How fitting it was that Trump’s spinners soiled the Martin Luther King holiday weekend by denying or mansplaining his remark about “shithole countries.”
The issue is not just what he said — as predictably abhorrent as it was. The broader issue is what this protracted episode says about the protectors who give him cover and abet his serial lies. On the cusp of the midterm campaign season, they have tied their party’s fate to a racist with no core convictions, except the cult of self.
Here we have a politically sensitive situation where lawmakers are trying to craft some kind of immigration deal — to save the “dreamers,” to tighten border security — the kind of situation where presidential sagacity is particularly prized … but instead, Trump potentially blows up the negotiations by talking like George Wallace in Alabama in 1962. And pining for more white immigrants from Norway.
Then his spinners proceed to turn his trash talk into a four-day story. Let’s try to chronologically chart the twists in this latest tawdry episode:
The sound of silence. After Trump’s Thursday remark about “shithole countries” was first reported, the White House said nothing at all. They didn’t even try to deny the reports. Nor did they deny a Friday report that Trump had phoned friends the previous night to boast about his remark and ask how it was playing in the press.
Unofficial confirmation. Some White House officials, anonymously dishing to the press, initially insisted that the “shithole” remark was unfortunate; as one reportedly said, “This is a gaffe. It may not have been the best way to convey his position (about immigration).” Another Trump official reportedly said the remark was no big deal: “I don’t think anyone is worried about it. I haven’t seen or heard anyone worried about it.”
Vague denial. But on Friday, it appeared that Trump was worried about how it was playing in the press. He fled to Twitter and tried to reboot reality: “The language used by me (at the meeting with senators) was tough, but this was not the language used.” Also: “Never said anything derogatory about Haitians,” which didn’t provide any clarity because “shithole countries” was a reference to the entire continent of Africa.
Abetters’ amnesia. David Purdue and Tom Cotton, two Republicans who had attended the meeting, surfaced in the press to insist: “We do not recall the president saying these comments specifically.” They were echoed by Kirstjen Nielsen, Trump’s new Homeland Security secretary, who said, “I don’t recall him saying the exact phrase.” Those statements had enough wiggle room to accommodate an 18-wheeler, and they were essentially contradicted by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham who reportedly told Trump during the meeting that his language was inappropriate.
Outright denial. On the Sunday shows, Perdue said he no longer had amnesia; he now claimed to recall with perfect clarity that Trump never said “shithole.” (Perdue: “I’m telling you that he did not use that word.”) Cotton also said that his memory had evolved: “I did not hear derogatory comments about individuals or persons, no.” We’re all supposed to believe that their revised spin had no connection whatsoever to their quest to stay on Trump’s good side. They’ve been trying to steer Trump toward a deal that curbs immigration from African nations.
Creative wordplay. Word got around on Sunday that the White House was internally debating whether Trump had said “shithouse” instead of “shithole.” (I’m trying to write this stuff with a straight face. The Trump regime is killing satire.) Conservative commentator Rich Lowry actually said on national TV: “My understanding from the meeting, he used a different, but very closely related vulgarity … That’s not going to make a difference to anyone.” Ah, no. It won’t.
Retaliatory attack. Apparently bored with the denials, Trump decided yesterday to lash out (natch). Whereas last week he was praising Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin for his work on a potential immigration deal, now he was deriding Durbin for telling the press about his racist remark. Trump even came up with a new nickname: “Senator Dicky Durbin totally misrepresented what was said.” (“Misrepresented” is a weak denial. But Trump never said that Durbin misquoted him.)
This grotesque black comedy, triggered by Trump’s racist slur, has made it tougher to forge an immigration deal, and that in turn has hiked the odds of a government shutdown. And still the Republicans pledge fealty to Dear Leader. During a weekend meeting with rural Iowa constituents, Sen. Joni Ernst tried to duck the Trump factor (“I don’t respond a lot to what the president is saying”), but at one point she tried to defend him:
“He is standing up for a lot of the countries —”
An audience member interrupted: “Name a few. Could you name a few?”
“Yeah, you bet. Norway is one of them.”
Whereupon the room burst into laughter.
Darn right. All you can do is laugh.
In other news: I’m interviewing Michael Wolff tonight at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Join the overflow crowd, or watch it here from the comfort of home.