Washington CNN  — 

On Monday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked what President Trump meant when he appeared to be advocating a heightened level of rough treatment of criminals in a speech last Friday to police on Long Island.

“I believe he was making a joke at the time,” she responded.

That explanation is in keeping with a broader strategy of this White House, that when Trump says or does something that causes controversy – and which any other president would apologize for – the explanation is always that he was joking.

Let’s start with Trump’s speech. Here are the lines in question: “When you see these thugs thrown into the back of a paddy wagon. You see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,’” Trump said.

And here’s the video of the moment:

06:08 - Source: CNN
Trump to police: Don't be too nice to suspects

As you can hear, there is a smattering of laughter during Trump’s riff on the importance of not being “too nice.” At the end, the crowd applauds. (The Suffolk County Police Department released a statement in the wake of Trump’s speech insisting that “as a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough(ing)’ up prisoners.”)

It doesn’t seem like Trump is joking – especially because he’s advocated for rough treatment of people before.

At a campaign rally in Iowa in February 2016, Trump said this: “There may be somebody with tomatoes in the audience. So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. OK? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise. It won’t be so much ‘cause the courts agree with us, too.” The following month, Trump complained that it took too long to kick protesters out of his rallies because “nobody wants to hurt each other anymore, right? There used to be consequences. There are none anymore.

It’s also far from the first time the White House has said Trump was joking when he made headlines with some comment or other.

* At the annual Boy Scouts Jamboree, Trump “joked” that if Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price didn’t get the votes on the Senate health care bill, he’d get fired. (Price didn’t. And he wasn’t – yet.) “Oh … it was a humorous comment that the President made,” Price explained in an interview on ABC.

* In the summer of 2016, Trump held a news conference where he appeared to be urging Russia to hack Clinton’s private email server in hopes of finding some of the 33,000 emails she deleted before turning them over the the Justice Department. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said in July 2016. In June of this year, then White House press secretary Sean Spicer said of those comments: “He was joking at the time. We all know that.”

02:00 - Source: CNN
Spicer: Of course we can take Trump's word

* Former FBI Director James Comey testified – under oath – that Trump had asked him to find a way to end the federal investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump was joking!, came the response. He didn’t seriously expect Comey to do it!

* With Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller sitting by his side, Trump said this of the Nevada Republican’s position on health care: “This was the one we were worried about. You weren’t there. But you’re gonna be. You’re gonna be. Look, he wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” Cue awkward laughing.

00:46 - Source: CNN
Trump threatens GOP senator's job

* At a luncheon with the U.N. Security Council, Trump “joked” about U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley: “Does everybody like Nikki? Otherwise, she can easily be replaced.”

01:03 - Source: CNN
Trump jokes about replacing Nikki Haley

That’s a pattern of behavior. In each of those situations, Trump is joking – but not really.

Hey, Heller, if you don’t vote for this health care bill you are going to lose (and I will make sure it happens) ha ha ha. Hey, Russians, maybe you should hack into Clinton’s emails ha ha ha.

Anyone who has said something impolitic in front of other people is familiar with this tactic. I was joking! Don’t you get it!? Man, you don’t have a sense of humor!

But, remember this old axiom: A joke is truth wrapped in a smile.

Trump utilizes the I’m-joking-but-not-really strategy all the time to keep people – allies and opponents – off balance. And to explain away things like seemingly advocating police to be more violent toward criminals.

Does he mean what he jokes about? Or is he actually joking? No one knows except Trump. Which is how he likes it. And which is dangerous since many of his supporters don’t think he is joking. Not at all.