This post has been updated.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested Wednesday that ESPN host Jemele Hill should be fired for calling President Trump a “white supremacist.” And as our Philip Bump notes, it’s highly unusual for the president to try to exert that kind of influence over private business — not to mention the media.
It’s also hypocritical.
It’s one thing if Trump were as pure as the driven snow. But even if you set aside the accuracy of such claims, which is a matter of opinion, Hill calling Trump a racist is hardly far afield of the tactics Trump himself has employed during his political rise. He even called his predecessor — you guessed it — a racist.
That came in a 2012 tweet. A conservative media outlet had just unearthed a 2007 speech from President Obama mentioning Jeremiah Wright, and Trump tweeted that it "shows that Obama is a racist."
An even more longstanding attack on Obama's very being came in the form of questioning whether he was born in the United States and was a legitimate president. But it wasn't even just the clear, counterfactual effort to undermine and other-ize Obama via his birth certificate; at times Trump engaged in a pretty overt attempt to suggest Obama's loyalties may belong to the enemies of the United States.
Back in June 2016, during an appearance on “Fox and Friends” after the Orlando night club massacre, Trump connected Obama to the tragedy and clearly hinted there might be something nefarious afoot in Obama's refusal to condemn “radical Islamic” terrorism.
“Look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind,” Trump said. “And the something else in mind — you know, people can't believe it. People cannot — they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can't even mention the words 'radical Islamic terrorism.' There's something going on. It's inconceivable.”
Trump added at another point in the interview: “He doesn't get it, or he gets it better than anybody understands. It's one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.”
The next day, Trump told the Associated Press that Obama “claims to know our enemy, and yet he continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and for that matter, the American people.” Prioritizing one's enemy over Americans sounds a lot like … treason?
Tripling down, Trump later tweeted and posted to Facebook a dubious report from Breitbart suggesting Hillary Clinton had been briefed as secretary of state on how the Obama administration was helping al-Qaeda in Iraq. Fact-checkers thoroughly debunked the report.
Even Republicans denounced Trump, with Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) calling Trump's words “offensive” and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) saying Trump seemed “to be suggesting that the president is one of 'them.' ”
Which is exactly what Trump was doing. If there's one difference between Trump and Hill, it's that Hill said exactly what she meant. Trump, as he is wont to do, decided to hide behind innuendo in the name of provoking a reaction from the media and giving himself plausible deniability.
But at its core, Trump was questioning whether Obama was a loyal American and/or had terrorist sympathies. There's a convincing case to be made that he was accusing Obama of some form of treason — which, unlike being a racist, is an actual federal crime, and one that carries a very specific punishment.
So apparently calling Trump a racist is bad, but calling Obama a racist and suggesting he is a secret Muslim who is lying about his birthplace and might sympathize with terrorists is okay?
All may be fair in love, war and politics, but if you are going to play hardball and throw out all manner of suggestions — that your opponent's dad may have killed John F. Kennedy, that your opponent is a criminal who should be “locked up” — you can't whip out the Pollyanna act whenever someone calls you a name.