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What Typos Can Tell Us About This White House

Typos in official correspondence are tiny errors on their own, but they suggest a much larger problem within the administration.
A journalist looks at a copy of the termination letter to Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey from President Donald Trump.

A journalist looks at a copy of the termination letter to Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey from President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump's White House has produced more than its share of spelling errors and other typos. This may seem trivial, and even ticky-tacky of me to point out. But I'd like to argue that these point to larger and more systematic problems in this administration.

Some examples of these typos can be found here. I'm less interested in those resulting from Trump's tweets and other less formal communications than I am in those appearing in official correspondence and press statements. These include, but are not limited to:

  • A press release about the Middle East that sought to promote "the possibility of lasting peach."
  • A White House media list of global terror attacks that contained such words as "Attaker," "San Bernadino" and "Denmakr."
  • British Prime Minister Theresa May's name misspelled as "Teresa May," which happens to be the name of a porn star.
  • This message to schools receiving the President's Education Award, in which "success" was spelled "succuess." (This error was apparently caught and fixed in subsequent iterations.)

Obviously, these errors are not going to ruin anyone's lives or derail the nation. Kids may laugh at the president misspelling "success" but they'll likely have just as much desire to succeed as they did the day before.

These errors, however, are unusual and striking coming from the White House, which is a venerable and highly professionalized organization with a great deal of institutional memory. It's actually difficult to produce errors like this under normal conditions.

I'm basing this conclusion on my own experience in the White House Office of Correspondence, where I worked as a writer from 1993 to 1996. It's been more than two decades since I was there, and I don't claim to have much information on how subsequent administrations ran their mail shops. But I can give you an idea about how we operated.

Any given letter or message emanating from Correspondence would typically be researched and drafted by a writer, then reviewed by an editor. The director of the office would then typically review it as well, both for content and style. These three employees were typically political staff; they were hired by that administration and would likely be dismissed before a new president came into office.

A fourth person would need to review the letter too. This would be someone in the office we called presidential support, which maintained control over typesetting and access to the official azure blue White House letterhead stationery. People in this office tended to be career civil service employees. I knew people at that time who had been in that office since Gerald Ford's administration, if not longer. This was a very professional office with a somewhat different perspective than my own; we were trying to make the president look good, they were trying to make the presidency look good. There usually wasn't much conflict between those viewpoints, but it was helpful to have people looking at the same piece of paper from different angles.

The takeaway here is that, even for relatively minor letters, at least four sets of eyes typically saw the document before it got the president's signature and went in the mail. If it were a form letter (to be sent to thousands of people) or something on a particularly sensitive or shifting political topic, often more people would review it.

Once in a rare while, we'd make a mistake. Sometimes the writer, who would do most of the research on a letter, might get a particular fact wrong, and other people in the chain would defer to that person's expertise. But it would have actually been very difficult to misspell a common word and not have that caught before the letter was signed.

What does it say that this is occasionally happening in Trump's White House? There are a few possibilities. It's possible that a writer or editor has gotten some azure paper and is sending letters out outside the usual chain of command. Perhaps rules for access to the presidential signature machine have been relaxed. Maybe there just aren't enough political staffers to do the job right, or maybe people who do the typesetting have quit and not been replaced. This would be consistent with what we've seen in many other areas of this administration.

Regardless of the precise reason, it is suggestive of a larger problem within the White House organization. For a very long time, this has been a highly professional institution that has performed its official and ceremonial functions capably even when the president himself was embattled, unpopular, or under scrutiny. This may be changing.

Thanks to Jack Shock for some feedback on this.