Demoralized Trump aides grapple with ‘shithole’-gate
White House aides were demoralized on Thursday night, watching the word “shithole” slink across the cable news chyrons.
In the wake of the administration’s tax reform coup, Fiat Chrysler had just announced it planned to spend more than $1 billion to move its assembly plant for the Ram truck from Mexico to Michigan. Walmart touted a round of bonuses and higher pay for its U.S. workers.
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And the White House communications team had pre-planned a sit-down interview for the president with reporters from The Wall Street Journal on Thursday — an outlet they expected would focus on economic news and help drive the message of the day.
Instead, all of that was lost amid “shithole”-gate, after the president, frustrated that an immigration deal would include protections for people from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, referred to those nations as “shithole countries” and expressed an interest in welcoming emmigrants from Norway, instead.
“It’s very frustrating,” admitted one senior White House aide. “We keep going off the rails with this other stuff.”
The episode was just the latest example of the president pulling off a pivot — just not the one his aides had been hoping for. This was a week when the White House was simply trying to stabilize and put to bed a growing conversation about the president’s mental capabilities.
Instead, Trump’s “shithole” remark — one he half-heartedly tried to walk back on Twitter more than 12 hours after it was first reported by The Washington Post — replaced a national conversation about whether or not the president is mentally stable with a conversation about whether or not he is racist.
Earlier this week, the White House kept the cameras rolling during a 55-minute meeting on immigration with lawmakers. The goal was to show, rather than just tell, that Trump was up to the job of being president and able to focus on one topic for an extended period of time. The Wall Street Journal interview was also considered a potential opportunity for Trump to shape his own message. But by the end of the week, the pivot wasn’t, ultimately, to a conversation about Trump’s deal-making skills.
Thursday’s “shithole” comment was reminiscent of one of the darkest chapters of the Trump presidency: his blaming “both sides” for violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer — rather than condemning the actions of white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members that resulted in the death of one protester and opened up the country’s racial divide. And it reopened a question for some aides toiling away by Trump’s side: How do you continue to justify working for a president who appears eager to fan racial tensions, as well as America’s isolation in the world?
Even House Speaker Paul Ryan, in rare comments critical of the president, called the comment “very unfortunate” and “unhelpful.”
Trump’s defenders, however, dismissed the idea that the comment proved Trump is racist and turned back to an old-hat defense of the impolitic president: that’s simply the way he expresses himself.
“People might find it difficult to believe, but in all the private conversations I’ve had with him, he’s never said anything that’s racist, never said anything anti-Semitic,” said Chris Ruddy, chief executive of NewsMax and a longtime friend of Trump. “It’s just not part of his DNA to be that way. I know he says sometimes insensitive things. I think it’s a generational thing — he speaks in a different generation.”