After signing a proclamation celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Friday morning, reporter April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks asked President Donald Trump if he was a racist. Trump said nothing and walked out. According to those present, however, Trump took King’s nephew, Pastor Isaac Newton Farris, and Ben Carson aside to tell them he wasn’t a racist, and definitely not the racist the media was making him out to be.
Shortly thereafter, a contingent of African American clergymen spoke outside the West Wing to defend Trump. The president has had a problematic relationship with immigrants and minorities—one that dates back to well before he called white supremacists in Charlottesville “good people"—but his relationship with both communities hit a new low after, in a bipartisan meeting earlier this week, he reportedly asked why so many people from "shithole” countries were immigrating to the United States.
As the African American clergy gathered, I repeated Ryan’s question. “Is the president a racist?” No answer. I asked if the president was a hypocrite. No answer. I asked if the president cared for minorities after saying the people of Haiti live in a “shithole.”
Nothing came from these people but lavish praise for President Trump. Ryan said the group comprised nothing more than marginalized players enjoying their moment in the sunlight. One of them confronted her outside of the West Wing later that afternoon and berated her. (I watched it happen.) But Ryan is no stranger to confrontation, and she admonished the reverend for taunting her.
“Play nice,” I said to the clergyman who wanted to up the ante. The reverend then made a motion as if to shoo away Ryan. By then she had already said her peace and walked away, not noticing the condescension.
Afterward I spoke with several of the clergy who attended the ceremony in the Roosevelt Room. They asserted that the president treats everyone the same. “He’s same as…” I was told. “He says the same things to everybody. He isn’t prejudiced.”
Watching an African American clergyman go after an African American reporter after celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. doesn’t just underscore our division, but serves as a bellwether.
This was backed up by (of all people) Anthony Scaramucci, who is still a firm Trump fan despite lasting only 10 days in the White House. Trump, Scaramucci tweeted, “is not a racist. He is far from it. Perhaps the least racist. Apparently he and I are the only two people that use a few curse words here and there. Certainly journalists don’t talk that way. Who knew lived in such a puritanical society!”
Grammar problems aside, Scaramucci said almost exactly what the African American clergy had told me. Those who confronted Ryan are self-described “Trumplicans” who believe the president is on the right path to peace, love and understanding. The rest of us are wondering where describing some countries as “shitholes” fits in Utopia. But to the Trump supporters, it’s yet another example of the president’s “earthy language we love.”
The Trumplicans who showed up to the White House Friday afternoon don’t understand why the press is always out to get the president. They don’t understand why Ryan, or myself, would ask if the president is racist. They think it improper. But the bluster around the use of the term shithole—while unprecedented and deleterious enough—was just part of another week of nearly unfathomable occurrences. The English language is quickly running out of metaphors and adjectives to adequately describe a situation few have witnessed before.
Problems in Iran, the publication of an explosive tell-all book, new revelations about the Mueller investigation and multiple explanations of “The Great Wall” have turned D.C. on its ear. Then, of course, we had Trump failing to sing along correctly to the National Anthem, though he did at least stand for it during the College Football Playoff National Championship.
We saw the possibility for a hot minute that Oprah Winfrey could run against him in 2020 after her speech at the Golden Globes. Trump surrogate Stephen Miller fell victim to a disastrous interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Breitbart pushed out Steve Bannon and, to top it all off, reporters got to watch 55 minutes of the president trying to discuss border security with members of Congress.
But none of it topped the shithole comment, which has notoriety not only because the president said it, but because so many reporters and news organizations fumbled over how to cover it.
“We don’t say the word shithole around here,” a long-time photographer told me. “We do now,” I replied. While it wasn’t my first choice of colorful metaphors to use, it apparently appealed to the president of the United States. And if he’s using it, I will certainly quote him accurately.
The president’s use of such colorful metaphors and the media’s inability to grasp it speaks volumes to the schism in American culture. “You see, you can’t say anything against black people,” the African American clergy told me. “Because if you do, you’re painted as a racist. The president doesn’t care and can say anything he wants, and that’s why people like him.”
Soon, the term ‘shithole’ may be used to describe more than just countries the president doesn’t like.
Nancy Pelosi drove home that point, too, when she talked about five white men gathering to strike a deal on immigration. “The 'five white guys’ I call them, you know,” the California Congresswoman said Thursday, referring to a group of legislators working on a solution for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. “Are they going to open a hamburger stand next or what?”
“She can attack the policy, but if I said ‘five white women,’ people would have a fit,” one of the clergy members said outside the White House. “You see, that’s why people like Trump. That’s why I’m a Trumplican. He treats everyone the same. Some people can’t deal with that.”
There is no denying the divisiveness in this country, and there is little doubt people are upset about political correctness. Watching an African American clergyman go after an African American reporter outside the White House after celebrating the accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. doesn’t just underscore our division, but serves as a bellwether.
There are a great many important issues to deal with right now and the president’s inability to deal in basic decorum may or may not have been the impetus behind a tweet from the Pontiff who said, “If we fail to suffer with those who suffer, even those of different religions, languages or cultures, we need to question our own humanity.”
Watching African American clergy shooing away African American reporters outside of the White House while the president headed off to Walter Reed Hospital for a physical—which may or may not include mental acuity tests—got me thinking: What’s going on with the Mueller investigation? Of course, that thought didn’t sink in long enough to get a moment of solace, as the Wall Street Journal reported Friday afternoon—just as I was looking for a little libation to ease the torture of the daily grind—that President Trump’s top lawyer, Michael Cohen, reportedly paid $130,000 in hush money to a porn star so that she wouldn’t discuss an alleged 2006 sexual encounter with Trump.
The White House reacted quickly: “These are old, recycled reports, which were published and strongly denied prior to the election,” a White House official told the Journal of the alleged encounter. (They did not answer questions about the $130,000.) Cohen released a statement to the Journal as well, saying that Trump “once again vehemently denies any such occurrence, as has Ms. Daniels.”
Last year, in one of Josh Earnest’s last press briefings, I asked him two questions. One was about Russian meddling in our election process. “Could it be viewed as an act of war?” I asked Earnest. He said it could indeed, and that some in Congress viewed it that way.
A year later we’re told it’s all a hoax.
I also asked Earnest about the guidelines the Obama White House used to hire people in the executive branch, guidelines that had been endorsed by Senator Mitch McConnell and others. Earnest said the Obama administration embraced those guidelines. While McConnell and others said the incoming Trump administration would abandon them, Earnest said he urged Trump to abide by them as they had kept the Obama administration safe from scandals.
A year later, the scandals from “hiring the best people” continue and no one can foresee the bottom as Trump continues to step in a myriad of hot messes he himself created. Soon, the term shithole may be used to describe more than just countries the president doesn’t like.