He Knew What He Signed Up For

Let’s talk about this week’s news cycle.

On Monday, the president held an ad hoc press conference and the White House press asked him a reasonable question: has he contacted the families of the four soldiers who died in a military operation in Niger?

Here’s what the president could have said: “Unfortunately I haven’t yet contacted them, but I plan to do so immediately.” And then his staff could have cobbled together four letters of condolence, and he could have signed them, and they could have been sent, and the Trump administration could have congratulated itself on avoiding another self-inflicted nightmarish news cycle.

What the president did instead was to claim that Obama never called, and other former presidents never called, but what he liked to do was call and send a letter. He made a clumsy attempt at walking this back, but then he instructed his press secretary to double down on it.1

On Tuesday the president made phone calls to the four bereaved families. On Tuesday night it emerged that, according to Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who heard the call on speakerphone, the president had said “He knew what he signed up for” to a pregnant war widow.2

Again we are at a crossroads. Here’s what the president could have said: “I am very sorry for Mrs. Johnson’s loss and I feel terrible that I increased her pain in any way.”

Instead, on Wednesday morning Trump again doubled down, tweeting that the congresswoman was lying and he had proof.

This tweet, like so many, spawned dozens of news stories. The Washington Post started calling the families of soldiers who had died since Trump took office. Subcontroversies sprang up and then popped like soap bubbles all day: One family was instructed to wait by the phone for a presidential call that never came. One man was promised a personal check for $25,000 that also never arrived. (The check is now, reportedly, in the mail.)

And then yesterday, John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff gave an extraordinary press conference, in which he lost me entirely and forever. I’ll grant you that the part of the statement in which he talks about how the bodies of soldiers who die are returned to the country, and how the families of the fallen learn of their loved ones’ fates are very moving. And I do believe that Kelly, who lost his own son in combat, cares deeply about the troops. But because Kelly occupies one of the most powerful offices in the country, we should not allow those parts of the statement, or his own status as a Gold Star father to obfuscate other salient points:

  1. Kelly confirmed the essence of what the congresswoman said about the call. So if you were waiting for “proof” that she was lying, you are probably not going to get that.
  2. If Kelly is really upset that respect for women has diminished, he should probably not be working for President Grab Them By the Pussy.3
  3. If Kelly is really upset that respect for Gold Star families has diminished, he should probably not be working for the man who devoted several days to attacking Gold Star father Khizr Khan because he was mean to him at the Democratic National Convention.
  4. Kelly can’t reasonably complain that Congresswoman Wilson (who has been a Johnson family friend for decades) should not have been “listening in” on the condolence call when he just said he was also listening to it.
  5. Bringing up a speech that Congresswoman Wilson allegedly made about a totally different subject in 2015 is a transparent attempt at deflection4, particularly since he had already confirmed the essence of what she said. While we’re on the subject, calling her “someone that is that empty a barrel” does not exactly drip with respect for women. I thought women were “sacred,” General Kelly?

Kelly wants to make it seem as though the White House press has been terribly mistreating the Trump administration over expressions of condolence all week. No doubt that’s how Trump’s base wants to see it. And I’ve come to expect these delusions of martyrdom from Trump, but I honestly thought Kelly was smart enough and self-aware enough not to succumb to them.

This controversy is entirely the president’s fault. He was asked a fair question, and he bungled it, and then he continued to bungle everything related to it all week long. As always, he made multiple statements that were not true, and then doubled down on them, and then cried foul when they were found to be not true. Checking the president’s statements is what the White House press is supposed to do, because as a citizen, you should know–and you should care–if the president is lying to you. And you should care that the administration cannot summon up the minimum competence required to write and mail four letters of condolence in two weeks, because if they can’t do that, how are they going to handle an actual crisis?

Meanwhile the president is once again tweeting about the “wacky” congresswoman who “gave a total lie on content!” So clearly this week has been a fabulous learning experience for him.

1 I’m assuming he doubled down on it, because I’m assuming Sarah Huckabee Sanders is smart enough to realize that “The president misspoke” was the wise move in this situation.

2 My own theory about this is that John Kelly, in an attempt to help the president say something appropriate, suggested something about the sergeant’s willingness to put his life on the line and Trump’s brain scrambled it into “He knew what he signed up for.” I’m willing to believe the president wasn’t actively trying to make the aforesaid pregnant war widow cry harder. Which is apparently what he did.

3 I have an entire side rant about how treating women as “sacred” (as opposed to treating everyone with respect) is terrible for the world, but I’m restraining myself. You’re welcome.

4 In a particularly Trumpian twist, Congresswoman Wilson disputes Kelly’s account of her speech. Apparently no one’s unearthed a tape yet. But if Kelly couldn’t confirm it, then the story shouldn’t have made it into the statement, especially since what Wilson said about something else in 2015 is not remotely the point.

