his enemies do good things; when his executive obligations weigh heavier on his shoulders than the view from the 26th floor of Trump Tower had suggested they might; when cool military gambits like waterboarding don’t work and when a pesky civic institution like the free press does. Trump’s eternal surprise is a consequence of using too-simple, uninformed schemata to carve up the world. His moments of confusion are aftershocks from seismic activity roiling deep in the bed of his unknown unknowns.

But while Trump often voices naïve amazement with a touching lack of shame—Who knew health care could be so complicated?—he can also deploy it to score political points. Who knew my haters would be so nasty?

You might be, well, surprised that a man endlessly bragging about his omniscience would admit so often to being surprised. But Trump’s imprecise use of the word allows him to convey myriad unexpected messages. Here are 11 shades of White House astonishment, in tints of petulance, wonder, disingenuousness, and more.

Quote: “I’ll be honest, from my standpoint [there was] zero, zero [awkwardness]. And that’s strange. I’m actually surprised to tell you that. It’s—you know, a little bit strange.”

Surprising thing: That Trump and President Obama got along when they met during the transition.

Date and source: Nov. 13, interview with 60 Minutes

Why did he say he was surprised? Mostly to be a jerk. Trump’s surprise here is meant to communicate his opinion of Obama. The current president is implying that the former president violated his expectations by treating him with politeness and respect. This display of “surprise” is a small dig at the man that Trump has elsewhere placed at the center of his racist conspiracy theories. The anecdote also celebrates Trump’s genial character and smugly observes that even Obummer has come around to rubber-stamping his—Trump’s—legitimacy.

Quote: “I am very surprised to hear that—I hate to hear that.”

Surprising thing: That, in the wake of the election, Trump supporters had committed acts of violence against African Americans, Latinos, and gay people.

Date and source: Nov. 13, interview with 60 Minutes

Why did he say he was surprised? As the rest of his answer makes clear, Trump is using “surprise” to dispute the idea that his victory had inspired hate crimes. He is saddened and shocked to hear reports of such wrongdoing, in part, because he does not believe that the wrongdoing occurred. And even if it did, Trump wishes his surprise to register how out of character it would be for his followers to perpetrate racist violence in his name.

Quote: “I assumed that you’d have to set up some type of trust or whatever and you know. And I was actually a little bit surprised to see it. So in theory I don’t have to do anything. But I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business.”

Surprising thing: That he didn’t need to do more to separate himself from his business interests upon assuming the presidency.

Date and source: Nov. 23, interview with the New York Times

Why did he say he was surprised? Trump was probably too ignorant of ethical fiats against political self-dealing, to say nothing of the legal measures designed to impede it, to have formed an opinion about what the United States might require him to do with his business empire once he took office. But by professing “surprise” at the laxity of the standards, he gets to pretend he is uncommonly upstanding and principled. He can frame his bare-minimum concession as a heroic and entirely voluntary sacrifice.

Quote: “He told me what he thought his, what the biggest problems of the country were, which I don’t think I should reveal, I don’t mind if he reveals them. But I was actually surprised a little bit, but he told me the problems. … I really liked him a lot and I’m a little bit surprised I’m telling you that I really liked him a lot.”

Surprising thing: Slightly unclear. Either Trump was surprised that Obama confided in him about what he, Obama, believed to be the country’s biggest problems, or he was surprised at what those problems were, or—again—he was simply surprised that he liked Obama.

Date and source: Nov. 23, interview with the New York Times

Why did he say he was surprised? It’s a bit hard to say. Trump may have expected Obama to focus on different national woes than he did. On the other hand, Trump may be subtly scoffing at his predecessor’s judgment or priorities (This guy thinks criminal justice reform is a pressing issue?); or he may simply be underscoring that Obama treated him with deference and respect. After all, framing Obama’s courtesy and evident esteem for Trump as a revelation is just another way to emphasize it. Meanwhile, Trump’s amused incredulity could be one more veiled jab at Obama’s character.

Quote: “General Mattis is a strong, highly dignified man. I met with him at length and I asked him that question. I said, what do you think of waterboarding? He said—I was surprised—he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ ”

Surprising thing: That torture doesn’t work, or that Gen. James Mattis thinks torture doesn’t work.

