From ‘my generals’ to ‘my Kevin,’ Trump’s preferred possessive can be a sign of affection or control

President Trump has used it with groups and individuals. He has used it for family members and employees. And he has bestowed it on Washington politicians and middle-of-the-country farmers.

For Trump, the possessive pronoun “my” is a term of endearment — one he dispenses with freely, from “my generals” to “my Peter” Navarro, one of the president’s senior economic advisers, to “my little Melania,” his wife.

Trump uses the pronoun affectionately, part of an almost subconscious effort to shine warmth on someone in his orbit, say current and former aides, who describe the linguistic tic as a doting gesture. But others say the habit can also seem belittling and, for Trump, that it may be as much about dominance and control as familiarity. 

Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer who is critical of the president, said that while he has never heard the president use the phrase dismissively — “he always uses it to convey you’re part of the home team,” O’Brien said — the practical reality is more complicated. 

“He thinks he’s conveying a compliment to the people he says it about, but in fact, it’s not really about putting them on equal footing,” said O’Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. “I read anytime President Trump starts a statement with ‘my’ that it’s completely in the possessive, and it’s about ownership, and it’s about control.”

And with Trump, O’Brien added, the modifier provides only minute-to-minute reassurance. “You can go from being ‘my’ to being gone in a tweet that goes out in 15 seconds,” he said. 

The president’s preferred possessive was in the spotlight most recently on Friday, when the Wall Street Journal reported that as Trump awaited Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi at the Group of Seven summit last month in France, he jokingly called out, “Where’s my favorite dictator?”

In response, Maggie Haberman, a New York Times reporter who covers the White House, tweeted a “partial list of people the president has recently referred to as ‘my,’ ” including Sissi, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, an unnamed reporter and an unidentified African American man at one of his campaign rallies.

Indeed, Trump deploys “my” widely and frequently. Just before his January 2017 inauguration, the president-elect gazed across a ballroom during a celebratory lunch at the Trump International Hotel and used the diminutive for then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — a pet name that was viewed as verbal evidence of the two men’s strong political relationship.

“Where’s Kevin,” Trump asked. “There’s my Kevin.”

More recently, recounting a congressional softball game where Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), playing second base, fielded a “smash groundball” and threw it to first, Trump extolled Scalise and referred to him warmly as “my Steve.”

“Who could have that but my Steve, right,” Trump said, speaking before the American Farm Bureau in New Orleans earlier this year. 

Trump also refers to “my farmers” with some regularity. Speaking in the Roosevelt Room in May in solidarity with the nation’s farmers and ranchers, the president was clear in his support: “I have to take care of my farmers with disaster relief,” he said.

A month earlier, at a rally in Michigan, Trump urged the nation’s farmers to hold tough in his trade wars with China and the European Union, saying, “There may be a little pain for a little while, but ultimately for my farmers, I love my farmers.”

Sam Nunberg, a former Trump 2016 campaign aide, said that during his time in Trump’s employ, the habit felt purely affectionate. “Occasionally he’d be like, ‘Oh, my Sam! How’s my Sam doing? What’s my Sam up to?’ ”

With business relationships, Nunberg added, proclaiming faux ownership over an individual is, to Trump, simply a form of flattery. “He’s very good at making people feel as if they’re the center of the universe, and that’s part of his charm,” he said. 

Yet the president’s use of the possessive pronoun can also go awry, as it ultimately did after Trump, spotting Gregory Cheadle, who is black, at a 2016 campaign rally California, shouted him out fondly, though not by name.

“Oh, look at my African American over here!” Trump said, pointing at Cheadle, who at the time was a Republican who had unsuccessfully run for Congress. “Look at him! Are you the greatest?”

But last week, Cheadle announced he was leaving the Republican Party, in large part because of the behavior of the president, who Cheadle said has “a white superiority complex.” When asked last week about Cheadle, who is now running for a House seat as an independent, Trump said he didn’t know who he was.

Trump also regularly refers to “my generals” and “my military,” seeming to assert a type of ownership over the nation’s civilian defense institutions that has irked some in the U.S. military community.

Ann Burnette, a professor of communication studies and presidential rhetoric at Texas State University, said that in some ways, Trump falls into a long tradition of many of his predecessors.

“Presidents often use pronouns to signal identification with an audience, so they’ll often use pronouns like ‘we’ or ‘our’ to signal that closeness,” Burnette said. “So when a president uses a personal possessive pronoun, that communicates intimacy, and sometimes that can be effective.”

Problems can arise, however, when that intimacy is either inappropriate or presumptuous, Burnette said. Proclaiming Sissi “my favorite dictator,” for instance, struck many as inappropriate.

“We don’t want to hear a president talk about his intimacy with or admiration for a dictator,” she said. And, she added, “When he says ‘my African American,’ that presumes the person he’s talking about feels the same closeness, and that might not be the case. Same with ‘my farmers’ — some farmers might feel that closeness, but some might not.”

Trump has also referred to “my base” in almost paternalistic terms, such as last month when, shortly before boarding Marine One, he was asked by reporters whether his base supported background checks for gun purchases.

“I think my base relies very much on common sense, and they rely on me, in terms of telling them what’s happening,” the president said.

Trump has previously described first lady Melania Trump as “my little Melania,” including, according to the New York Post, during their lavish Palm Beach, Fla., wedding ceremony in 2005.

More recently, the president has introduced some members of his Cabinet as “my secretaries,” and, according to Factba.se, an online database that collects all of Trump’s rhetoric, has referred to “my people” more than 250 times. For the president, “my people” seems to be an anonymous and amorphous group that includes, but is not necessarily limited to, his base, his top advisers, his campaign and, simply, his pals whom he sometimes consults.

Trump associates generally say a playful “my” is a descriptor to be savored, not spurned. Nunberg, who was ultimately fired from the 2016 Trump campaign, said that as his relationship with Trump grew more tense, his boss bestowed “my Sam” upon him with less frequency.

“He may genuinely feel affection at that moment, too, because in my experience, when I was on the outs and being pushed aside, I got less and less of those,” Nunberg said. 

Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.