During yesterday’s impeachment hearing, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) asked professor Pamela Karlan what comparisons could be made between the authoritarian style of kings, which the Constitution’s framers feared, and President Donald Trump’s approach to the presidency. Karlan’s response would prove to be the hearing’s most controversial moment:
So kings could do no wrong, because the king's word was law, and contrary to what President Trump has said, Article II does not give him the power to do anything he wants. And I’ll just give you one example that shows you the difference between him and a king, which is, the Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility. So while the president can name his son Barron, he can't make him a baron.
Karlan was referencing Trump’s July 23 quote in which he said, “Then I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president, but I don’t even talk about that.” This is a wildly inaccurate understanding of his powers under the Constitution, and contrary to the back end of that statement, it’s a line he had brought up multiple times in public, including on July 12 when he told a group of reporters, “Nobody ever mentions Article II. It gives me all of these rights at a level that nobody has ever seen before.”
Karlan was making the point that the Constitution doesn’t grant Trump the king-like powers he seems to believe it does. The wordplay involved -- that while he can name his son Barron, he is not a king and therefore cannot make his son an actual baron -- was a clear dig at the president’s inflated view of his own power, which he appears to believe is unlimited.
Naturally, conservative media used the mention of Barron Trump’s name to go on offense in a predictable way.
Karlan’s words were in no way an insult or attack on the president’s 13-year-old son. She wasn’t mocking him or his name, and anyone watching the hearing with a shred of intellectual honesty knows this. Conservative media figures, desperate for a way to redirect the day’s narrative away from the damning substance of the hearing, lept at the chance to feign outrage.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who famously mocked school-shooting survivor David Hogg for not getting into his college of choice and once commented that “one of [Michelle Obama's] daughters apparently is not living in a food desert,” tweeted that Karlan’s pun was a “cheap shot.”
The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway claimed Karlan “just went after Barron Trump.”
This is how a narrative starts. Soon enough, conservative outlets began referring to Karlan’s words as an “attack” on Barron Trump. None of these sites or right-wing media personalities pushing the “attack” narrative made a credible argument that Karlan's statement was actually an attack on the teen, and that’s probably because it very clearly wasn’t an attack on him.
Apologies don’t work when you’re dealing with bad faith operators because, to them, this is all a game.
As the bad faith backlash to her comment began to build while the hearing went on and she faced criticism from Republican members of Congress, Karlan did what most people would in a situation where a remark was being seized on and twisted to mean something she didn’t mean: She apologized, saying, “I want to apologize for what I said earlier about the president’s son. It was wrong of me to do that. I wish the president would apologize, obviously, for the things that he’s done that’s wrong, but I do regret having said that.”
Trump and his allies view apologies as a sign of weakness. In 2016, right-wing commentator Howie Carr relayed what Trump told him after he mocked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) with a “war whoop” at a rally:
“Whatever you do, don’t apologize,” [Trump] said. “You never hear me apologize, do you? That’s what killed Jimmy the Greek way back. Remember? He was doing okay ’til he said he was sorry.”
(“Jimmy the Greek” was a reference to the firing of CBS announcer Jimmy Snyder in 1988 for saying “[Blacks are] bred to be the better athlete . . . This goes back all the way to the Civil War when, during the slave trading, the owner, the slave owner, would breed his big black to his big woman so that he would have a big black kid, see? That's where it all started.”)
Last year, Axios’ Jonathan Swan quoted a Trump administration official saying, “Not apologizing is a core operating principle for Trump. The basic belief is that you never actually get ‘credit’ -- from the Left, the media, political opponents, etc. -- for apologizing, so why do it?”
The right-wing outrage machine’s response is to be expected, and mainstream journalists shouldn’t fall for this. Some still did.
In a tweet, CNN host Chris Cuomo suggested that Karlan was guilty of “going after” Barron.
The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus played into the narrative that Karlan had somehow brought Barron Trump into a debate when she had, in fact, only referenced his name and nothing more, saying that Karlan’s apology was warranted.
On Twitter, NBC News parroted the official White House line and wrote that “the remark is ‘classless,’ as the scholar used the teen ‘as a punchline.’”
Overall, though, it seems like at least a few mainstream journalists are starting to understand what’s happening. In 2018, comedian Michelle Wolf made a joke during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner about then-press secretary Sarah Sanders’ penchant for lying:
I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. Like she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smokey eye. Like maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.
Right-wing media played up claims that Wolf’s comment was aimed at somehow insulting Sanders’ appearance, and mainstream journalists were quick to condemn her over it. This time around, generally speaking, there was a more measured approach from people who have fallen for this scheme in the past. But so long as there are people in media gullible enough to believe this ploy, we shouldn’t expect right-wing pundits and politicians to stop using it.