Kellyanne Conway has a prescription for what ails the media's relationship with President-elect Donald Trump. In defending Trump's months-old mocking of a disabled reporter, Trump's senior adviser said we need to look into Trump's heart.
She continued: “You can't give him the benefit of the doubt on this, and he's telling you what was in his heart? You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”
The short answer to Conway's question is no, we can't give him the benefit of the doubt because of what's in his heart. We can't do this because the evidence so clearly shows a presidential candidate mocking a reporter's physical disability. But mostly we can't do this because we don't know what's in his heart, and any attempt to figure that out would amount to a value judgment.
Think about it: If reporters are suddenly deputized to give the benefit of the doubt to politicians whose hearts they've evaluated as being good, there is basically no end to what that politician will be allowed to do. It's a totally unworkable standard for anyone involved (and probably one that Republicans wouldn't like). Conway is essentially asking for a permanent “Get Out of Jail Free” card because Trump has, in her estimation, a good heart.
This is the central disconnect with Trump. When he does something controversial or crass, it's how his defenders defend him. The people who know him assure us that he's different in person — that he doesn't necessarily mean the things he says and that we would all understand if we just knew him. Salena Zito turned this into a pithy quote: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
But while voters have the luxury of picking and choosing what they believe about a politician, those beliefs are heavily influenced by partisanship and are inherently value judgments — opinions, really. Reporters, meanwhile, are in the business of telling you what happened and doing their very best to keep their own value judgments out of it. We have to rely upon what a candidate says, and whether it fits into a pattern of behavior, which Trump's mocking of a disabled reporter certainly did.
Would it be great if every reporter and Trump critic had an intimate knowledge of who he is as a person? Of course. But it's just not practical. And even if it were, everyone would have a different evaluation of Trump's heart.
Defending Trump is an objectively thankless job. It involves assuring us that he doesn't mean things that he has said repeatedly, and it involves sometimes assuring us that he believes something he pointedly won't say that he believes. Trump's aides assured us that he believed President Obama was born in the United States, even as he wouldn't say it himself. The same thing happened this weekend, when incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Trump believes the findings of the intelligence community on Russian hacking, even though Trump has never said this and has repeatedly cast doubt upon them.
And, in a sense, this is about all they can argue: that he doesn't mean that bad stuff and that we should just believe he has the best intentions. When your boss seems hellbent on causing you headaches, you have to argue that he really doesn't mean it. And maybe you even believe that yourself.
But that's a standard that simply can't be applied to any politician — much less someone who has repeatedly shown an affinity for bare-knuckle political tactics, launching attacks and fomenting conspiracy theories about his opponents. Trump's supporters will see the best in him, and his opponents will see the worst. The media should do neither.