WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump has become what he has long mocked.
After a full year ridiculing his rival candidates for relying on a teleprompter and finding himself on a shorter leash from his new handlers, the Republican presidential nominee has fully embraced the tool. There is, of course, one key difference: He is bad at it.
“If you’re just going to be staring at a monitor and shouting and gesticulating, then what’s the point?” wondered Aileen Pincus, a public speaking consultant and teleprompter coach based in Washington. “It’s painful.”
Trump’s staff has for months realized that his tendency to wander off topic or unleash personal insults made any effort to deliver a serious address risky. So Trump has, beginning with his speech to a pro-Israel lobbying group in March, resorted to a teleprompter to get through important speeches.
If you’re just going to be staring at a monitor and shouting and gesticulating, then what’s the point?”
Aileen Pincus, communications coach
But although the machine was designed to help public speakers appear more natural and maintain eye contact with their audience, it appears to have the opposite effect on Trump.
During his acceptance speech at the Cleveland Republican convention, Trump squinted for much of the address. In his Aug. 15 speech about terrorism, he appeared at times to get confused about what he was reading, leading to awkward pauses and sentences that trailed off. And on Wednesday night’s much-touted speech on immigration, Trump seemed fixated on the lefthand screen for long stretches.
On occasion, Trump also has misread words, sometimes to embarrassing effect. At an Aug. 8 Detroit speech on the economy, he said his ideas would help “titties” like Detroit, rather than cities. On Aug. 24 in Tampa, he said Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had created a private email server “deliberately, willfully and with pre-medication,” before correcting himself: “premeditation.” And on Wednesday, Trump read “amnesty” – a key trigger word among his hardcore, anti-immigration base – as “amnety.”
If you’re running for president, you should not be allowed to use a teleprompter.
Donald Trump, August 2015
Pincus said Trump’s problems with the machine are common for beginners. “It’s not unusual at all,” she said. “What’s unusual is that this man is the Republican nominee for president.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to The Huffington Post’s queries about how much training the candidate has received on the device. One Republican consultant close to the campaign acknowledged that Trump could use some help, but isn’t particularly interested. “He resists all attempts to change, train, educate, generally,” said the consultant, speaking anonymously because he didn’t want to anger the nominee.
Trump’s resistance to the machine appears tied to his overarching concern to be entertaining and never boring, at all costs. He has said numerous times over his campaign that he could be “presidential” if he wanted to, but his audience wouldn’t like it.
He repeated that thought on Laura Ingraham’s radio show Thursday. Ingraham, who supports Trump, asked him why, at his Phoenix rally Wednesday night, he didn’t use the low-key tone that he had used in his remarks earlier in the day in Mexico after meeting with President Enrique Peña Nieto. “We had this unbelievably energized crowd,” Trump replied. “And if I would’ve used the tone that I used in Mexico, I think everybody would’ve fallen asleep.”
The new reliance on the machine ― which uses transparent screens on either side of the lectern that display the script ― began with Trump’s installing Kellyanne Conway as his third campaign manager in as many months. Top Republicans urged Trump to tone down his public persona and keep to a strict set of messages on immigration, trade and attacks against Clinton, using a teleprompter to stay focused.
The switch, though, comes after 13 months of mocking other candidates for using one.
On Aug. 14, 2015, Trump told a Hampton, New Hampshire, audience: “If you’re running for president, you should not be allowed to use a teleprompter,” and then rotated from side to side to mimic someone reading from one screen and then the other. “You shouldn’t be allowed, because you don’t know what you’re going to get. Look what happened with Obama, where he’s a teleprompter guy.”
On Oct. 10, in Norcross, Georgia, Trump told his crowd: “I’ve always said, if you run for president, you shouldn’t be allowed to use teleprompters,” to big applause. “Because you don’t even know if the guy’s smart.”
As late as July 6 in Cincinnati, Trump mocked Clinton for using the device in her speeches. He stared at an imaginary screen to the left: “North and south,” then turned to his right, “or east and west,” and then turned to the left again: “Donald Trump is a bad person.”
In his mockery, however, Trump resembled mainly himself.
“There is something truly unique in his delivery and affect in his teleprompter speech, and I don’t mean that as a compliment,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP consultant and a longtime Trump critic. “Some of it is his raging ADD. He’s trying to race ahead of his message and do some ‘acting.’ It’s clumsy and weird. And for people who aren’t for Trump, it’s incredibly off-putting.”
Pincus, the speech trainer, said Trump could easily get some professional help. A two-to-three hour session with her firm would cost a few thousand dollars – considerably less than an hour’s worth of jet fuel consumed by Trump’s personal 757 airliner.
“I doubt it’s the money that’s holding him back,” she said, but hastened to add that she personally had no interest in volunteering her services. “I’m quite sure there are plenty of other people who can help him.”