Date and source: Nov. 23, interview with the New York Times

Why did he say he was surprised? Because Mattis is a “strong, highly dignified man”! A tough guy. He wouldn’t pussyfoot around if brute force yielded the best results. Therefore, brute force must not yield the best results—and that conclusion bucks Trump’s Wild West worldview, not to mention a sizeable crop of the best movies and television shows. (Also, flagging his surprise at Mattis’ expert opinion is a sop thrown to the pro-torture crowd: Look, I could barely believe my ears, but here we are.)

Quote: “I think the size, the magnitude of everything [is what surprised me most about my new job]. So, I was a very big real estate person. I build a building for $500 million or $900 million. And here, you look at an airplane contract where you can save $600 million on 90 planes.”

Date and source: Feb. 8, interview with Fox News

Surprising thing: That the president controls such vast amounts of money.

Why did he say he was surprised? To boast about the vast amounts of money he is controlling.

Quote: “The information was provided by—who I don’t know—Sally Yates—and I was a little surprised because I said, doesn’t sound like he did anything wrong there.”

Surprising thing: That Michael Flynn had been accused of wrongfully speaking to the Russian ambassador about sanctions during the transition.

Date and source: Feb. 16, press conference from the East Room

Why did he say he was surprised? Trump doesn’t seem to understand why it might be perceived as inappropriate, in the early phases of a regime change, for his national security adviser to discuss the lightening of punitive measures pursued by Obama after the Kremlin interfered in a U.S. election. He does grok that deceiving the vice president was not OK. At the same time, Trump’s surprise here may serve as a distancing mechanism—Don’t blame me for these shenanigans. I had no idea— with a touch of irritation: I fail to see why this is such a big deal.

Quote: “When I was called out on Mexico, I was—honestly, I was really, really surprised.”

Surprising thing: That his call to Mexico leaked.

Date and source: Feb. 16, press conference from the East Room

Why did he say he was surprised? Trump may indeed have been taken aback at his employees’ disloyalty and disobedience. But that’s not the only reason he spoke up. The POTUS wanted to dramatize the egregiousness of these betrayals and, by contrast, to showcase his good faith. Unlike Trump, Trump is saying, anonymous leakers are fighting dirty. If he feels shock, it is because their actions are shocking, especially to an honorable guy like him.

Quote: “Trump said Friday he was surprised there wasn’t more support from the Freedom Caucus, but he didn’t blame them for deciding not to vote on the bill. ‘I’m disappointed, but they’re friends of mine,’ he said then.”

Date and source: March 26, USA Today

Surprising thing: That the Freedom Caucus didn’t back his original health care bill.

Why did he say he was surprised? It’s likely that Trump was genuinely counting on his allies’ endorsement. It’s also likely that he expressed surprise (rather than a more heated emotion like rage) to strike a pose that was at once wounded and conciliatory. The president knew the American Health Care Act would be back on the bargaining table soon enough.

Quote: “He misses driving, feels as if he is in a cocoon, and is surprised how hard his new job is… ‘I loved my previous life. I had so many things going,’ Trump told Reuters in an interview. ‘This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.’ ”

Surprising thing: How hard the presidency is.

Date and source: April 29, Reuters

Why was he surprised? Because he thought being president just meant getting two scoops of chocolate ice cream on your dessert while everyone else gets one.

Quote: “It [criticism from the press] has gotten worse. It’s one of the things that surprises me … there’s a great meanness out there that I’m surprised at.”

Surprising thing: The cruelty of the liberal media.

Date and source: May 11, Time

Why did he say he was surprised? Trump has the moral sensibility of a kindergartner, and his view of other people’s behavior is informed by words like nice and mean and very unfair. He hasn’t been able to absorb that the press’ treatment of him follows directly from actions he’s taken and statements he’s put out. He believes he deserves a gentle touch, if not reverence, because he is Trump and Trump is president. So it is plausible both that the POTUS really can’t imagine why the media gives him such a difficult time and that he is loudly drawing attention to his psychic bruises in order to scold the Fourth Estate.*

*Update, May 19, 2017: This post originally referred to the slimy mainstream media as the Fifth Estate. Those failing jerks belong to the Fourth Estate (though Trump would likely also view the “Fifth Estate”). FAKE NEWS!