Lemon walks Tuesday night back: Late Tuesday night—actually, in the midnight hour, on Wednesday morning—things spun out of control on CNN.
As we noted yesterday, Don Lemon was riding the range in the wake of Donald J. Trump's latest disordered tirade. Eventually, James Clapper put some meat on the bones of the question of Trump's "fitness." This was the exchange in question. To avoid confusion, we'll give this a Tuesday night date:
LEMON (8/22/17): You said you questioned his fitness. Is he a threat to national security, the president?Oof. Explaining his concern about Trump's "fitness," Clapper pictured the president, "in a fit of pique," creating a nuclear war. Clapper said he found the matter "pretty damn scary."
CLAPPER: Well, he certainly could be. Again, having some understanding of the levers that a president can exercise, I worry about, frankly, you know, the access to nuclear codes. In a fit of pique, he decides to do something about Kim Jong-Un, there's actually very little to stop him.
The whole system's built to insure rapid response if necessary. So there's very little in the way of controls over, you know, exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.
Clapper's presentation followed a wild and woolly presentation by one of those CNN panels. After Trump's performance ended, Lemon turned to a typical CNN gaggle.
Including Lemon, the panel included five Trump-trashers, versus the one "Trump supporter." In the immediate wake of Trump's Tuesday night rant, the CNN stars really let it go.
As he started the discussion, Lemon said that Trump had been "unhinged." When he threw to CNN's David Chalian, the horrified analyst said that Trump had been "totally unhinged."
Rick Wilson, a never-Trump Republican, said the presentation had been "an astounding chain of lies tied together by a man who obviously is mentally unstable...a man who is not well, not qualified or mentally or morally fit."
"If people around him don't think guy is absolutely bat-crap crazy, they're mistaken," Wilson said. Then, this exchange occurred:
LEMON (8/22/17): Bakari, is it time to start discussing a 25th amendment?The discussion displayed an unmistakable drift. Eventually, Maria Cardona got her turn:
SELLERS: I mean we're going to have discussions about the 25th amendment, no doubt. I think the president is unfit, unhinged, but many of us have known that for 18 months, 19 months.
CARDONA: Tonight I think was historic on a couple levels. Yes, I believe, after tonight, a lot of people are going to be thinking that he is not just completely unfit, that he is not just completely ill equipped to hold this office, but that he might be psychotically demented and ill of the mind in order to take this office and in order to continue on with this office. In fact, Congresswoman Jackie Spear was on CNN talking about the 25th amendment and whether it's time to invoke that.Except for the token Trump supporter, the verdict was unanimous. Later, Clapper appeared and imagined Trump, in a fit of pique, starting a nuclear war.
This was pretty tough stuff. We've long made two points about this type of discussion. We've said 1) we need to have a conversation about the president's mental health, but 2) our pundit corps almost surely isn't up to that difficult, delicate task.
Lemon's pundits were possibly ranting a bit, and none of them had any special qualification for the discussion at hand. But as of last night, none of this matters. Last night, Lemon went on the air and rather plainly walked the excitement back. Lemon had been sent on the air to suggest that none of this happened.
The night before, his panel of pundits had gotten a snootful and said what they actually think about Trump's mental health. We're going to guess that the suits at CNN didn't like it.
Last night, Lemon was frogmarched onto the air to say it had all been a dream. After hemming and hawing for some time, he executed this fairly explicit walk-back as he spoke with Mike Murphy and James Fallows:
MURPHY: I don't believe the "crazy Trump" theory. I believe he is a narcissist. I believe he has an impulse control problem, and I believe he is the most insecure person I've ever seen in public life, which sis something that attracts a lot of insecure people. So he is a record setter.This was just part of the rolling walk-back. We would offer this guess:
LEMON: Yes. But you know, when—
MURPHY: But his crazy rhetoric has been worse than his actions, which have been more rational.
LEMON: But that's what—you are smart. You know that when someone says, when people say "unfit," they don't necessarily mean crazy. They just mean—
MURPHY: Right. Exactly. Yes. Look, I've said "unqualified by temperament, knowledge, or character to be president of the United States." I've said it publicly for a long time. I believe that. But that—you know, it's easy to get down the slippery slide into the "nuclear madman" stuff and everything, and I'm not sure that's accurate, but he is, he is unfit because he does not understand the role of the president is not only to be the head of government in our system but head of state, which means you have a responsibility to be kind of a reference clock for proper behavior in defending American values.
And he doesn't understand that, or doesn't care. So that's why we have this method of presidential insult comic communication, added with total disregard for the truth, that has become such a toxic stain on this presidency.
LEMON: Well, go ahead.
FALLOWS: Just to take that point one step further. Here is a specific example of what "fitness for office" means. There is a skill that you have as a live performer, which Donald Trump really has, which is knowing the pulse of a crowd, the mood of the crowd and he plays to it really well. When I saw that last night, he was working the crowd for cheers.
Fitness for being president involves being aware that every single second of your life, every single utterance you put out, every word you say or don't say, every phrase has consequences around the world and in this country. And due to his entire inability to even imagine that, I think that is a kind of fitness that he is not getting better at.
LEMON: Yes. And I think that, you know, when people criticize and say they are questioning the president's sanity and all that, they know better. They're doing it just, you know, just because—to make a political point of some sort.
The bosses told Lemon to walk all that "Trump is crazy" talk back. In the high-paid world of cable news, good boys do as they're told.
In a rational world, we think this country should have a discussion of this president's mental health. In the world in which we actually live, our TV stars and print performers simply aren't up to that task.
Our pundits' skills are very few, and they're strongly inclined to comply with their bosses' demands. They're being paid for their obedience as well as for their general dumbness and their skill at reciting script. Their jobs are too good to risk.
Clapper said that Donald J. Trump seems so unwell that he could imaginably start a nuclear war in a fit of pique. In the panel discussion preceding that interview, Lemon's kids said Trump was "totally unhinged" and "bat-crap crazy," that he might be "psychotically demented."
The bosses said that should be erased. Lemon went out and did it.
It was just a bunch of talk, he said, "to make a political point of some sort." This is CNN!