After a decade as a journalist in Washington DC, working for a variety of outlets and covering a number of different beats, I’d thought I’d seen everything. Apparently, I was wrong.
No elected representative or government official enjoys being on the receiving end of pointed – even adversarial – questions, but because most understand that it’s part and parcel of life in a country with a free press, I never expected one of my questions to elicit a response like the one got from Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway. This week, I asked her what countries President Trump was referring to in a tweet storm 48 hours earlier, when he’d suggested that a quartet of freshman House Democrats — women and minorities all – could “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Rather than answer the question, Conway fired back with a question of her own: “What is your ethnicity?“
For the record, my own family’s background is mix of Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian stock, but I didn’t volunteer this because, as I told her, it had nothing to do with the question I’d asked.
I was glad, however, that she confirmed what I’d asked – that President Trump was suggesting that these freshmen congresswomen, each a woman of colour with a history-making story, could return to the countries associated with their racial or ethnic makeup if they did not agree with his policies.
After the “gaggle” with Kellyanne Conway ended, I walked back to the briefing room seat where I’d set up my laptop and got back to work, occasionally pausing to speak with a colleague who would give me an attaboy for not backing down to her.
I’ve had a lot of practice. The sort of deflections and diversions Conway and other Trump spokespeople excel at – including the president himself – are a daily occurrence for any reporter who passes through the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days.
With over four months having passed since then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders last took to her lectern, and eight months gone since President Trump’s last East Room press conference, opportunities to question administration officials are often limited.
Because most Trump White House aides mostly limit their media appearances to the friendly confines of Fox News (or occasionally the more sycophantic One America News Network), the only way the mainstream press can put a question in a given official’s ear is to gather in the White House’s driveway to intercept him or her on the way back into the West Wing after a Fox “hit.”
Some Trump aides are cordial without being combative, but more than a few White House reporters have tangled with Kellyanne Conway, who has long appeared to relish her role as the most zealous of President Trump’s television gladiators.
But whereas Conway — who famously coined the phrase “alternative facts” to describe Sean Spicer’s outright lies concerning President Trump’s inauguration crowds – has often been able to pivot away from questions about Trump’s actions by invoking comparatively questionable behaviour (sometimes real, sometimes not) by Democrats, she stumbled when made to defend his tweets about the Democrats’ so-called “squad”.
Those tweets crossed a line into outright racism, and though I believe her when she says she meant no offence, Conway’s attempt to deflect from them by enquiring as to my ethnicity marked an equally grave turning point.
As the 2020 election draws nearer, and the Trump team doubles and triples down on trying to make a few women of colour who are House freshmen into the unpalatably extreme “face” of the Democratic party, it’s likely that his defenders will again be asked to defend the indefensible in the name of protecting the President from defeat.
I can only hope that as those same defenders become more and more frustrated with what could be an increasingly difficult task, they will not take it out on reporters like me, who are just doing our jobs.
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