The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Once again, the media fails to press Republicans on Trump’s vile rhetoric

Former president Donald Trump throws a cap as he attends a rally in Warren, Mich., on Saturday. (Dieu-Nalio Chery/Reuters)

Donald Trump on Friday issued what can only be described as a threat against Mitch McConnell, declaring that the Senate minority leader’s support for bipartisan bills amounts to a “DEATH WISH.” The former president also added a racist insult against McConnell’s wife, former transportation secretary Elaine Chao, referring to her as “his China-loving wife, Coco Chow.”

Neither McConnell nor other Republican leaders — including Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), head of the Republican National Senatorial Committee — have condemned Trump for the statement. That’s the state of today’s MAGA movement, where decency toward fellow Americans, loyalty to one’s spouse and support for democratic values all take a back seat to cult worship and the unquenchable thirst for power. And once again, the mainstream media is failing to rise to the moment.

One might expect the media to stop treating Republicans like normal politicians after their “big lie” about a stolen election, their ongoing whitewashing of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, their attacks on the FBI and their indifference — if not assent —to racism. Alas, there is little sign that mainstream outlets have dropped their addiction to false equivalence and willful, moral blindness.

Scott, in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, explained Trump’s heinous statement by saying the former president likes to give people “nicknames.” Asked whether Trump’s “nickname” for Chao was racist, Scott added, “It’s never, ever okay to be a racist.” That’s it. Time was up for the interviewer to press him any further.

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Making matters worse, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who also appeared on the segment, was not asked about any of this.

CBS News’s Margaret Brennan did a somewhat better job on “Face the Nation,” pressing Scott to comment on Trump’s remarks and on another disgusting statement from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who claimed on Saturday that Democrats “want Republicans dead” and “have already started the killings.” Brennan was able to keep Scott from ducking the question. But she allowed him to falsely claim that Trump was merely raising a concern about government spending and to say he didn’t “see” Greene’s remarks. He then ended the interview with a declaration that “we need to bring people together.” Seriously?

What should reporters be doing? Let’s start with five basic rules.

First, they cannot leave these exchanges for the end of an interview, when the guest can filibuster until the commercial break. Do it upfront, and don’t allow them to move on unless they give a straight answer. If Trump and his party present a threat to democracy, don’t treat their misconduct as an afterthought.

Second, interviewers must explain in real time when a guest is employing a common dodge. Brennan could have said, “For years Republicans have pleaded that they didn’t hear a comment, even after it is read to them.” She also could have followed up with tougher questions. For example:

  • Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted, “Against the backdrop of rising anti-AAPI hate, former Pres. Trump’s slander against Elaine Chao is inexcusable. American Jews know the danger of accusations of dual loyalty and name calling of this sort. It’s incitement, plain and simple, and unacceptable.” Do you agree?
  • Why does the GOP countenance another four-year term for someone willing to use such violent rhetoric?
  • What does “DEATH WISH” mean to you? At a moment when members are more concerned about violence than ever before, why don’t you deplore such language?
  • Why does the party not disown a member such as Greene, who lies about Democrats “killing” Republicans and makes blatantly antisemitic comments?
  • Why shouldn’t voters consider your silence as endorsement?

Third, the media cannot allow the plethora of Trump outrages to go down the memory hole. Scott cannot get by without answering questions on GOP attacks on the FBI, Trump’s hoarding of top-secret documents at Mar-a-Lago or any other topic that suggests the party is a hapless front for a delusional cult. Yet for too many in the media, a smooth, cordial interview seems more important than exposing GOP lies and antidemocratic tactics, handing Republicans a cloak of respectability to reassure voters they are just ordinary politicians.

Fourth, there is nothing to be gained from inviting election deniers, violence enablers and abject liars on TV to talk about “regular” topics. Scott does not have anything unique to offer about Hurricane Ian. You’d never know from the interview that he released an agenda this year attacking women’s rights, LGBTQ Americans, Social Security and the separation of church and state. It’s akin to inviting Greene to talk about Georgia’s economy without grilling her on her lies.

Finally, interviewers should always have a Democrat to respond to MAGA dissembling, either in the same interview or immediately following. That didn’t happen on Sunday. If you were a Republican campaign consultant, you couldn’t have asked for cushier venues to project political normalcy.

These and countless other interviews illustrate the urgent need to reimagine coverage of the GOP. Refusing to confront and expose MAGA Republicans’ betrayal of democratic values doesn’t make members of the media “balanced.” It makes them enablers.