If you haven’t heard, Stanford Law professor Pam Karlan had a pretty good line on Wednesday, as she was making the point that Donald Trump is not a king: “While the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.”
It got some chuckles in the House Judiciary Committee hearing room. It was effective, clever, and poked just a little bit of fun at Trump for giving his son such a pretentious moniker.
But in the Trump camp, the simple mention of Trump’s minor child’s name was immediately seized upon as an opportunity to gin up faux outrage and create a bad-faith distraction from the serious Constitutional issues raised by Karlan and her colleagues about Trump’s abuse of power and Congress’s obligation to act.
Within minutes, GOP “Rapid Response Director” Steve Guest had tweeted that Karlan was “UNHINGED”:
Democrat "witness" Pamela Karlan is completely UNHINGED.
— Steve Guest (@SteveGuest) December 4, 2019
The big problem for the GOP, of course, was that Karlan was not unhinged – and neither were any of the other witnesses in the impeachment inquiry so far. By and large they’ve been wicked smart and totally composed and so obviously devoted to the truth and the national interest it’s been devastating to Trump’s case. Especially the women.
The only people in this drama who’ve been unhinged are GOP congressmen Devin Nunes, Jim Jordan, and Doug Collins – and of course Trump himself.
Shortly after, the press secretary who won’t appear before the press corps tweeted:
Classless move by a Democratic “witness”. Prof Karlan uses a teenage boy who has nothing to do with this joke of a hearing (and deserves privacy) as a punchline. And what’s worse, it’s met by laughter in the hearing room. What is being done to this country is no laughing matter.
— Stephanie Grisham (@PressSec) December 4, 2019
Just a bit later, @TeamTrump was heard from:
“Only in the minds of crazed liberals is it funny to drag a 13-year-old child into the impeachment nonsense.” – National Press Secretary @kayleighmcenany
Our full statement on Pamela Karlan below. pic.twitter.com/XI6eY2oSIH
— Team Trump (@TeamTrump) December 4, 2019
Then, in the hearing room, Rep. Matt Gaetz expressing unhinged indignation about Karlan invoking Trump’s “minor child”. Vice President Pence weighed in, too. And the ultimate tweet, of course, came from Melania Trump’s account (though it didn’t much sound like her):
A minor child deserves privacy and should be kept out of politics. Pamela Karlan, you should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it.
— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) December 4, 2019
The Trump camp knew full well they could count on the right-wing media echo chamber to pick up their little tempest and run with it.
But they also depended on the “mainstream” media being unable to resist a shiny bauble: In this case a dramatic conflict devoid of real meaning.
And they knew at least some reporters would overlook the obvious performative nature of their insincere manipulation. The reporters would recognize it, of course, but they would willingly pretend that they did not so as to not complicate things. They would be dupes.
Lawfare executive editor Susan Hennesy tweeted last night that those reporters should be ashamed of themselves:
Any member of the media who treats this utterly fabricated, faux outrage with one ounce of seriousness should be embarrassed. The comment was not offensive. They are not actually offended. Nice try. Let's move on. https://t.co/kY7LUnc1L9
— Susan Hennessey (@Susan_Hennessey) December 5, 2019
So I decided to name names.
The People Who Didn’t Fall For It
But first, some authentic reactions.
This tweet from a healthcare analyst named Charles Gaba went viral:
"So while the president can name his son Barron, he can’t make him a baron.”
THAT'S the "attack on the President's son" that they're going apeshit over??
AND THE MEDIA IS AMPLIFYING THIS AS AN ACTUAL THING?
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?
— Charles #GetCovered-ba (@charles_gaba) December 4, 2019
So did this one from a “dad”:
Did Karlan put Barron in a cage and ensure he is never returned to Melania? Then shut up.#BeBest
— Devin Duke (@sirDukeDevin) December 4, 2019
Vox writer Sean Illing wrote:
This is why the media is just hopelessly hackable. Any story or claim, no matter how dumb, has to be covered, has to be debunked and therefore dignified. It’s a broken model that’s been weaponized by bad faith actors. And it just keeps going. https://t.co/iob3kWC20m
— Sean Illing (@seanilling) December 5, 2019
(He was overly generous in assuming reporters would even go to the effort of debunking it.)
Media critic Eric Boehlert:
entire Trump family shoves Baron into spotlight w/ idiotic phony outrage campaign—to argue he deserves privacy
awful parents https://t.co/AWwCIQWCWW
— Eric Boehlert (@EricBoehlert) December 5, 2019
Author Mark Harris:
But nobody better say the name of the boss's kid, because that's mean. https://t.co/K4Mghd4mJs
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) December 5, 2019
Joan Walsh of the Nation:
I am ashamed for any of my colleagues who are making Karlan’s Barron quip a story.
— Joan Walsh (@joanwalsh) December 4, 2019
Brian Beutler of Crooked:
On top of the outrage being fake, what's really annoying about Barrongate is the amplifying of Republican depictions of what happened that are outright false. https://t.co/nn6y8gGdsU
— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) December 5, 2019
Stanford Law professor Mark Lemley:
Many trolls have contacted me to say that Pam Karlan’s joke about Barron’s name is child abuse and Stanford Law school should be shut down. Oddly, I predict that every single one of them is fine with taking thousands of children away from their parents and locking them in cages.
— Mark Lemley (@marklemley) December 5, 2019
So, the list (not exhaustive; post your nominees in comments):
GUILTY: ABC News anchor David Muir and White House correspondent Terry Moran. Less than 30 seconds into ABC’s World News Tonight on Wednesday, Muir breathlessly announced: “And tonight, the unexpected moment when one of the witnesses brought up to President’s youngest son to make a point. It was not well-received by many. And tonight, she’s apologizing.”
Later, in a taped segment, Moran reported “And back in that hearing room, Republicans were furious when one of those law professors argued that the Constitution does not make Trump a king — driving the point home with a quip about the President’s son.”
Later yet, Muir cut back to Moran:
MUIR: So, after that moment today, let’s get right to Terry Moran tonight — he’s live on the Hill — and Terry, first the apology just in tonight from that law scholar who brought up the President’s youngest son?
MORAN: That’s right, Stanford Law professor Pamela Karlan, at the end of the hearing, said this: “I want to apologize for what I said earlier about the President’s son. It was wrong of me to do that. I wish the President would apologize, obviously, for the things that he’s done that are wrong. But I do regret having said that.”
All told, the Barron theatrics took up fully one fifth of ABC’s segment on Wednesday’s hearing.
GUILTY: NBC political reporters Jonathan Allen, for this particularly unctuous and delusional tweet:
There was a time when no one would think to invoke the minor child of a president in a derisive manner to make a political point at a congressional hearing.
— Jonathan Allen (@jonallendc) December 4, 2019
Ah yes, the good old days, like in the 90s, when Rush Limbaugh called Chelsea Clinton the “White House dog” and John McCain told GOP donors “Do you know why Chelsea Clinton is so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.”
Allen, incidentally, is the same guy who complained about a lack of “pizzazz” after the first impeachment hearing.
GUILTY: NBC White House correspondent Peter Alexander, who intoned seriously on the Nightly News about “Karlan drawing criticism for invoking President Trump’s 13-year-old son to make her point that a president is not a king.”
GUILTY: CNN’s Erin Burnett and Gloria Borger. Burnett reported that “Karlan faced a series of attacks for doing so from Republicans, the Trump campaign and Melania Trump.” Borger added: “She’s not used to testifying. This environment was not hospitable to what was kind of not a great joke and she apologized for it only after Melania and, of course, the Vice President himself also went after her.”
Fellow panelist John Dean, by contrast, scoffed at the issue and dismissed out Gaetz as a “cheap-shot artist.”
And journalists didn’t have to take the Trump camp’s outrage completely on face value to reward it with the coverage it was intended to generate. They could focus on how it was a bad joke and a bad mistake. So:
GUILTY: MSNBC correspondent Garrett Haake for tweeting that “The Karlan joke about Barron Trump was an unforced error, and Republicans are going to be talking about it quite a bit.”
GUILTY: Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus, who tweeted:
For the record, in the interests of fairness, it was a bad idea for Pam Karlan to bring in Barron Trump. We should leave children out of these debates, period, unless they are adults and relevant in some way.
— Ruth Marcus (@RuthMarcus) December 4, 2019
And PARTLY GUILTY: Alyssa Rosenberg the “pop culture” opinion writer for the Washington Post, who called it “abundantly obvious” that “It was a bad joke and an incredibly boneheaded strategy,” before getting to the part about how “what was really toxic and deliberately misleading was the way Republican political operatives rushed en masse to recast Karlan’s comment as an attack on a child rather than his father, and in the process committed the very offense they condemned: They made a young boy the story.”
KUDOS to Norah O’Donnell, who kept the CBS Evening News free of this distraction.
KUDOS to the New York Times for ignoring it, as best I can tell. [See update below]
KUDOS to the Associated Press and Reuters for keeping their notice of it to a bare minimum.
GUILTY: Several readers have brought to my attention the fact that Gayle King, the CBS This Morning News anchor, did not follow the example of the Evening News,
After showing Karlan’s statement and apology and Gaetz’s harangue, and reading Melania Trump’s tweet out loud, King said: “I am very glad that she did apologize. I admit when I was watching, I cringed just a little bit when she brought Barron’s Trump name into it. And Melania Trump rightfully turned into mama bear at that moment.”
The NYT did not ignore it:
Ms. Karlan’s attempt at a pun to make a point about titles of nobility — “The president can name his son Barron; he can’t make him a baron” — drew howls of outrage from the Republicans including Melania Trump, the first lady…https://t.co/7ozNw0A1Sg
— Joan Walsh (@joanwalsh) December 5, 2019