White House briefing goes ‘off the rails’
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany faced a barrage of awkward questions at today's media briefing as reporters tried to make sense of a confusing tweet from President Donald Trump.
Overnight, Mr Trump took aim at African-American NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, implying he should apologise for the furore that was sparked when a noose was found hanging in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway.
The noose was discovered by a crew member for Richard Petty Motorsports last month. NASCAR then alerted the FBI, which investigated it as a possible hate crime.
Meanwhile, all 39 of Wallace's fellow drivers publicly rallied around him.
The investigation later found Wallace was not the victim of a hate crime, and the noose had been used as a makeshift door pull months before his team had even been assigned the garage in question.
A couple of weeks before the noose was found, Wallace had successfully lobbied NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag from its races.
The Confederacy, composed of pro-slavery states, seceded from the US in the 1800s, causing the country's bloody Civil War. Its flag is still frequently seen in the South, and has long been popular at NASCAR events.
In his tweet overnight, Mr Trump said Wallace's fellow drivers had supported him "only to find out that the whole thing just another HOAX".
He said the noose investigation, plus the sport's decision to ban the flag, had caused its "lowest ratings EVER".
Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2020
We should note that NASCAR's viewership since resuming its season is actually significantly higher than last year.
It was unclear why Mr Trump felt Wallace should apologise. He did not discover the noose, nor did he report it to the FBI.
NASCAR's only African-American driver responded to the President with a tweet of his own.
"Always deal with the hate being thrown at you with LOVE! Love over hate every day. Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate. Even when it's HATE from the POTUS," he said.
One of Wallace's fellow drivers, Tyler Reddick, also tweeted an admonishment of Mr Trump, though he has since deleted the post.
"We don't need an apology. We did what was right and we will do just fine without your support," Reddick said.
That was the context for a tense White House briefing, during which Ms McEnany repeatedly dodged questions about the President's tweet.
"Why is the President so supportive of flying the Confederate flag?" NBC reporter Peter Alexander asked.
"I thinkyou're mischaracterising the tweet," Ms McEnany said.
"The tweet was aimed at pointing out that the FBI report of the alleged hate crime at NASCAR concluded that the garage door pull, which had been there since last fall, was obviously not targeted at a specific individual because, in fact, it was a garage pull and, in fact, it was there since last fall, long before these 43 teams arrived.
"It was concluded by the FBI that this was, quote, 'not an intentional act'."
"For clarity, I'm asking you about the Confederate flags. My question is, why is the President so supportive of flying the Confederate flag?" Alexander pressed.
"The President never said that. Again, you're taking his tweet completely out of context," said Ms McEnany.
"The President said that NASCAR saw bad ratings because they took down the Confederate flag, banned the Confederate flag. Does he believe NASCAR should fly the Confederate flag? And why don't they fly it here?" Alexander said.
"The whole point of the tweet was to note the incident, the alleged hate crime, that in fact was not a hate crime," Ms McEnany said.
"At the very end, the ban on the flag was mentioned in the broader context of the fact that he rejects this notion that somehow NASCAR men and women who go to these sporting events are racist, when in fact, it turns out, what we saw with the FBI report and the alleged incident of a hate crime - it was a complete indictment of the media's rush to judgment once again, calling this a hate crime when the FBI completely dismissed that."
There was a brief interlude as the conversation turned to Mr Trump's claim that 99 per cent of coronavirus cases were "totally harmless", but a short time later, ABC correspondent Jonathan Karl returned to the subject.
"Kayleigh, to follow on Peter's question, what is the President's position? Does he think NASCAR made a mistake by banning the Confederate flag?" Karl asked.
"So he said he - I spoke to him this morning about this, and he said he was not making a judgment one way or the other," Ms McEnany responded.
"The intent of the tweet was to stand up for the men and women of NASCAR and the fans and those who have gone, and this rush to judgment of the media to call something a hate crime when, in fact, the FBI report concluded this was not an intentional racist act.
"And it very much mirrors other times when there has been a rush to judgment, let's say with the Covington boys or with Jussie Smollett."
She was referring to two incidents there.
In January of last year, a group of teenage boys wearing Make America Great Again hats was filmed in a confrontation with an elderly Native American man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The backlash against them was swift and overblown.
That same month, actor Jussie Smollett went to police and alleged he had been the victim of a racially motivated assault. It later emerged that he had staged the supposed hate crime.
"But let's drill down on the Confederate flag. Does he think it was a mistake for NASCAR to ban it?" Karl pushed.
"The President said he wasn't making a judgment one way or the other," she repeated.
"But what's his position on it? Wasn't he saying that NASCAR's ratings were down because they banned the flag? That's what he said," Karl interjected.
"The President was noting the fact that, in aggregate, this notion that NASCAR men and women who have gone and who are being demeaned and called racist, and been accused in some venues of committing a hate crime against an individual, those allegations were just dead wrong," said the Press Secretary.
"Does he think his supporters should not take the flag to Trump rallies? Has he considered banning the Confederate flag from Trump rallies?" Karl asked.
"Well, at Trump rallies, all flags that are not official campaign gear are banned," Ms McEnany answered, before moving to another questioner.
Unfortunately for Ms McEnany, that questioner wanted to talk about the same thing.
