There are two parts of that tweet, both of them atrocious: One relates to the discovery of a noose last month in the garage of Darrell “Bubba” Wallace at the Talladega Superspeedway. NASCAR drivers and officials rallied around Wallace, the only black driver in NASCAR’s top series, and the FBI launched an investigation — one that found the noose had preceded Wallace’s use of the garage stall. Wallace had nothing to apologize for. The other references NASCAR’s decision to ban displays of the Confederate battle flag at its events. To judge from the wording of his tweet, Trump opposes the flag ban.
When McEnany faced reporters on Monday, there were plenty of issues facing the country, including the pandemic’s resilience and the economy. But Trump’s tweets have a tendency to overtake other matters, and this one was a prime example.
So reporters pursued McEnany. Here are some of the questions that came her way: “Why is the president so supportive of flying the Confederate flag?” “What is the president’s position? Does he think NASCAR made a mistake by banning the Confederate flag?” “But let’s drill down on the Confederate flag. Does he think it was a mistake for NASCAR to ban it?” “But what is his position on it?”
Press secretaries are supposed to be in their boss’s inner circle, the better to pass along authentic thoughts and positions. “I spoke to him this morning about this,” responded McEnany, “and he said he was not making a judgment one way or the other. The intent of the tweet was to stand up for the men and women of NASCAR and the fans and those who have gone, and this rush to judgment of the media to call something a hate crime when, in fact, the FBI report concluded this was not an intentional racist act.”
Later in the proceedings, McEnany said, “The president said he wasn’t making a judgment one way or the other.”
Whoa. Presidential neutrality on the Confederate flag is news, and the assembled reporters treated it as such. “Why would the president not praise NASCAR for removing the Confederate flag, particularly given the history of that flag, the symbol that it has for African Americans, and also what it represents in terms of just the treasonous acts and the insurrection against the republic?” McEnany retreated into aggregate-speak.
She was asked again, “What about on an unambiguous statement on the Confederate flag?” On this day, there would be only ambiguous statements on the Confederate flag.
Press secretaries have always dodged questions. That’s part of their job. This particular skill, though, has gotten particularly intensive use in the Trump White House, where the boss’s depravity is so extreme that actual answers are just too incriminating to utter. At one point during Monday’s session, McEnany protested, “I’m not going to answer a question a sixth time.”
“But you haven’t answered that question. I mean, you’ve been asked it, but you haven’t answered it,” said one.
Critics on social media have often wondered aloud why reporters don’t band together more often when Trump reps so clearly sidestep important inquiries. The truth is that the press corps isn’t geared toward collective action: Journalists have their own stories, their own obsessions. On Monday, however, there was minimal diversity of topics, in large part because the president’s NASCAR tweet was just so fresh and atrocious. At the end of the briefing, McEnany betrayed some frustration at the media’s single-mindedness.
“You know, I was asked probably 12 questions about the Confederate flag,” said McEnany. “This President is focused on action, and I’m a little dismayed that I didn’t receive one question on the deaths that we got in this country this weekend. I didn’t receive one question about New York City shootings doubling for the third straight week. And over the last seven days, shootings skyrocketed by 142 percent.”
Don’t focus on the president’s racism, in other words. Focus on Americans killing one another.
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