ALCINDOR: Thank you, Mr. President. I have two questions. The first is, you’ve said repeatedly that you think that some of the equipment that governors are requesting, they don’t actually need. You said New York might need —THE PRESIDENT: I didn’t say that.ALCINDOR: — might not need 30,000.THE PRESIDENT: I didn’t say that.ALCINDOR: You said it on Sean Hannity’s, Fox News.THE PRESIDENT: I didn’t say — come on. Come on.ALCINDOR: You said that you might —THE PRESIDENT: You know, why don’t — why don’t you people act — let me ask you: Why don’t you act —ALCINDOR: You said some states —THE PRESIDENT: Why don’t you act in a little more positive? It’s always trying to “get you.”
We won’t reprint the entire exchange in this space; it’s available here. The abridged version is that Alcindor wanted to ask the president about a comment he’d made in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” the president said. “You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators. And now, all of a sudden, they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”
What impact, Alcindor wanted to know, would that worldview have on the administration’s response to orders from the states? Before launching into an explanation of how his administration has “done a great job of delivering,” Trump slighted Alcindor, who formerly worked at the New York Times. “Excuse me. You didn’t hear me. That’s why you used to work for the Times and now you work for somebody else. Look, let me tell you something: Be nice. Don’t be threatening.”
He repeated that advice, defended his actions vis-a-vis the states and then engaged in this bit of pique:
THE PRESIDENT: We’re all on the same team. You know, when — when journalists get up — and you’re a journalist, a fine journalist —ALCINDOR: I was quoting you directly from Sean HannityTHE PRESIDENT: — when journalists get up and ask questions that are so threatening -- we’re all on the same team.ALCINDOR: I was quoting you directly from your interview with Sean Hannity.
Though Trump is a blabbermouth, he managed to bundle a sexist and racist jab in the span of five words. “Be nice. Don’t be threatening” — those admonitions play off expectations of how women should behave toward men and stereotypes of black people, respectively. Alcindor tweeted after the incident:
Since context is everything, consider that the Trump White House is still fighting a battle in federal court to uphold the 30-day suspension of the White House press pass for Playboy correspondent Brian Karem. His alleged transgression? A lack of “decorum” on White House grounds.
Alcindor, as it happens, has repeatedly suffered from the real decorum crisis at the White House. At a news conference following the midterm elections in November 2018, Alcindor asked Trump, “On the campaign trail, you called yourself a nationalist. Some people saw that as emboldening white nationalists,” said Alcindor, prompting an interruption from Trump: “I don’t know why you would say that. That’s such a racist question.”
Trump talked about his poll numbers with African Americans, then lit into Alcindor again: “That’s such a racist question. Honestly? I know you have it written down and you’re gonna tell me — Let me tell you, that’s a racist question. … But to say that, what you said, is so insulting to me. It’s a very terrible thing that you said.”
On March 13, Alcindor pressed Trump on his failure to take responsibility for the coronavirus testing failures. What about the White House global pandemic office that he disbanded? “Well, I just think it’s a nasty question,” responded Trump, in part.
Alcindor is just one reason why the White House reacted with such disgust when CNN and MSNBC last week cut away from a coronavirus briefing before Trump could complete the show. In the administration’s view, this is a time for Trump to communicate false hope about drug treatments and a return to normalcy; this is a time for Trump to praise his experts and boast about how well everyone gets along; this is a time for Trump to talk about how happy are the governors; and this is a time, yes, for Trump to signal to his base how he speaks to a black female reporter.
The glory of it all lies in Alcindor’s reaction. She cares not to grapple with the president about her job change; she cares not to prosecute a larger argument about the media and the White House; she cares not to become the story herself. She wants to ask her question.
In response to an interview request, a spokesman for PBS NewsHour said that Alcindor was not available. Executive Producer Sara Just, however, issued this statement on her colleague’s behalf: “Yamiche is a highly professional, talented reporter and we could not be more proud to have her as part of the PBS NewsHour. She is doing exactly what is expected of a free press in our democracy: posing timely, pertinent questions to those in power on behalf of the American people. She was hardly the only reporter in the Rose Garden yesterday, or at other times, to be on the receiving end of such treatment. It will not deter Yamiche from asking fair and direct questions, especially at such a critical time.”
Good! Those fair and direct questions, after all, continue illuminating the petty and insecure soul of President Trump as he runs away from his previous statements, utters barely comprehensible excuses for his mismanagement and otherwise diffuses a stink in the Rose Garden.
As Alcindor stands and rams through her questions, she is becoming the symbol of American journalism: strong, unflappable and polite. When Trump denied her second question and raised the possibility of getting back to her later, she responded, “Thank you.”