Reading the News: The First Amendment

The First Amendment has been in the news quite a bit this week, from the president’s bizarre idea to revoke NBC’s broadcasting license because he didn’t like what they said about him, to an Indiana legislator who actually proposed a bill to license journalists, to the president’s claim that we would all be saying “Merry Christmas” again because of his devotion to religious liberty.

So here are five books that have illuminated my thinking about the First Amendment:

  • Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, by John M. Barry. This is a biography of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. But it is also the biography of a debate between John Winthrop — the Puritan who wanted to make the Massachusetts Bay colony a beacon Roger Williamsof Christianity — and Williams, an equally devout Christian who nonetheless believed that church and state should be completely separated. It was Williams’s ideas, Barry argues, that influenced the Founders’ thinking on religious freedom:

    Cultural commentators and anthropologists speak of the “myths” which inform and define a society. But it is no myth that the Puritans who founded Massachusetts came to build a Christian country, a city on a hill that would shine for all the world to see. They believed themselves and this nation to be chosen and blessed by God. That belief is not myth but reality, and it has informed this nation’s identity ever since.
    But it is also not myth but reality that those Puritans fled England because they would not submit to forced prayer: they would not submit to the use of the Book of Common Prayer. They would not even sit silently as nonparticipants while others listened to prayers from it.
    And it is also not myth but reality that another informing principle runs like a great river through American history and culture. That principle was first articulated when Roger Williams declared that the state must not enforce those of the Ten Commandments which defined the relationship between humanity and God. It matured when he further separated himself from the dominant view of the day and declared a citizenry “distinct from the government set up…. [S]uch governments as are by them erected and established have no more power, nor for longer time, than the civil power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with.”

    Very much worth reading and considering if you’re interested in the roots of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

  • All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. This can’t be an unfamiliar book to most people, but it was the firAll the President's Menst book I thought of when I saw Trump fulminating about broadcast licenses. Don’t you think Nixon would have liked to shut down the Washington Post in 1973? Do you think that his diehard supporters would have licensed Woodward and Bernstein? There are really good reasons why the government does not get involved in who is allowed to say what. (It’s worth noting, as well, that the Watergate story would be a mere footnote, if even that, if Woodward and Bernstein had not had the cooperation of anonymous sources.)
  • The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 – 1956, by Anne Applebaum. Granted, this book is immense and takes a while to get Iron Curtainthrough. But Applebaum really nails down the details of what it’s like to live in a society with no freedom, and the central philosophy of the oppressors that the government cannot be doing anything terrible because the government is always right is frighteningly close to what is being espoused by some Trump supporters today. This philosophy is exactly why the First Amendment was ratified in the first place.
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. This is aParting the Waters magisterial work of history (with two sequels, which you should also read) about the Civil Rights movement in general and Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular. To read this is to understand not just why the Civil Rights protests in the 1960s needed to happen, but also the absolutely central role the First Amendment played in the protests.
  • Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn. This is a wildly Ella Minnow Peaentertaining, unputdownable examination of a fictional totalitarian society, and a tribute to freedom of expression.


In Which Donald Trump Continues to Be a Class Act

Picture this. You’re the Republican nominee for President of the United States. You’re coming off a debate loss and a dreadful week in the press. You wake up 39 days before the election, rarin’ to go. What do you do to further your candidacy? How will you dig yourself out of the hole you’ve created? To which of your policies or beliefs do you want to draw the public’s attention?

Obviously, you decide to attack the 1996 Miss Universe. Obviously.

(Incidentally, the correct spelling is “judgment.”)

I thought the reference to a “sex tape” was especially classy. To be clear, no sex tape exists.

The Perils of Criticizing Donald Trump

melaniaHere is something that is happening in 2016: Julia Ioffe, a Jewish journalist, wrote a profile of Melania Trump for GQ, and she incorporated less-than-flattering facts about Melania Trump’s father, and now she has a bunch of Trump supporters tweeting her with references to the Holocaust.

In this profile, Ioffe included three paragraphs about Melania’s father, and specifically about the fact that he supported financially but never had a relationship with Melania’s half-brother, the product of a youthful dalliance. Other than that, the profile was generally positive. Sample passage:

…[U]nlike her husband, Melania is reserved, polite, and steady, say those close to her. “There is a peace in her,” one old friend from Slovenia tells me. She is a homebody. She’s rich, but not a socialite; she prefers family to the It set and retires early after events.

