As a record-breaking number of travelers hit the road, the rails and the skies for Thanksgiving, it is probably with no small amount of dread. How will families keep the peace amid the inevitable clashes over politics and faith, at least until the turkey is eaten and the football games completed? Never fear. It’s President Donald Trump to the rescue, brandishing his new favorite word: decorum.
As you might have heard, the administration of the man whose tweet replaced letters in a congressman’s name to spell an expletive (can’t you see him rushing to a Cabinet meeting to show off his “clever” handiwork, which would not pass muster for fifth-grade humor) has issued a list of rules for White House reporters in the press room. Play nice or you will have your credentials snatched. Usually, when I think of the president grabbing something from someone he doesn’t know, my thoughts drift to his infamous Access Hollywood tape before I forcefully fill my head with pleasant images — say, puppies or meadows.
Now, the president insists on decorum. The dictionary defines it as behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety. Do as he says, not as he does.
When Trump repeated the word, as fascinated by it as a toddler would be with a new toy, it was clear that he meant business. While the court dealt his administration a setback, making him return White House press credentials to a CNN journalist, he answered with a list of etiquette for those who would enter the court of King Donald.
What are some of these new rules? One question per reporter (no follow up, unless the president or White House official deigns to grant an exception) and surrendering the mic when instructed. Hanging over the heads of reporters who disagree is the threat of suspension or revocation.
This is not a harmless list of which fork to use or what wine to order with the fish. But at least the media now know what to expect when Trump grants his once-in-a-blue moon press conference. Or not, since the president loves to mix it up, particularly with the media foes of his dreams.
If past is prologue, Trump and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders will not model the “decorum” expected of others. And even among journalists, the rules will be enforced arbitrarily.
After all, when a Fox News journalist, the white and male Chris Wallace, questioned the effect that the appointment of acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker might have on the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Trump did not resort to calling the question “stupid” and insulting the questioner, as he did when a similar query came from Abby Phillip, an African-American female reporter for CNN.
Flip the script
To test the new rules of the press room, perhaps reporters could ask one another’s follow up or media outlets could send an African-American woman to the next briefing. Some may not have any black staffers (and if not, bad on them), but just the sight of the president trying to maintain “decorum” when pressed by those who have been the objects of a particular brand of disdain would ensure sky-high ratings.
The list of rules conspicuously leaves out the behavior so beloved by the president, the pointing of a finger to make a point or interrupting and shouting as a way to change the subject. It’s similar to the way Republican legislators carve out exceptions in voter suppression bills, to favor those they want to exercise the franchise and disadvantage those for whom it should be made “just a little more difficult” to vote, as Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith has “joked.”
As usual, Trump seems to have lost interest in this particular fight with the press. He is too busy backing Saudi Arabia instead of U.S. intelligence agencies on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and maligning the decision of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for ruling against implementation of his administration’s asylum policies.
Maybe it’s time for everyone to Be Best, as the first lady’s anti-bullying campaign advises, before, during and after the holiday season, though Melania Trump’s latest headlines have involved scenes of White House palace intrigue and her staff’s East Wing-West Wing beef.
The Thanksgiving turkeys had the right idea. While Trump used the annual, usually agnostic pardoning ceremony to unleash snide asides about the courts and House Democrats, “Peas” and “Carrots” seemed glad to be alive, recipients of any holiday spirit they could glean from this White House.
When it comes to “decorum,” Emily Post this crew is not.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.