Have you spent any time in the past 22 months worrying, in an existential way, about whether President Trump tried to scuttle a federal investigation into Russian interference at the core of America’s political process? Fear not. On Thursday, Attorney General William P. Barr explained that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for any acts that appeared “obstructive”: The president was emotional.
Donald Trump “was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency,” Barr announced at the news conference on Thursday. “Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the President had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation.”
One might have argued that frustration and anger actually do sound like corrupt motives, but Barr presented them as excuses: The president was not obstructing, and if he was obstructing it was due to some sincere feelings, so let’s give him a mulligan, okay?
Throughout the 448-page Mueller report, the president is very emotional. He is forever “becoming angry” or “expressing anger” or “expressing frustration.” He “was furious” at Jeff Sessions for not protecting him. He “screamed” at and “lambasted” his attorney general, demanding, “How could you let this happen?” Regarding perceived “horrible treatment” of an adviser, the president was “upset for weeks.”
At one point, the president became so “unhappy” and “upset” with then-national security adviser Michael Flynn that “he would not look at him during intelligence briefings.”
I see almost no benefit in imagining parallel universes. Hypotheticals are difficult and not always comparable. But, my God: Can you imagine if a female president became so paralyzed by her emotions that she was notably upset for weeks? Can you imagine if a female politician’s strategy for dealing with her staff involved screaming at them, then lambasting them in public, and then not looking at them?
Can you imagine how hard she would have tried not to put herself in that situation, knowing how eager people have been throughout our political history to hold women’s emotions against them? Anti-suffragists claimed women’s rash temperament should exclude them from voting. Stubborn voters claimed women’s rash temperament should exclude them from running for office (Hillary Clinton spoke of learning to “control her emotions” as far back as college). In a Georgetown University study released just this week, 13 percent of Americans still believed that women were less emotionally suited to political office than men.
Can you imagine if the president was a person of color? If an attorney general waved away a black man’s bombastic behavior in the Oval Office by explaining he was often just really angry?
The president was emotional, and this isn’t exactly news. President Trump’s most consistent character trait is his tendency toward knee-jerk reactions to the situations and people surrounding him. In many ways, the behavior described in the Mueller report is an understandable version of this tendency: Who among us wouldn’t be ticked off to see our legacies tarnished via a drawn-out investigation?
Here is why it matters now, though. The attorney general of the United States of America has stated that the president’s emotions are relevant to the legal analysis of the obstruction case. And there’s a way we tend to talk about the emotional displays of men in power: as if they’re extremely relevant. Righteous, even. Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s outraged, tearful outbursts during his confirmation hearings last summer could have been taken as a sign that he lacked the dispassionate mien one would hope for in a Supreme Court nominee. But instead of putting a damper on the judge’s outraged approach, committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) mirrored it, shouting and literally shaking a finger at his Democratic colleagues. His anger was rewarded. “Lindsey Graham may have single-handedly saved Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation,” read a CNN headline.
As much as Barr’s statements about President Trump are about the specifics of the Russia investigation, they also reflect broader questions: Whose emotions are valid? Whose anger is righteous, and whose anger is hysterical? Whose frustration is “sincere,” and whose is a sign that they are unfit to serve?
The answer isn’t for female politicians to start screaming, or male politicians to become robots. It’s to recognize that we can’t dignify emotion in one sex and dismiss it in another. It can’t be righteous indignation for some people, and hysterics for others. The president is an emotional man. What a luxury. So many of the rest of us are forced to just be crazy women.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.