"Why is it Bubba Wallace's responsibility to apologise for an investigation into a noose that he didn't report and he never even saw? It was NASCAR that found this, that reported this," said CBS reporter Paula Reid.
"And even the FBI referred to it as a noose, even if they said it wasn't a specific crime against Mr Wallace? Why is the President even suggesting Mr Wallace should apologise?"
"Well look, the FBI, as I noted, concluded that this was not a hate crime, and he believes it'd go a long way if Bubba came out and acknowledged that as well," said Ms McEnany.
"He has. He has. In interviews, he's been very clear that the FBI found this was not intentional," Reid said, talking over the Press Secretary.
"Why is (Mr Trump) directing this at Mr Wallace? He was a victim of a suspected hate crime."
Ms McEnany responded by quoting part of Mr Trump's Independence Day speech, in which the President said false charges of racism "slander the American people".
"Who was charged? It was an open investigation Kayleigh, into a noose. The FBI said it was a noose. But you're suggesting that Mr Wallace should apologise for an investigation that someone else initiated, suggesting he was possibly the victim of a hate crime?" Reid said.
Ms McEnany called on the next reporter.
After another interlude, Reuters correspondent Jeff Mason tried again.
"Just to follow up on the NASCAR thing. You were saying that we're taking the tweet out of context, but this is what he tweeted," Mason said, before reading out Mr Trump's full tweet.
"How - how are we misinterpreting that?" he asked.
"I've explained to you - this is, I guess, the fourth attempt, but we'll try it again - in aggregate, what he was pointing out is this rush to judgment to immediately say that there is a hate crime," she repeated.
"The President's intent was to say, no, most American people are good, hardworking people, and we should not have this rush to judgment, kneejerk reaction before the facts come out. But I think it's important that we point out the fact that there was no hate crime. The FBI concluded that. And President Trump was merely saying that Mr Wallace should agree with that consensus."
"No, he's saying he has to apologise. He's saying he has to apologise. That's what we're trying to ask you, Kayleigh, is why should he have to apologise about that?" Mason fired back.
"I'm not going to answer a question a sixth time," said Ms McEnany.
"But you haven't answered that question. I mean, you've been asked it, but you haven't answered it. You haven't answered it," Mason said.
Next up was Bloomberg reporter Mario Parker.
"Kayleigh, on the Confederate part - why would the President not praise NASCAR for removing the Confederate flag? Particularly given the history of that flag, the symbol that it has for African-Americans, and also what it represents in terms of just, the treasonous acts and the insurrection against the republic?" Parker asked.
"The President takes great offence when Americans are, kneejerk reaction, summed up as racist," Ms McEnany said once again.
"What we're seeing across the nation is this vast cancel culture where we're going to tear down our monuments, we're going to tear down Gandhi, we're going to tear down George Washington, we're going to tear down Lincoln.
"It's really quite appalling, what we've seen happen across the country, and the President wants no part in cancel culture.
"He wants no part in this, and he stands against the demonisation of Americans, and he stands firmly on the side of preserving our history."
"But Kayleigh, the Confederate flag is a different issue," Parker countered.
"He's not - I said from the very top of this briefing, he has not given an opinion one way or the other on that," she replied.
The Press Secretary's ordeal still wasn't over.
"Why is this cultural stuff worth his time and focus during the pandemic?" another reporter asked.
"He's focused on two things at once, something we're all capable of doing," Ms McEnany said.
"And what about an unambiguous statement on the Confederate flag? Are we capable of doing that?" the questioner said.
"Look, the President has made clear he was not taking a position one way or the other in that tweet," she said.
"Exactly. But why not?" they asked.
Once again, Ms McEnany moved on to a different reporter.
When the briefing eventually came to a close, Ms McEnany fired a parting shot at the media.
"I'd end with this. You know, I was asked probably 12 questions about the Confederate flag. This President is focused on action, and I'm a little dismayed that I didn't receive one question on the deaths that we got in this country this weekend," she said.
"I didn't receive one question about New York City shootings doubling for the third straight week. And over the last seven days, shootings skyrocketed by 142 per cent. Not one question. I didn't receive one question about five children who were killed.
"We need to be focused on securing our streets, making sure no lives are lost, because all black lives matter."
Reaction to the briefing online was led by New York Times political reporter Maggie Haberman, who said it had gone "off the rails".
Others were bemused by the White House's failure to express a clear position on the Confederate flag.
.@PressSec briefing is off the rails. Doesn't answer the question she's repeatedly asked about the president saying Bubba Wallace should "apologize," then gets angry reporters are pressing her on it.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) July 6, 2020
Originally published as White House briefing goes 'off the rails'
.@PressSec comparison of Bubba Wallace noose incident to Jussie Smollett - Smollett has been accused of staging an incident. No one has accused Wallace of staging a noose in his garage stall.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) July 6, 2020
McEnany is basically saying that Trump brought up NASCAR's ban on the Confederate flag for no reason other than to remark on its ratings.— Aaron Blake (@AaronBlake) July 6, 2020
Just a big coincidence, apparently.
.@PaulaReidCBS repeatedly asked: Why should @BubbaWallace apologize for a hate crime investigation that he didn't initiate? @PressSec doesn't answer directly repeatedly. Instead, she says the president wants to criticize rush to judgements. https://t.co/wXDTjCUX7I— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) July 6, 2020