We have seen this pattern play out before. The president reportedly says something, a lot of people take offense to that something, and two groups of defenders of the president spring into action. The first group denies the president said what he reportedly said, and the second group accepts that he said it and defends him while, perhaps, calling his remarks “inartful” or “imprecise.”
This time the controversy concerns the president’s reported comment that we do not need more immigrants from “sh**hole countries” in Africa (some versions have it as “sh**house”). The initial response from the White House was not to deny the comment but to explain that this is just how American patriots talk. “Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people,” said spokesman Raj Shah. I trust that someone will ask the follow-up question: Which politicians, in the administration’s view, choose to fight for foreign countries rather than the American people? And that the administration will have the guts to answer forthrightly?
Now Trump denies saying it. Maybe he didn’t have the nerve to fight for the American people after all.
Outside the administration, the main defense of the remark the president supposedly didn’t make is that some places really are crummy. But most of the outrage that has greeted the report has been directed, as it should be, against the idea that we should discourage immigration from places that are poor or badly governed. American immigration policy has usually not followed that principle. The skills-based reform of legal immigration that Trump has previously endorsed would not discriminate in this fashion: It would welcome highly skilled people leaving such places.
The reaction to the report reflects familiarity with Trump’s history. This is the same man who said that a judge of Mexican descent could not do his job fairly because of his ancestry; the same man who went out of his way to avoid condemning David Duke for as long as possible; the same man whose businesses have been repeatedly accused, long before he got involved in politics, of discriminating on the basis of race. We have ample reason to doubt that the president judges people based on the content of their character. Ample reason, as well, to judge his remarks based on what we know about the content of his.