“This is Conan, right now probably the world’s most famous dog,” President Trump announced. “It’s trained that if you open your mouth, you will be attacked.”
First lady Melania Trump stood several feet away in a rose-adorned cloak.
“They were going to put a muzzle on the dog,” the president continued, “but then it gets even more violent.”
Vice President Pence scratched mechanically behind Conan’s ears.
“Conan is a tough cookie, and nobody’s going to mess with Conan,” said Trump. “You’re very lucky, because he’s not in a bad mood today.”
“It” had turned into “he” — and hours later, the White House informed reporters that “he” was actually “she.” Hours after that, the White House reinformed reporters that “she” was “he” after all. This parade of revolving pronouns continued well into Tuesday. Defense officials first told ABC that Conan was a girl, then hurried to tell ABC again that Conan was in fact absolutely a boy, and that they had “triple checked.” Finally, the Pentagon issued an official statement that “per U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), Conan is a male dog.”
President Trump, in other words, was right.
Call them cynics, or call them skeptics, or call them everyday people stumbling around a landscape of dissimulation and conspiracy theories emitted from the highest echelons of government — but plenty of people didn’t really buy it.
It was only the day before that the administration had produced three divergent stories to account for the ouster of Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer over the war crimes case of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher. It was only last week that Trump erupted with a constant flow of lies about Ukraine as impeachment hearings proceeded in the House of Representatives. It was the first day of his presidency that then-press secretary Sean Spicer detailed, contrary to all available facts, “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
Oh, and there was this: The president had tweeted a photo weeks ago that heralded the declassification of the pup’s identity with a prime view of its nether regions. Fido, at least to this laywoman’s eyes, does look like more of a Fida. Was it really possible that an administration apparatchik had sent a girl dog into a memory hole from which it emerged a guy dog, purely to preserve the president’s ego? And should we freak out if the answer is yes?
This story is more than just a little example of a big thing: that civilians can’t count on a straightforward answer to a straightforward question, that trust in government is crumbling, that Thanksgiving approaches with less to be thankful for than to fear. It’s a sign that something really is changing in the way we relate to each other, because animal stories are supposed to bring us together — like Fiona the premature baby hippo’s adorable lumber toward good health, or April the Giraffe’s long-awaited birth, or an elephant doing pretty much anything.
That was the point of Conan in the first place. It was probably dumb, and it was definitely a distraction, but it was also difficult not to smile at the proud pooch no matter how you felt about policy in the Middle East, or at the declassification of its identity no matter how you felt about the White House’s refusal to be so forthcoming with witnesses or documents or anything else that would require a modicum of transparency.
War stories usually get bipartisan buy-in, too — which might explain why Trump was so pro-Conan even when as a general matter he is far from pro-dog, except as a convenient all-purpose insult for his enemies. Former counselor Stephen K. Bannon was “dumped like a dog by almost everyone,” while then-chief of staff John F. Kelly got accolades for “quickly firing that dog” Omarosa Manigault Newman. Conan, though? “This is the ultimate fighter, ultimate everything,” the president claimed as the canine gazed dopily up at its handler.
This was apple pie. It was the World Series. It was the sort of thing that CNN was just as liable to splash across a chyron on a slow day as Fox News was. It was a hero dog, for gosh’s sake. Now it’s another absurdity from an administration full of them, and another reason to worry about what we’ve lost.