The Times Can’t Stop Pretending Trump Is a Normal President

From a crass tweet, a fantasy of ordinary politics emerges.

Donald Trump rests his crossed forearms on the desk in the Oval Office.
President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on April 10. Al Drago - Pool/Getty Images

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The most alarming sentence in the New York Times’ write-up of the president’s late-night anti-immigration tweet came at the very end of the article. It read:

Reached Monday evening, multiple White House officials did not offer information on Mr. Trump’s plans beyond his tweet.

It was meant as a routine checkoff—as required, we tried to get comment from the people involved—but in context, it was a confession. Read backward from that ending, the story reveals itself to be a catastrophic failure of journalism, a demonstration that after four years of the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency, the political desk of the Times still cannot honestly come to terms with the news it’s supposed to cover. This institution, following its institutional imperatives, would rather prop up a racist and incompetent presidency than tell the truth about it.

Here is the news the Times was trying to cover: At 10:06 p.m. on Monday night, the president of the United States tweeted (or “wrote on Twitter,” in Times-ese), “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”

What was this? It could be read as a policy announcement, approximately, but mostly it was an outburst. The president was performing the defining action of his presidency, soothing himself by acting out aggression on Twitter. He was redirecting his own feelings, and trying to redirect public attention, away from his lethally incompetent reaction to the coronavirus pandemic and toward a political fight he believes will rally his supporters—his ongoing and remarkably successful attack on the entire idea of immigration.

There was, as usual, no actual executive order. Migration into the country has already been largely shut down through the concerted action and inaction of a bureaucracy and police apparatus that shares the president’s hostility and contempt toward immigration and naturalization. The tweet was simply to repeat the message that immigrants are not welcome here, though it was dressed up in the idea of executive action.

Still, an outburst of gutter racism from the president is news—it is, after all, “his most wide-ranging attempt yet to seal off the country from the rest of the world.” And so the Times summoned three bylined reporters, and three more contributing reporters, to write a news story about it. They began:

WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Monday evening that he intended to close the United States to people trying to immigrate into the country to live and work, a drastic move that he said would protect American workers from foreign competition once the nation’s economy began to recover from the shutdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Circling from the end of the story back to the beginning, the reader understands that this entire lead sentence—“to live and work,” to “protect American workers from foreign competition”—was derived from nothing but the tweet. Like a middle school student copying from an encyclopedia entry, the Times was paraphrasing and padding its source text into something that sounded broadly informed. Donald Trump typed “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy,” and the Times rendered it as “once the nation’s economy began to recover from the shutdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak.” It’s not even so much a transcription as it is a translation.

From the beginning of the Trump presidential experience, journalists and readers have wrestled with the problem of “normalizing.” How do you write about a candidate or president who does things that candidates and presidents are not supposed to do? How do you convey that these events are happening without implicitly arguing that it’s acceptable for them to happen—that letting children die in border concentration camps, or looting the treasury for personal profit, or failing to mobilize the public health system because it’s too challenging to do so are all atrocities, even as our political system allows them? How do you describe a president lazily faking his way through the job, even as he wields the real power to cause real devastation?

Reporters for the Times have done tremendously valuable work, probably without parallel, in finding, cataloging, and describing that devastation. They have dug out story after story of the horrors unleashed by the Trump administration, the compounding effects of cruelty, incompetence, and corruption on a broken nation. But when the political desk tries to write about the source of it all, when it comes to explaining that this was the goal, not a byproduct, it can’t.

Instead, like a dutiful press secretary (from the time before White House press secretaries were pure combatant trolls), the Times sets out to ventriloquize a substantive reason for this new public policy on the president’s behalf:

Mr. Trump and his advisers have argued inside the White House that doing more to bar people from other countries from coming into the United States, either for short-term visits or to live and work in the country for longer periods, could help limit the number of infected people who arrive from potential coronavirus hot spots around the world. And they argue that it could relieve pressure on the American health care system.

But Mr. Trump’s primary focus appears to be on protecting American workers as the virus ravages what had been a rapidly growing job market.

Did it? Did Mr. Trump’s primary focus appear to be on protecting American workers? The story eventually argued against itself, noting that Trump has “made clear that he intends to energize his supporters by continuing to stoke a fear of immigrants.” But that only came after it gave space to explaining how administration officials believe his “ ‘America First’ campaign pledge should be seen as protecting native-born Americans from having to compete with foreign workers” and cited Stephen Miller “arguing that immigrants are a drain on American society, drive down wages and take jobs from native-born Americans.”

In attempting to objectively describe these policy goals—in terms of Miller’s public claims to be defending the American labor force, with no reference to his back-channel enthusiasm for outright white nationalism—the Times chose to describe a conflict between “native-born Americans” and “foreign workers.” Foreign-born Americans were written out of existence, as Miller wants them to be.

“Immigrant rights groups angrily dispute the claim that immigration is bad for American workers,” the Times wrote, for the sake of journalistic balance. Angrily! Note that these reporters did not attribute any emotion to the president or to the administration officials trying to drive immigrants out of the body politic—just that they were “eager” to do it.

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