President Trump on Thursday continued to lobby ABC for an apology, tweeting that the network and the chief executive of its parent company, Bob Iger, “have offended millions.” But the president was not referring to the offense of Roseanne Barr comparing Valerie Jarrett to an ape; Trump was referring to what he deems offensive news coverage and commentary about him.
What exactly does Trump find objectionable? He cited an erroneous report from December, which ABC handled at the time with a correction and four-week suspension of journalist Brian Ross.
Trump previously tweeted about multiple, but unspecified, “HORRIBLE statements made and said about me.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders identified several such statements during a media briefing on Wednesday, including this one: “Where was Bob Iger's apology to the White House staff for Jemele Hill calling the president and anyone associated with him a white supremacist?”
Hill is a prominent figure at ESPN, which, like ABC, is owned by the Iger-run Walt Disney Co. She did not say that “anyone associated with” Trump is a white supremacist, but she did tweet last fall that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”
What's striking about the Hill tweet's inclusion on a White House list of grievances against Iger is the implied equivalence between racism and calling out racism. Jarrett said Tuesday that Iger phoned her to apologize on behalf of the company for Barr's racist tweet. The White House's position is that Iger should have similarly dialed Trump to apologize for Hill's accusation that the president is a white supremacist.
The suggestion is that calling someone racist is just as offensive as saying something racist — maybe even more so. Sanders ripped Hill's remark as a “fireable offense,” but neither she nor Trump has weighed in on whether ABC was right to cancel “Roseanne”; Sanders said Barr's tweet was merely “inappropriate.”
Being unfairly labeled racist can, of course, cause significant reputational damage. Hill arguably took her criticism of Trump too far when she said the president “is” a white supremacist. But a month before Hill tweeted, Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides of a violent clash in Charlottesville between white supremacists protesting the removal of a Confederate statue, and a group of counterprotesters.
“What about the alt-left that came charging at the alt-right?” Trump said at a news conference. “Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
“I think there's blame on both sides,” he added. “And I have no doubt about it.”
While not a declaration of membership in the clan (or, perhaps, Klan) of white supremacists, the president's remarks could easily be interpreted as an expression of sympathy for white supremacists, who, he said, were “peaceful” as they marched with torches, chanting slogans such as “Jews will not replace us.”
Even former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who remains a Trump supporter, condemned the White House's “toleration” of white supremacy when he appeared on “The Late Show” last August.
“Are there elements of white supremacy within the White House right now?” Stephen Colbert asked. “Is Steve Bannon a white supremacist?”
Bannon, who had previously led Breitbart News and described the website as “the platform for the alt-right,” was Trump's chief strategist at the time.
“I don't think he's a white supremacist, although I've never asked him if he's a white supremacist,” Scaramucci replied. “What I don't like, though, is the toleration of it. It's something that should be completely and totally intolerated.”
Iger never endorsed Hill's tweet, but he did explain at a conference in October why he decided not to discipline her.
“I felt that we had to take context into account,” he said. “And context, in that case, included what was going on in America. … I've not ever experienced prejudice, certainly not racism. So, it's even hard for me to understand what they're feeling about this, what it feels like to experience racism. And so I felt that we needed to take into account what Jemele and other people at ESPN were feeling in this time, and that resulted in us not taking action on the tweet that she put out.”
“Context” is the key word. The context around Hill's tweet was very different from the context around Barr's. The White House contends, however, that Iger should have taken the same approach to both tweets.