Welcome back to The Long Version by Jonathan M. Katz. Make sure you never miss a newsletter by signing up here:
As I wrote in this newsletter back in May, calling Trump’s detention centers what they are—concentration camps—was bound to shift the conversation, heighten focus on the growing atrocities facing present and future detainees, and raise the political cost on the president.
Then NBC’s Chuck Todd weighed in:
The next day, it became clear why Chuck had offered this milquetoast intervention: Trump was about to grant him his first one-on-one interview as president.
We’ve got to remind ourselves that, for a bunch of people in Washington, the trappings of Trump’s office still carry a lot of weight. For Chuck Todd, getting to sit in a chair and gesticulate politely toward the president of the United States remains a big deal. Someday, at a retirement banquet, someone could mention that he’d interviewed every sitting president of the United States. See how happy he was when he did it with Obama?
You don’t typically get to do that by telling the truth about concentration camps.
Chuck and his producers probably justified all that to themselves by saying that, once he got the interview, he would hold Trump’s feet to the fire—including on the issue of the detention camps, whatever name he’d use to describe them.
Here’s a sample of the conversation:
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:
But I like live interviews better, you know why? Because you can't cut the answers.
Guess what? I’m not -- You're going to enjoy the fact that I'm not going to over-edit this interview. That I promise you.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:
Do you think you've been more successful in business or the presidency?
Throughout the interview, Todd covers a huge range of topics. When the president starts to dissemble or spin, he pushes back briefly, signaling that this is a very serious interview that is going to stick to the facts.
Then the president spins again, and he immediately moves on. Lots of ground to cover, after all!
Unfortunately for Todd, he is not very good at this game, and Trump is a master at it. It is not, admittedly, a very hard game, as it is much easier to win as the subject who can get up and walk away at any time.
At one point, Todd presses Trump on the very obvious point that he is taking credit for the economy he inherited from Obama. Trump then demonstrates the object of the game: If he doesn’t admit that Todd is right, he wins. So every time Todd brings up a standard, not particularly compelling piece of evidence that Trump is bloviating about his economic record, the president stammers, or says something off-topic or insane.
Todd makes it easy for him, never really getting to any serious criticisms about his stewardship, or even uttering the word “tariff.” When Trump actually does make a complaint—about interest rates having risen—Todd pivots to … this:
Do you worry it's going to hurt --
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:
I've been proven right.
-- your reelection?
‘Chuck, are you ready?’
Right after the economy bit, Todd gets to the detention crisis. (Interestingly enough, Todd calls them “camps.” Maybe the debate had an impact on him after all.)
“The stories are horrible, Mr. President,” Chuck says. “You have children without their parents. You have kids taking care of kids.”
Trump seemingly agrees!
Then Chuck immediately gives him his exit: “I know you think this is the Democrats’ problem.” When Trump starts to respond, Chuck hits him back with the ultimate Washingtonian question: “Why aren't you doing something?”
This is a gift-wrapped frame for the president. It suggests that the detention of tens of thousands of people he has spent his entire political career demonizing—without trial, behind electrified fences and armed guards, in conditions rife with parasites, death, and disease—is some sort of natural condition that exists apart from him; a situation that is just out there, like the sea and the wind, that he is choosing not to “do something about.”
Trump runs with Chuck’s framing, blaming his policies on Obama. Does Chuck push back, pointing out that conditions are severely worse than they were under Obama, that children are dying when they weren’t before? Does he link the cruel policies to Trump’s consistently white supremacist rhetoric? Does he even pull the rather obvious interview move, and note the irony that Trump is blaming all his human-rights abuses on his predecessor right after having disdained the suggestion that his good economic numbers had come from Obama as well?
No, Chuck says: “But let's not punish the kids more.”
I’d imagine, for an “I’m just asking questions”-type reporter like Chuck, that this felt like quite a moment. He was making a declarative statement—an ask!—to the president of the United States. You would only do that if you were on the firmest moral ground, standing up to a leader, speaking truth to power.
Yet, again, Todd’s framing is entirely bullshit. Punish them for what? It seems from the context that Chuck was chalking the detainees’ situation up to good ol’ partisan infighting in Washington, implying that the worsening situation in the concentration camps is the result of gridlock.
Chuck gets there by ignoring the entire context of the issue—that being cruel to nonwhite immigrants was Trump’s most consistent campaign promise, introduced in his launch speech. Todd mentions one of the lightest stories to come out in the last few weeks—the Trump administration cutting funding for recreation—but never even touches on the mounting deaths in the camps. Todd never even stops to ask the president about the nationwide pogrom he’d just announced—which, at the time the interview seems to have been conducted, had not yet been delayed.
Trump runs out the clock by lying about the Democrats. Chuck follows up by asking Trump if he thinks impeachment will help his reelection campaign.
In his lecture against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Todd suggested that the problem with using the concentration camp label was that it was a partisan distraction:
The crux of what’s truly at stake is lost. What is this country going to do about what’s happening at the border in this humanitarian crisis? We’ll get to that at some point I guess, after we have this debate.
A few days later, he had a chance to do just that. He blew it.
Read this instead
One of the best interviewers out there, on the other hand, is Isaac Chotiner, now at The New Yorker. He has a new interview out with a lawyer who has been monitoring conditions inside the camps.
In the interview, Chotiner draws out a horrifying story about what these children are actually being punished for: having the temerity to be vulnerable human beings:
So, on Wednesday, we received reports from children of a lice outbreak in one of the cells where there were about twenty-five children, and what they told us is that six of the children were found to have lice. And so they were given a lice shampoo, and the other children were given two combs and told to share those two combs, two lice combs, and brush their hair with the same combs, which is something you never do with a lice outbreak. And then what happened was one of the combs was lost, and Border Patrol agents got so mad that they took away the children’s blankets and mats. They weren’t allowed to sleep on the beds, and they had to sleep on the floor on Wednesday night as punishment for losing the comb. So you had a whole cell full of kids who had beds and mats at one point, not for everybody but for most of them, who were forced to sleep on the cement.
Then Isaac pushes deeper, and gets this:
So things like the comb and the punishment, that’s a rare story? Most of the guards care about the welfare of the kids to some extent?
I’m not going to say that most of the guards care about the kids, because we didn’t talk to most of the guards, but I do believe in the inherent goodness of people. And when I’ve talked to guards, they seemed caring, and they had guards who, when the children were there for these very lengthy interviews, would bring the children lunches in the conference room. They’re terrible lunches. That’s how some of the guards are, but the fact is that some of the guards are bad people, and there’s no question about it.
There are some other stories that we’ve heard from the children, such as that one of the guards has an older child, who’s seventeen, serve as the unofficial guard inside the room. So he tells the kids what to do, and he tries to keep the room neat and straighten up the mattresses and everything. Now, the guards reward him with extra food, and when a seven-year-old saw that this older boy was getting extra food by being helpful, he asked if he could help clean up the room and keep it neat so that he, too, could get extra food. And the seventeen-year-old chastised him for this, and then when an older sibling tried to stand up for his little brother, the guard intervened and reprimanded both the little boy and his older brother.
And so you’ve got a guard who is manipulating these kids, very similar to what we heard about in the concentration camps. I’m not going and calling these concentration camps, although I know that some people do.
Maybe someday Isaac will get to do it for Meet the Press.
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