Jemele Hill, a prominent ESPN host, raised a few eyebrows this week with some fierce criticism of Donald Trump, and the issue reached the White House press briefing room yesterday, with this exchange between a reporter and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Q: Yes, you mentioned a couple times today -- you've sort of emphasized diversity in the West Wing. You talked about the President being very clear after Charlottesville in denouncing all hate. I just wanted to read a comment from an influential African American sportscaster from ESPN yesterday, who said, "Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself with other white supremacists. His rise is a direct result of white supremacy, period. He's unqualified and unfit to be President." Why do you think -- do you have a reaction to that? And is the President aware of that comment?SANDERS: I'm not sure if he's aware, but I think that's one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make, and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN.
At a certain level, rhetoric like this may seem predictable. Trump World is known for having a thin skin, and it's hardly surprising when the White House lashes out aggressively at the president's critics.
But it's worth pausing to appreciate just how extraordinary these circumstances are: the White House press secretary, from the briefing-room podium, argued that a major media company should fire an employee for criticizing the president.
And that's just not how the United States is supposed to operate.
If Sarah Huckabee Sanders had rejected Jemele Hill's condemnation, fine. If the press secretary had explained why she believes Hill is mistaken, no problem. If Sanders had gone with the standard line in a situation like these -- "We won't dignify such comments with a response" -- it would've been easy to overlook.
But as best as I can tell, there's no modern precedent for a White House calling on a private company to fire an employee for having the audacity to denounce a president in public.
There is a certain irony to this dynamic, and not just because the president has repeatedly celebrated the virtues of not being "politically correct." It wasn't too long ago that Trump was working for a media company, accusing the then-president of being a racist. Is it the White House's contention that this, too, was "a fireable offense"?
The Trump administration's authoritarian instincts -- attacking the free press, praising dictators, targeting law-enforcement officials, endorsing the legitimacy of violence -- have long been a point of serious concern. Yesterday's display in the White House press briefing room made matters quite a bit worse.