How the media is making a big mistake on Trump's role in the Capitol siege

How the media is making a big mistake on Trump's role in the Capitol siege
President Donald J. Trump talks with reporters outside the South Portico entrance of the White House Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, prior to boarding Marine One en route to Joint Base Andrews, Md. to begin his trip to North Carolina. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

After four years of nonstop abuse from Donald Trump, it should be beyond a shadow of a doubt that, while Trump is indeed an ignoramus, his ugly behavior is largely motivated by malice, not stupidity. Yet, as we've seen through the years of Trump's presidency, mainstream media outlets have continued to cast his actions as the choices of a man too numpty-headed to know right from wrong, instead of the behavior of a shameless villain who does vicious and cruel things out of a deeply felt sadism. Since Trump sent an unruly mob to ransack the Capitol, however, mainstream journalists have woken up, describing Trump's actions accurately as incitement, instead of using euphemisms or casting around for an "innocent" explanation.

They are now showing signs of slippage back to old habits.

On Monday night, the Washington Post published a report detailing Trump's refusal to do anything to discourage the insurrectionist mob after they penetrated the Capitol. The headline: "Six hours of paralysis: Inside Trump's failure to act after a mob stormed the Capitol."

This headline is wildly misleading. Trump did not suffer from "paralysis," nor was his inaction due to "failure." Both words imply that there was a desire to act, but that Trump was somehow incapable. The reality: Trump refused to act.

He had incited the mob and delighted in their actions. He may very well have believed it was going to work to keep Congress from certifying Joe Biden's win, especially if the insurrectionists had successfully captured or killed members of Congress or Vice President Mike Pence. But one thing that should be beyond all shadow of a doubt is that Trump refused to do anything to stop the riot because he was loving every minute of it.

This framing is all the more aggravating because the details provided by Washington Post reporters Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Philip Rucker make the ill will behind Trump's behavior crystal clear. They report that Trump refused to take calls from the various congressional members who called for help. They describe a situation where aides and family members pleaded with Trump for hours, yet he refused to listen, and instead was glued to his TV and soaking in every delicious moment of the chaos he caused. When he finally caved and released a message telling his followers to "go home in peace," he only did so "begrudgingly," the Post reporters write.

"Trump watched with interest, buoyed to see that his supporters were fighting so hard on his behalf, one close adviser said," they write.

The reporters describe a situation where aides are begging Trump to tell the insurrectionists to stand down, but he would only agree to ask for vague "support" for law enforcement, writing, "They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!"

But Trump "had not wanted to include the final instruction to 'stay peaceful,'" they report. Hours later, Trump reluctantly agreed to release a video telling rioters to go home, but only on the condition that he continue to tell lies about the election, resulting in a video that was less a call for peace and more further incitement. Even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a reliable Trump sycophant, admitted, "The president saw these people as allies in his journey and sympathetic to the idea that the election was stolen."

These details matter because Trump's behavior is not ambiguous. He incited an insurrection, and once it was underway, he reacted with excitement and delight. His actions were purposeful and malevolent. He wanted all this to happen and got grumpy at anyone who wanted it to stop.

This has been backed up by other reporting showing that Trump's inner circle is quite clear that he was over the moon about the insurrection. Nebraska's Republican Sen. Ben Sasse reported that he called the White House during the siege and not only was Trump "delighted" about the melee, but he was also "confused about why other people on his team weren't as excited as he was."

Last week, the New York Times reported that Trump only taped a video reluctantly conceding defeat after "he appeared to suddenly realize he could face legal risk for prodding the mob." This was after counsel from his lawyer, Pat Cipollone, and a statement from the D.C. federal prosecutor indicating that charging Trump was a possibility. He obviously didn't mean a word of it and was only trying to save himself from prison.

Trump's support for the insurrection and hatred of anyone who fought back continues to manifest in actions such as refusing to lower the flags for the Capitol police officer who was beaten to death by the mob and only giving in reluctantly after being badgered about it by his aides for days.

And yet, the latest Washington Post story, while bristling with examples of how Trump acts out of malice and not ignorance, keeps framing his actions in a more innocent light, describing Trump as "a president paralyzed" and "more passive viewer than resolute leader".

This is flatly false. Trump was not being passive at all. He actively incited the mob and he willfully refused to do anything to call them off. He did this deliberately, having exhausted every other avenue he pursued to steal the election. These were not the actions of a man too stupid to act. These were the actions of a man knowingly trying to overthrow a legal election.

On the opinion page of the Washington Post, Greg Sargent describes the events recounted more accurately, describing it as "President Trump's depraved and malevolent response to the violent siege of the Capitol" and noting Trump's "solipsistic, even sadistic pleasure in watching a mob lay siege to our seat of government in his name."

On Wednesday, House Democratic leadership will almost certainly impeach Trump for "incitement of insurrection." Trump's state of mind and intentionality is crucial to making the case for impeachment and removal. In addition, if Trump is to be prosecuted when he leaves office — and he absolutely should be — it's important that the strong evidence he acted intentionally not be muddied by cowardly reporting.

The good news is that there's no real confusion about Trump's state of mind. He wanted this riot, he wallowed in it, and he lashed out like a whiny child to anyone who suggested that armed insurrection is a bad look.

The bad news is that there's a massive campaign, from right-wing pundits and Republican politicians, to muddy the waters and downplay the seriousness of what happened. And that campaign is directly aimed at the mainstream media, to discourage honesty about last week's events and bully journalists into using minimizing or excusing language. Language like "paralysis" and "failure," instead of more accurate descriptions capturing the intentionality of Trump's actions.

It is critical that outlets like the Washington Post not go further down this path of placating right-wing radicals — even if that term describes most Republicans these days — by swaddling the insurrection in euphemism and falsely ascribing innocent motives to Trump when his enmity is as obvious as his combover.

Holding firm to the truth is crucial if we want to save our democracy. Yes, even if that truth involves hurting the snowflake-delicate feelings of the American right.

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