It's been about two days since Donald Trump turned to Twitter to attack four congresswomen of color, and as the White House's response takes shape, it's best not to lose sight of what the president actually said.
Targeting four American lawmakers, three of whom were born in the United States, Trump said the women "originally came from" awful and corrupt countries. The Republican added that these Democrats should "go back" to the "totally broken and crime infested places from which they came."
It's obvious the message was racist. Indeed, racists have been using nearly identical phrasing for generations. The challenge for the White House was defending the indefensible and urging the public not to believe their lying eyes.
The official line, evidently, was that Trump wasn't being racist; he was simply being authoritarian. The whole mess, the argument goes, is just a big misunderstanding, perpetuated by confused people who are too quick to pick on the poor president.
Consider this message Stephanie Grisham, the new White House press secretary, published last night.
"So typical to watch the mainstream media and Dems attack [Trump] for speaking directly to the American people. His message is simple: the U.S.A. is the greatest nation on Earth, but if people aren't happy here they don't have to stay."
Grisham's message followed Trump's insistence yesterday, "As far as I'm concerned, if you hate our country, if you're not happy here, you can leave. And that's what I say all the time. That's what I said in a tweet, which I guess some people think is controversial."
The nerve of "some people."
The president didn't just stumble into this defense. Politico reports that Trump had prepared notes and one of the bullet points told him to say, "My point was if you are not happy here, you can leave."
He added this morning, "Those Tweets were NOT Racist. I don't have a Racist bone in my body!"
It's worth pausing to appreciate the nature of the shell game. Team Trump would have us believe that the entire controversy has nothing to do with race. He didn't call for some of his congressional critics to leave the country because of their race and ethnicity; he called for them to leave the country because they had the temerity to disagree with his agenda and criticize his presidency.
First, pretending Trump's "go back" language wasn't racist is literally unbelievable.
Second, it's amazing to me that the president and his team believe authoritarian thinking -- inviting Americans to effectively self-deport if they disagree with Trump -- is preferable to sounding racist.
You know the White House is in a tough spot when it's reduced to arguing that the president is demonstrating contempt for dissent, not women of color.