Sometimes being in the White House briefing has a “down the rabbit hole” quality to it.
Today I inadvertently started Combovergate with an innocent question.
When Spokesman Josh Earnest comes in to the briefing room, he often brings prepared remarks on questions he has anticipated.
On Tuesday, it wasn’t hard to predict the subject du jour: Donald Trump’s latest beyond-the-pale comments about barring all Muslims from entering the United States.
It didn’t take long for Earnest to get a question about it — Darlene Superville of The Associated Press asked about President Obama’s response.
“Will he be talking about this more?” she asked. “Would he be maybe having some sort of a public meeting with Muslims, maybe traveling to a Muslim community to sort of counter the sentiment against Muslims that seems to be growing in the U.S.?”
Earnest was ready. He had no information about any events on the president’s schedule, but he said:
“Let me just step back and say that the — the Trump campaign, for months now, has had a dustbin-of-history-like quality to it, from the vacuous sloganeering to the outright lies to even the fake hair, the whole carnival barker routine that we’ve seen for some time now. The question now is about the rest of the Republican Party and whether or not they’re going to be dragged into the dustbin of history with him. And right now, the current trajectory is not very good.”
It sounded like the kind of partisan zinger White House press secretaries often lob from the briefing room podium. And it’s not unusual for the Obama White House to try to tar the entire Republican Party with Trump’s outrageousness. After all, that’s in the administration’s political interest, and Trump is a target-rich environment. But that typical criticism of Trump had an unusual twist — the thing about the hair.
Of course Donald Trump’s hair is one of those ersatz campaign “issues,” plus it keeps cartoonists in business. But it struck a jarring note to me, even by the standards of glib press secretary comments. So, later in the briefing, I asked Earnest about it. Here’s the exchange:
LIASSON: This might be a little nit-picky, but in your prepared remarks you said something that struck me as very Trumpian and not very Obama-like, when you talked about Trump’s fake hair.
That’s a hallmark of Trump, to comment on somebody — your opponent’s appearance. It’s not something that I would ever expect to come from the Obama White House. I’m just curious. This was in your prepared remarks. What was the thinking behind it?
EARNEST: I guess I was describing why it would be easy for people to dismiss the Trump campaign as not particularly serious.
LIASSON: Because of his hair!?
EARNEST: Because he’s got a rather outrageous appearance, and …
LIASSON: But isn’t that the kind of thing he does to people and that’s considered so out of line, when he talks about people’s appearances?
EARNEST: That’s a hallmark of his campaign and his identity, though. That’s the point that I’m trying to cite there.
I expected Earnest to say, “I was just being glib,” or “I was just having a little fun,” or something like that. Instead he — again very Trump-like — doubled down. President Obama can be pointed and partisan, but he’s always pretty dignified — and he’s never belittled someone’s appearance as far as I know. Philip Bump of The Washington Post had some fun with my expression of surprise:
I still don’t get the point Earnest said he was trying to cite here by saying Trump’s hairdo — a Yuuuuuge Combover — is evidence that his campaign is not serious. After all, as Bump of the Post points out, Hillary Clinton has admitted she too has “fake” — as in, dyed — hair.
But — there’s always the next briefing.