Now, had I been the writer of this profile, I would not have included the information about Melania’s father. I get that it’s a scoop, or at least a scooplet. But as a reader, I would be far more interested in three more paragraphs about the elusive Melania, for whom, full disclosure, I have an inexplicable fondness.1 I think she is probably a fairly interesting person, and I would like to know more about her. And so to me the whole mess with Melania’s father and the son just felt extraneous. He did support him, after all; more to the point, what does a half-century-old private scandal once removed have to do with the presidential race in 2016?

Melania Trump didn’t like the profile, and hey, fair enough. Let’s be honest: even if I thought it were relevant I wouldn’t appreciate having my dad’s wild oats strewn across a national publication either.2 But it bears repeating: it is a generally positive profile. If everyone had just remained calm the profile would have been a net win, if a small one, for the Trump camp.

Of course, the Trump camp being the Trump camp, there was no calm. Here’s what happened:

Melania Trump tweeted her displeasure, as is her right. And then all hell broke loose. Over the next several days, Julia Ioffe received an anonymous call from someone who played a Hitler speech in her ear. There was another call from an outfit called “Overnight Caskets” (I don’t know what that is, but it certainly sounds vaguely threatening). She got another call from a company that specializes in cleaning up after homicides. (Points for creativity, I guess?) She got emails suggesting that her face would “look good on a lampshade.” Someone tweeted a picture of her with a yellow star photoshopped onto her blouse. There is a bunch of other truly vile anti-Semitic nonsense that was tweeted, but trying to summarize it just made me sad about the world and I eventually gave up. The Daily Stormer, an online bastion of white supremacy, wrote a blog post with the charming title “Empress Melania Attacked by Filthy Russian Kike Julia Ioffe in GQ!”3

Again, I don’t blame Melania Trump for not liking the profile. I wouldn’t have liked it either. But that’s not the story anymore. The story now is that Trump’s supporters have horrifically overreacted to a very mild affront, and Trump has, to my knowledge, done nothing to disavow this. And one has to wonder, what happens if Trump becomes president? Is every journalist in America going to face this kind of invective every time he is criticized?

I am currently reading Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain. She cautions against referring to American politicians as totalitarian:

In popular speech, the word “totalitarian” isn’t so much self-serving as overused. Democratically elected politicians are described as totalitarian (e.g., “Rick Santorum’s Totalitarian Instincts”), as are governments or even companies (one can read of “The United States’ march toward totalitarianism” or learn that Apple has a “totalitarian approach to its app store”). Libertarians, from Ayn Rand on, have used the word to describe progressive liberals. Progressive liberals (and indeed conservatives) have used the word to describe Ayn Rand. The word is nowadays applied to so many people and institutions that it can sometimes seem meaningless.

So far, I agree with her. Constantly invoking the names of Hitler and Stalin every time an opposing politician says something we don’t like only cheapens the narrative and allows us to obscure the horrific number of deaths and ruined lives in the wake of true totalitarianism. Yet I admit these passages gave me pause:

Everywhere the Red Army went–even in Czechoslovakia, from which the Soviet troops eventually withdrew–these newly minted secret policemen immediately began to use selective violence, carefully targeting their political enemies according to previously composed lists and criteria. In some cases they targeted enemy ethnic groups as well. . . .Soviet authorities, again in conjunction with local communist parties, carried out policies of mass ethnic cleansing, displacing millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others from towns and villages where they had lived for centuries. Trucks and trains moved people and a few scant possessions into refugee camps and new homes hundreds of miles away from where they had been born. Disoriented and displaced, the refugees were easier to manipulate and control than they might have been otherwise.

Is it really so hard to believe that a Trump inauguration might usher in that kind of trumpviolence? I would never call Trump a totalitarian, if only because I find it difficult to imagine him implementing the kind of centralized economic control that was the hallmark of totalitarian governments. But I think some of his rhetoric and behavior taps into a totalitarian impulse in his supporters–a desire for strong authority, a desire to show people who’s boss. They’re attacking bystanders at Trump rallies; they’re sending anti-Semitic death threats to journalists. And what does Trump say about the attacks? At a press conference in March, he said, “The audience hit back and that’s what we need a little bit more of.”

This is a thing that is happening in 2016. It may not be totalitarianism, but I think it might be the thin edge of the wedge.

1 At least, I do not think she is dumb, as some have implied, and I do not think that her posing on a bearskin rug should disqualify her husband from the presidency. return

2 My dad’s wild oats consist, in their entirety, of a youthful scrape with the law for hunting without a license. Also I think he failed a class in college. return

3 Of course, the great irony of all of this is that Trump’s daughter Ivanka–with whom he is clearly besotted–is a Jew by choice and is raising her three children in the Jewish faith. You have to wonder (a) does the Daily Stormer know about this? and (b) does Ivanka know about the Daily Stormer? return