This post has been updated with Bannon’s comments Monday night.
President Trump, as the White House will often remind us, is a counterpuncher. You hit him; he hits back twice as hard. You bring a knife; he brings a bazooka.
But while the White House thinks Trump’s counterpunching is only fair, this is not a two-way street. And yet again Monday, those close to Trump made the case that it is simply not okay to criticize the president in the manner he goes after others.
After Trump attacked Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) over some veiled criticisms last week, Corker tweeted Sunday that the White House was an “adult day-care center” and later suggested Trump’s threats to foreign countries could lead to World War III. Appearing on “Fox and Friends” on Monday morning, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said that this was not okay.
Host Brian Kilmeade teed it up nicely, saying, “What a demeaning tweet at the president.”
“Well it is, and world leaders see that,” Conway responded. “We’ve all worked with Senator Corker over the years. We thank him for his service, but I find tweets like this to be incredibly irresponsible.”
She added: “It adds to the insulting that the mainstream media and the president’s detractors — almost a year after this election, they still can’t accept the election results. It adds to their ability and their cover to speak about a president of the United States, the president of the United States, in ways that no president should be talked about.”
Former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon picked up that argument Monday night during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s TV show.
“It’s totally unacceptable in a time of war,” he said of Corker’s comments. “We have troops in Afghanistan. In the Northwest Pacific and Korea, we have a major problem that could be like World War I. In the South China Sea, in the Persian Gulf, we have American lives at risk every day.”
The subtext of all of this is: How dare you criticize the president? He is doing important things and speaking out against him only undermines his efforts to “Make America Great Again.”
Whatever you think of Trump, that’s a very authoritarian argument to make. It suggests dissent is unhelpful. It suggests it’s unpatriotic. And it’s hardly the first time Conway and the White House have gone down this road.
- Back in June, Conway suggested the media’s critical coverage of Trump wasn’t “patriotic.” “If you go back and you look at what is said about this president, a lack of policy coverage, there are personal attacks about his physicalities, about his fitness for office, he’s called a goon, a thug, mentally ill, talking about dementia, armchair psychologists all over television every single day,” Conway said on ABC’s “This Week.” “George [Stephanopoulos, the ABC host], it doesn’t help the American people to have a president covered in this light. I’m sorry, it’s neither productive nor patriotic. The toxicity is over the top.”
- In February, when the administration was pushing its travel ban, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller said the president’s prerogatives on foreign policy were absolute. “The end result of this, though, is that our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned,” Miller said.
- On a smaller scale, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last month that ESPN host Jemele Hill calling Trump a “white supremacist” is a “fireable offense.”
The roots of this whole attitude were evident long ago, when numerous reports indicated that Trump thought his coverage would improve once he was president. The Associated Press reported that “two people close to Trump said he expected his coverage to turn more favorable once he took office.” That’s not how it works, and it totally misunderstands the media’s role in a democracy. Yet here we are today, and the White House still thinks it’s above this kind of criticism. It still thinks the president should “not be questioned,” at least to the extent Corker did.
What’s most notable here as that a lot of these criticisms pale in comparison to what Trump has said about his opponents. He has questioned the war hero status of John McCain. He has attacked a Gold Star family. He called his primary foe a liar — repeatedly. He called his Democratic opponent a criminal who should be jailed. And most importantly, he was one of the most vocal critics of the last president, even suggesting he was a fraud whose presidency was illegitimate.
All of that was okay, but suggesting President Trump is volatile and dangerous is not, apparently. The undermining of Barack Obama’s legitimacy was apparently okay . . . because he deserved it? If Hillary Clinton had become president, we’re to believe that Trump would stop calling her a criminal because she would then be the president? Uh, no.
It’s not only a double standard; it’s a willful campaign to suggest that even criticisms that might be valid are beyond the pale if they undermine Trump. The White House isn’t disputing the criticisms; it’s suggesting they shouldn’t be tolerated and aren’t good for the country. That’s a stunning posture for any White House to take.