Olivia Nuzzi had no plans to play the heart-rending audio of Central American children crying for their parents when she arrived in the White House briefing room Monday.
Standing toward the back, Nuzzi, the Washington correspondent for New York magazine, waited for someone else to play the recording obtained by ProPublica that so vividly brought home what is happening on the Texas-Mexico border.
When no one else did, Nuzzi said, “I just kind of went for it.”
“It felt like the right thing to do — that if I didn’t do it, I would feel cowardly,” she told me by phone a few hours later.
Whether the Trump officials in attendance heard the sobs is unclear.
They didn’t respond, but other reporters did. The BBC’s Tara McKelvey wrote that hearing the children’s screams in that official setting — as Trump officials falsely blamed Congress for the administration’s decisions — “felt like a wretched performance-art piece” but one that exposed a “raw, real-life issue.”
But what is clear is that the lack of compassion toward these kids on the Texas-Mexico border is central to President Trump’s political strategy: playing to his base and getting funding for his promised border wall.
That hardened effort was on full display in the briefing.
“Alien children” was the appalling way that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, at the briefing, kept labeling the thousands of youngsters who have been separated from their parents. They are being held — some in cages — as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which treats illegal immigration as a crime that must be prosecuted actively.
Asked whether Trump feels compassion toward the children, Nielsen hesitated, no doubt wondering what her audience of one — the president — would most want to hear. Finally, she offered that Trump may have tweeted something like that.
She insisted that the children are being treated well, as though that were even possible in this situation that pediatricians correctly call a form of child abuse carrying long-lasting damage.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris, a rising-star California Democrat, called for Nielsen’s resignation, saying she is “incapable of running the agency in a way that reflects Americans’ values.”
If one of those values is the importance of journalism that informs citizens of what their government is doing, Nielsen flunks that test, too.
“Don’t believe the press,” she urged Americans earlier Monday.
And in the briefing, she dished out scary-sounding statistics about immigration fraud that seemed intended to mislead, as my colleague Philip Bump quickly clarified: Her reference to a 315 percent increase in would-be immigrants trying to use children to pose as a family proves the adage about “lies, damn lies and statistics.”
Among the tens of thousands of people apprehended at the border, the huge percentage increase brought the grand total to 191 cases over five months: a tiny fraction.
And Nielsen — asked what she thought about the terrible images, stories and sounds of the children — blamed the messengers: “They reflect the focus of those who post such pictures and narratives.” This is about their agenda, she said.
Yes, ProPublica President Richard Tofel retorted: “That is true. Our agenda is to bring the American people facts for their consideration.”
Journalists’ role also can be to state the obvious, as White House reporter April Ryan did on CNN on Monday night with eloquent five-word simplicity: “This president can fix it.”
Or as did the Atlantic’s James Fallows, talking about the audiotape: “When Abu Ghraib photos came out in 2004, they had such effect because they were instantly understandable evidence of what was being done in the public’s name,” he wrote, referring to the torture of prisoners at the infamous American prison in Iraq. “That’s what I thought of when I listened to @ProPublica’s ‘Papa! Papa!’ tape.”
The pro-Trump media, however, was doing its job to counter reality, just as the president would like. On Fox News Channel, Tucker Carlson offered a baseless analysis: “This is one of those moments that tells you everything about our ruling class. They care far more about foreigners than about their own people.”
By ruling class, he apparently didn’t mean the party that controls both houses of Congress and the White House, and that actually has the ability to stop this immoral behavior at any moment.
His colleague Sean Hannity, the Trump whisperer, spent part of his Monday show talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails, which would be astonishing if it weren’t so predictable.
Watching Nielsen at the lectern, as she denied knowledge of the audiotape and dismissed the disturbing photographs, I got a visual flash of the three monkeys in the proverb “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”
Nielsen — so desperate to please the boss that she has lost her moral core — refuses to hear or see the evil that she’s a party to.
But she sure can speak it.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan