The Low-Down on the Trump-Acosta News Conference Duel

It’s now been a week since the mid-term elections and, a few recounts aside, the dust has largely settled. What I can’t get out of my mind, however, is the confrontation between the President and CNN’s Jim Acosta during a rare formal East Room news conference the day after the voting. If Rembrandt, that master of depicting emotions, were alive today, what rich material he would have to work from!

Given that Acosta had his press pass to the White House suspended afterwards, the first question has to be: is Acosta really guilty of “placing his hands on” the female intern seeking to take the microphone away from him? That charge is, after all, the basis for press secretary Sarah Huckabee denying Acosta access to doing his job. While video shows Acosta’s outstretched left arm appearing to press down enough on the intern’s own outstretched arm for her arm to momentarily bend and give way, Acosta is at the same time saying “Pardon me, ma’am,” hardly the makings of Huckabee decrying CNN’s “outrageous disregard” for everyone working in the Trump administration.

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Is the young intern angry with Acosta after failing to retrieve the mic from him? Absolutely; notice her taut, lower eyelids and grimacing mouth.

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Is Acosta on edge himself? Absolutely; notice his grimacing gulp as Trump alternatively mocks and lambasts him.

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The fellow reporter who stands up for Acosta isn’t any more at ease himself. Notice his starkly open eyes and raised eyebrows, indicating fear.

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Trump himself winds up jabbing finger at Acosta, berating Acosta for being a “rude, terrible person” and CNN for again being the “enemy of the people” whenever it reports “fake news, which CNN does a lot.”

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But actually, Trump is fearful as well. Notice how his mouth pulls wide just when Acosta starts in with “I’d like to challenge you on one of the statements you made.”

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With the news conference broadcast live worldwide, there’s also the rich emotional theater of how the other media figures in the East Room were reacting. There we’re really in Rembrandt territory. The Dutch artist’s famous Nightwatch painting meets its contemporary rival in scenes like these:

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For Trump, raised on the mantra of “Be a killer, be a winner” by his aggressive real estate kingpin of a father, ugly emotional territory feels like home. But for many others along for the bumpy ride, unease rules the day.

Unhinged: Omarosa Manigault Newman Takes on Trump

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If Turkey’s financial crisis proves to be the “canary in the coal mine” that an economist is warning about, then there might be a bigger story this week than former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman releasing her insider exposé Unhinged. But for sheer personal drama, Newman versus Trump takes the cake. For a decade plus, from The Apprentice to The Celebrity Apprentice to the campaign, and then The White House, she was somebody he reportedly admired for her being conniving—and now she’s a “crazed, crying lowlife” and a “dog” if Trump’s twitter tirade is to be accepted at face value.

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Speaking of faces, what does Newman’s show as she makes the media rounds, promoting her book? Yes, there’s often a raised upper lip and narrowed eyes. Newman’s as capable of showing disgust and anger as her former boss, as when she asserts that Trump “doesn’t even know what’s happening in his White House.” Trump as Chief of Staff John Kelly’s puppet is hard to believe. Less hard to believe is Newman’s related claim that Kelly as puppeteer is possible because the president has a severe attention deficit disorder and declining mental health.

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It’s not disgust and anger, however, that’s most noteworthy in observing Newman on the air this past week. It’s the fear she shows. Time and again her mouth pulls wide. Maybe the former communications director for the Office of Public Liaison is, ironically enough, simply uneasy appearing on television. But she has manhandled the people interviewing her. So it seems it’s more likely she’s weighing book sales versus legal bills, knowing things will get “ugly” for her now, as Kelly allegedly warned Newman while keeping her confined for up to two hours in the Situation Room at The White House on firing her this past December.

Trump’s a misogynist and racist? Really? What a revelation. But seriously, Newman has recordings to back up her allegations.

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When will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences give a lifetime achievement award to Steven Soderbergh for his prescient movie Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)? Michael Cohen. Stormy Daniels. Newman. Everyone is recording Trump’s behavior one way or another, knowing that this White House is a House of Mirrors. It’s got to be so stressful working there that naturally I feel sorry for Sarah Huckabee Sanders being reduced to sadness and fear in telling reporters she “can’t guarantee” that Trump has never used the N-word. Well, actually I’m lying, too.

Michelle Wolf at the White House Press Dinner

At least three analogies come to mind.  Pick your favorite. When the comedian Michelle Wolf gave the keynote roast at last Saturday’s televised White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, D.C., was her performance a matter of speaking-truth-to-power, humor-as-torture or humor-as-colonoscopy? (Check out Youtube for the full performance.) Certainly, President Donald Trump’s stand-in, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was not amused by the proceedings. Sitting on the dais just a few feet from Wolf, what did Sanders’s face reveal when the comedian aimed her barbed jokes at the press secretary starting at about the 13-minute mark of what proved to be a 19-minute performance?

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  • “I love you as Aunt Lydia in ‘The Handsmaid’s Tale’” Wolf puckishly said on stage, alluding to the terrifying re-education maestro at the center of the book, film, and now Hulu television series. In response, Sanders did more than flinch. Lips pressed in anger, with a slight disgust sneer, was Sanders’s first response, followed by the slightest of grimace smiles, closed eyes, and a raised eyebrow, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding shrug of dismissal.
  • As to the evening’s perhaps most notorious line about the press secretary, “she burns facts and then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye,” how did Sanders respond? A wide-mouth shudder of fear followed the reference to “burns facts.” Then Sanders settled back into coping with the pointed criticism by resorting to a combination of a slight smile, firm lips, and eyes momentarily closed in disappointment.

It wasn’t only Sanders who was disappointed. When Wolf moved from alluding to Aunt Lydia to rhetorically asking, “What’s Uncle Tom for white women who disappoint other white women?” the audience responded with both laughter and jeers. Did Wolf know she was pushing the edge? Absolutely, as Wolf’s rejoiner (“Oh, I know: Ann Coulter”) was one of the few times on stage that Wolf managed a true, eyes-crinkling smile of joy. Otherwise, Wolf tended to display a mixture of mouth-pulled-wide fear, fairly slight smiles, and a lower lip pulled down and out in disgust.

Some pundits have compared Wolfe’s performance to Stephen Colbert’s roast of George W. Bush at the 2006 White House press dinner. But after re-watching that earlier performance by Colbert, I can tell you the similarity is limited. Colbert mostly displayed eyes wide in mock surprise at his own jokes, delivered with numerous smiles amid mock consternation at what he had to tell the president seated beside him. Yes, Bush wasn’t always amused but at evening’s end he shook Colbert’s hand with a smile. This year after the roast was over, Sanders refused to participate in a photograph on the dais that would have brought her and Wolf together.

What’s the big take-away here? In 2006, the Iraq war fiasco and the aftermath of Katrina were ugly enough. But the country’s mood nowadays is, if anything, even uglier amid so much partisan rancor. When Wolf began to warm up for “ribbing” Sanders, she started by saying “We should definitely talk about the women in the Trump administration” and showed both a raised upper lip and a down-ward twisting lower lip at the same time: a double dose of disgust. Sanders on stage and Trump on a daily basis are likewise given to showing disgust, in turn, for those denouncing them. As an emotion, disgust signals that something tastes bad, smells bad; rejection results, and a loss of intimacy.

There is nothing congenial left in how Americans are interacting, politically, in the age of Trump. Many people found Wolfe’s remarks in poor taste, vulgar, and far more mean-spirited than funny, and they have a point. The president gleefully joined in, tweeting that the dinner was “DEAD as we know it.” But for anyone objecting to Wolf’s tone and content – given Trump’s own demeanor and antics – that’s a little bit akin to imagining Al Capone complaining back in the day about John Dillinger’s behavior. Being “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius,” Trump promised us he would hire the “best people” to join his administration. A year and a half after Trump won the election, I’m voting for humor-as-colonoscopy to explain Wolf’s performance.