Donald Trump and his press secretary Sean Spicer don’t get a lot of easy questions these days. From the president’s incendiary tweets and public statements to the intrigue over the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia to the failure of the GOP’s Obamacare repeal, the White House has a lot to answer for.
Which makes it all the more curious that, on the rare occasions when they do get a question that lends itself to a simple, politically unifying answer, they instead tie themselves in indignant knots rejecting what they apparently perceive to be its unspoken premises. Questions about hate crimes, in particular, have given this White House fits. There are at least four possible explanations for that, and none is flattering to the Trump administration—but some are more troubling than others.
On Monday, for example, Sean Spicer had spent nearly an hour swatting, deflecting, and dodging tough questions about health care and Russia when April Ryan, a reporter for American Urban Radio Networks (who was the subject of another Spicer outburst on Tuesday), changed the subject. “You heard the question that I lobbed the attorney general about the hate crime that happened in New York,” she began. “The white supremacist who went to New York and targeted a black man.” (She was talking about James Jackson, the white man who’s facing terrorism charges after confessing that he drove to New York City, chose a black man at random, and stabbed the man, Timothy Caughman, to death.) “Hate crimes are on the rise,” Ryan continued. “What do you say—what does the White House say—about this obvious apparent hate crime?”
As White House press briefing questions go, this wasn’t even a softball—it was a T-ball. Ryan was placing an act of hideous racism on Spicer’s podium and inviting him to knock it clean out of the room with a strongly worded denunciation. It’s hard to imagine anything less controversial than the White House declaring that it condemns the wanton killing of black people in the streets based solely on their skin color. For a reeling administration and a harried press secretary dealing with the fallout of an embarrassing political defeat, this should have been a godsend. All Spicer had to say is: “Let me make one thing crystal-clear. This president will not tolerate…”—and so on.
Not this White House. Not this press secretary.
Spicer began stammering as though he’d been blindsided by a trick question that he had no idea how to answer. “You—I’m not gonna—I mean you’re—you, you, you yelled at the, the attorney general a specific case, if I’m not correct,” he began, looking to Ryan as if for help. He then declined to discuss the Caughman case; strung together a couple of vague, oddly defensive assurances that the president’s goal was to “bring people together”; and veered awkwardly to the president’s recent meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus on issues of “race,” “crime,” and “education.” It sounds even worse than it reads. Watch the clip:
Ryan tried again, this time quoting from Jackson’s nakedly racist confession. “What do you say to this? This is clear, it’s racism at its ugliest.” For a moment, it seemed Spicer had come to his senses. He said at last that “hate crimes, anti-Semitic crimes, of any nature, should be called out in the most reprehensible way,” and noted that Trump had spoken against hate in all its forms in his joint address to Congress.
But then he pivoted, quickly warming to a topic that was clearly closer to his own heart: the “rush to judgment by a lot of folks on the left” to blame people on the right for hate crimes, such as the anti-Semitic bomb threats that turned out to have been perpetrated by a 19-year-old Jewish man. All of the passion Spicer had lacked when discussing the brutal murder of a black man by a white man came bubbling up as he spoke about the injustice of liberals blaming anti-Semites for anti-Semitic attacks. “None of them have been held to account on that,” he fumed. “And that is something that equally needs to be called out.”
It’s tempting to view this simply as a gaffe on Spicer’s part. Worn down by his constant battles with the press, he mistook an easy question for a tough one and blew a chance to deliver a message that would at once reassure frightened minorities and position Trump as a strong leader with a sense of right and wrong.
The problem is, this was no fluke. Spicer’s response on Monday echoed Trump’s own approach to a question about anti-Semitic hate crimes at a press conference in February. A reporter for an Orthodox Jewish weekly, Jake Turx, was only halfway through the windup of a carefully crafted softball on a rise in anti-Semitic incidents when Trump jumped in and began browbeating him to “sit down” and “be quiet.” (You can watch that clip here.) The president proceeded to misinterpret a friendly request for reassurance as a nasty “gotcha” intended to paint him as a bigot. In so doing, of course, Trump managed to paint himself as exactly that.
All of this was foreshadowed last year on the campaign trail, where Trump declined to renounce his endorsement by the white supremacist David Duke or to denounce violence against black protesters by his white supporters.
Against that context, it’s Trump’s recent, well-received joint address to Congress—which he led by denouncing hate crimes, including the racially motivated murder of an Indian immigrant in Kansas—that looks like the exception. The defensiveness, the evasiveness, the refusal to be troubled by or even to directly acknowledge violence against minorities: That’s the rule.
Nor is this posture confined to the realms of race or religion. On the basis of similar evidence, Jill Filipovic recently argued in the New York Times opinion section that Trump’s frequent all-male photo ops are not the “rookie mistake” that some observers have assumed. They’re intentional—a message to Trump’s misogynist supporters that he won’t bow to his feminist critics. To these sorts of voters, the criticism Trump takes for them from the liberal media only underscores his authenticity. (His general refusal to apologize for his mistakes may hold a similar appeal.)
Perhaps some similar calculation is at work in the White House’s approach to hate crimes. This is the second way of interpreting it: Maybe Trump and Spicer do realize these questions are supposed to be easy, but they prefer to treat them as politically motivated attacks to reinforce the narrative of the unapologetic white man heroically battling the insidious forces of political correctness.
Yet the spluttering, the defensiveness, the weird non sequiturs—those don’t look calculated. On the contrary, Trump and Spicer seem genuinely flustered and incensed at what they take to be the accusations implicit in questions about the administration’s response to hate crimes. This suggests a third interpretation.
Trump and Spicer bungle these questions neither because they’re off their game nor because they’re on it but because they fundamentally misinterpret them. They’re so blinkered in their outlook that it never occurs to them that minorities might actually want or need reassurance from the nation’s leader that violence against them won’t be tolerated. That’s also why it never occurs to them that every such question is a golden opportunity not only to provide that peace of mind but to put to rest, or at least to quiet, the notion that Trump himself is racist or anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic. Instead, they can only assume reporters are badgering him to address hate crimes in order to show him up. And so they respond to this perceived hostility in kind.
Even if it were true that the reporters asking these questions were trying to embarrass Trump—which is possible in some cases, although highly unlikely in the cases of either Ryan or Turx—responding with empathy for the victims and condemnation of the perpetrators would still be both politically savvy and the right thing to do. Yet Trump and his deputies can’t help themselves. As the narcissist assumes everything is about him, so Trump and his team assume that every question about hate crimes is really about Trump.
Finally, there’s the most straightforward interpretation, which is also the most damning: Trump and his team know that his rhetoric, coupled with his electoral victory, have inspired some of these hate crimes. They know it, and they don’t particularly care. But they understand that they can’t just come out and say exactly that, even in a country that is clearly more tolerant of bigoted leaders than many had previously assumed. Their automatic defensiveness, then, is neither a gaffe nor a strategy nor a result of their ignorance. It’s just what defensiveness so often is—a response to an accusation that they know is true but refuse to acknowledge.
No matter which of these interpretations is accurate, Trump’s response is doing him no favors. His joint speech to Congress, which he led with condemnation of hate crimes (granted, he was reading from a teleprompter), was the single most politically galvanizing moment of his presidency so far. In contrast, every fumbling response to a question about racial or religious violence simply invites more such questions.
Whether Trump and Spicer are authentically racist, strategically racist, unwittingly racist, or simply incompetent, there’s a single, simple solution to this problem: Stop treating questions about hate crimes as an attack on Trump, and start treating them as a chance to speak out against anti-minority violence. It really isn’t that hard—and it might even save a life.