We have a deep, serious problem: On Tuesday evening, the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof appeared on CNN with Don Lemon.
We were struck by what Kristof said that night, and by what he fled from saying.
In his second segment with Kristof, Lemon played tape of Trump press secretary Sean Spicer discussing Trump's claim that 3-5 million illegal votes were cast in November's election.
On the videotape, Spicer struggled with reporters' questions about Trump's unfounded statement. After Lemon played tape of this session, he and Kristof engaged in a brief discussion.
That brief discussion by Kristof and Lemon shouldn't be overlooked. You can watch the tape here.
In the course of this discussion, Kristof floated the possibility that Donald J. Trump is "a crackpot." In his new column in today's Times, he floats the same idea.
We think that possibility should be directly discussed. If we run through the brief discussion between Lemon and Kristof, we'll see some of the ways the press will use to avoid confronting this matter.
After playing tape of Spicer, Lemon posed a question to Kristof. Kristof replied with a peculiar question of his own. Lemon then took a stand:
LEMON (1/24/17): So, Sean didn't answer the question. But what does that mean for democracy when the White House questions the legitimacy of the election?Kristof asked a very peculiar question. Have you ever seen a journalist ask what words a channel is using?
KRISTOF: It's an astonishing moment. I mean, I don't know— Are you using the word "lie," or "falsehood?" What are you, what are you using?
LEMON: Yes. Yes. I mean, you have to use the word—you have to call it what it is.
It was our impression that Kristof was suggesting that there's a distinction between the two words he mentioned. A "falsehood," after all, is not the same thing as a "lie."
It was our impression that Kristof was asking if CNN preferred the use of one of these terms as opposed to the other. If that's what Kristof meant, it's fairly clear that Lemon misunderstood him.
Whatever! As you can see, Lemon urged his guest to be candid. As he continued, Kristof described a conversation which had occurred at the New York Times. It concerned the paper's decision to use the term "lie" when discussing Trump that day:
KRISTOF (continuing directly): And I mean, at the New York Times, we had this debate. We, in today's newspaper, we used the word "lie." And saying that about a president is an astonishing thing. There was some internal discussion about that.In that statement, Kristof seemed to say that some Timesmen were uncomfortable saying that Trump had "lied." In fairness, journalists should be careful about making that charge about anyone, not just about a president.
But those who argued that one shouldn't use the word "lie" said, "Well, we don't know the president's intention. And it's only a lie if he knows it's wrong."
Kristof then said that those people at the Times had made an obvious point. If a speaker believes that some statement is true, you wouldn't normally say that the person has lied, even if it turns out that his statement is false.
Presumably, everybody understands that basic point of logic. But as he continued, Kristof seemed to introduce a new possibility into the discussion of Trump. Here's what he now said:
KRISTOF (continuing directly): But essentially, that's saying, "Well, you know, he may believe the moon is made of green cheese, so it's not a lie if he says it is." It's saying that the president is either a liar or a crackpot. And boy, those are unappetizing choices when describing the president of the United States.Uh-oh! Kristof seemed to be suggesting this:
He seemed to suggest that Trump is making such crazy claims that a horrible possibility has come into view. It's possible that Trump is "a liar," he said. But it's also possible that Donald J. Trump is "a crackpot."
Did Kristof really mean to suggest that as a real possibility? Did he mean to suggest that Trump may not really be lying here—that he may be (some version of) crazy?
Our guess would be that Kristof was trying to suggest this possibility, while giving himself deniability about the "unappetizing" possibility he'd just put in play.
Was Kristof suggesting that Trump might be crazy? Consider what he wrote, for the second time, in this morning's column:
At the start of this morning's column, Kristof returns to the scene of the crime. He directly presents that same choice about Trump, then quickly hurries along. Here's how the column starts:
KRISTOF (1/26/17): Should we journalists use the word “lie” to describe President Trump’s most manifest falsehoods?In that passage, Kristof directly offers a choice—President Trump may be a liar, or he may be "a crackpot!" He also floats the term "delusions," then quickly exits the scene, moving on to discussions of policy matters.
That debate has roiled the news world. The Times this week used the word “lie” in a front-page headline, and I agreed with that decision, but there’s a counterargument that lying requires an intention to deceive—and that Trump may actually believe his absurd falsehoods.
So in 2017 we reach a mortifying moment for a great democracy: We must decide whether our 45th president is a liar or a crackpot.
Yet the costliest presidential falsehoods and delusions are not the ones that people are talking about, such as those concerning the inauguration crowd or electoral fraud. The most horrific chicanery involves Trump’s new actions on women’s health that will cause deaths around the globe...
Let's return to Tuesday night's discussion on CNN. When Kristof spoke with Lemon, he seemed to float the idea that Trump might actually be a crackpot as opposed to being a liar. Lemon never showed any sign of hearing this suggestion:
LEMON (continuing directly): You know, as I said, it's really tough to call, because, and I've said this a number of times, I think it was Saturday night where we actually said on air, our very own Jim Sciutto, when we were talking about, you know, what he said at the CIA, what he said about the, you know, other crowds, Sean Spicer, and the president, "It's tough to call the president of the United States a liar." Because you want to respect the office.Lemon never seemed to think that he'd been given the option of declaring Trump a "crackpot." He went ahead and said that Trump had told "lies," saying that reporting that fact is "really tough to do."
But I think it does a disservice to the American people, and even to the president, and even to, you know, journalists, not to call, call it what it is. And it is a lie. And so, I mean, it's really tough to do.
Our view? Based upon these two presentations, we think Kristof is floating the idea that President Trump may be some version of diagnosable / mentally unwell / crazy. We also think that Kristof is trying to provide himself deniability. If his suggestion meets with disfavor, he wants to be able to say that he never meant that at all.
In our view, it seems clear that something does seems to be wrong with Trump's mental functioning. Is this new American president some version of "mentally ill?"
In our view, we face a deep, serious problem. At present, the children are pretending to be tough by calling out the president's "lies." It seems to us that a serious discussion of Donald J. Trump needs to move on to that second possibility—to a possibility Nicholas Kristof has now floated two times.
President Trump seems unwell. However unappetizing or tough it may be, "patriots" need to say so.