“I’ve always said, if you run for president, you shouldn’t be allowed to use teleprompters,” Donald Trump, now the presumptive Republican nominee, said back in October. “Because you don’t even know if the guy is smart.”
That was then.
Now, Trump is regularly using teleprompters during his speeches as he attempts to assume a more presidential front ahead of the general election. And he’s right, we don’t even know if the guy is smart.
You can tell when he’s scripted, more than you can tell with any other politician. Because until recently, Trump’s public statements were defined by their fluidity. He free associates, he talks off the cuff, he speaks in starts and stops and run-on sentences, or no sentences at all.
During his speech about veterans in Virginia Beach on Monday, teleprompter-Trump carefully pronounced each word like he was trying to make sure Siri could understand his commands.
“Can. You. Imagine. The. Waste. And. Corruption. We’ll. Find. When. We. Begin. A. Full. Investigation. In. January. Of. 2017,” he said at one point. “Every. Veteran. Will. Get. Timely. Access. To. Top. Quality. Medical. Care. Every. Veteran!”
The teleprompter became an unlikely political issue during the Republican primary for the 2012 election. President Obama, more than any previous president, has relied on the device—a pane of glass arranged in front of a video camera that projects a scroll of a script, like a digital cue card—to aid him during public remarks.
Of course, politicians at all levels have long used scripts and notes often not even written themselves to communicate with their constituencies. But the visibility of the teleprompter—they aren’t large, necessarily, but they’re somewhat obtrusive and create an additional barrier between politician and public—made it an easy target for his critics.
To his conservative naysayers and would-be general election opponents, the ubiquity of Obama’s teleprompter was interpreted as proof that he is inauthentic and incapable of thinking on his feet. How could he be speaking from the heart, their jabs seemed to ask, if he doesn’t even know what he’s going to say until he reads it off of a screen?
Many of those same critics have a different standard for Trump, however.
“I think when you’re making a major policy speech, it makes sense to use a teleprompter,” Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House who ran for the Republican nomination last cycle and is now angling to be Trump’s veep, told me last month. “I think it’s almost necessary.”
During the last election, when Gingrich sought to be the top of the ticket, he felt differently. After promising to challenge the president to several debates were he to become the nominee, Gingrich said, “If he wants to use a teleprompter, that would be fine with me, because it has to be fair. If you had to defend Obamacare, wouldn’t you want a teleprompter?”
Looking back, Gingrich said he only mocked Obama for the teleprompter because his use of it was so excessive.
“He was using a teleprompter for everything,” he said. “I think there was a time when President Obama used a teleprompter to talk to a third grade class.” (That never happened.)
If Trump were to use a teleprompter in that way, he said, he would disapprove of it.
“If he got in the habit of using a teleprompter when he was visiting a local fire station, it would just look silly,” he said.
After then-congresswoman Michele Bachmann misspoke on the campaign trail in 2011, misidentifying Concord, New Hampshire, as the birthplace of the Revolutionary War (rather than Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts), she said, “After that, I promised I would never again use President Obama’s teleprompter.”
A spokesperson for Bachmann, who is no longer a lawmaker, did not reply to a request for comment.
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who ran for the Republican nomination in 2012 as well as 2016, said back then, “When you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter, because all you’re doing is reading somebody else’s words to people.”
A spokesperson for Santorum similarly did not respond to a request for comment.
Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza who also sought the Party’s nomination in 2012, used to say that Obama had no substance without his favorite technology.
“As a supporter of mine described it, Obama can give a good speech from a teleprompter, but if you take away that teleprompter to talk about how we move the economy, how we get our ideas around immigration, he would have a very difficult time doing that,” Cain told the Washington Times in 2011. “I can talk about those things one, two, three levels deep without a teleprompter because I have studied these issues.”
But on Fox News, Cain has defended the use of a teleprompter—so long as it’s Trump, not Obama, benefiting.
“A lot of people are gonna make a big deal out of the fact that he used a teleprompter so he could stay on message—and he did a good job,” Cain said. “He wouldn’t have read the information on the teleprompter if he didn’t agree with it, obviously he did… We have a teleprompter president, we’ve had for the last seven years, so Donald Trump finally uses one to make sure that he is clear, concise, and pivoting to what’s important, and I think that’s why that was such a great speech.”