Critic's Notebook: Heads Spin on Sunday Morning Talk Shows in Wake of Trump's Muslim Ban

Reince Priebus Meet the Press grab - H

It was a dizzying spectacle as pundits, politicians and presidential appointees desperately tried to make sense of Trump's chaotic first week.

Donald Trump has been president for little more than a week, and you’re all probably wondering the same thing: When is something interesting going to happen?

You have to pity the producers of the Sunday morning political talk shows. The flurry of events in recent days has been so dizzying that they can hardly keep up. It makes you nostalgic for that seemingly long-ago era when we were so busy talking about crowd size.

Of course, the shows’ primary topic was the hurriedly imposed ban on travelers from seven countries with majority Muslim populations. President Trump has already commented, “It’s working out very nicely,” which is true if you don’t count widespread chaos and confusion; massive protests at airports around the country; and a federal judge issuing a partial stay on deportations. If this is what “working out nicely” looks like, you hate to imagine what “a minor glitch” will resemble.

Defending the president’s actions was Reince Priebus, who appeared on NBC's Meet the Press and CBS’ Face the Nation. When asked about why a grace period hadn’t been implemented, he said on both shows that it had been necessary to “rip the Band-Aid off.” (Just so you know, Reince, it really hurts when you do that.) Like Kellyanne Conway a week earlier, Priebus got into a tussle with Chuck Todd, who pressed him on the policy’s inconsistencies regarding green card holders.

“If you would just slow down for a second and listen,” Priebus whined when Todd interrupted him at one point. A few seconds later, Priebus went off again, shouting: “I love you, Chuck, but just let me answer the question!”   

After the two lovebirds finished fighting, Todd asked why the White House had left out any mention of Jews in its recent statement marking Holocaust Remembrance Day. Priebus graciously conceded that the Holocaust had been bad for the Jewish people. But he added that the administration had “no regret” about the insensitivity of its language. (You really have to hand it to a White House that can manage to offend both Jews and Muslims in a single day.)

Discussing the travel ban, Priebus said more than once that a mere 109 people had been detained, out of some 325,000 foreigners entering the U.S. that day. And he stressed that Trump’s main goal was the nation’s safety. “He’s not willing to be wrong on this subject,” Priebus said (although the president seems more than willing to be wrong on virtually everything else). “We didn’t just type this thing up in an office in the White House and sign it,” he added, inadvertently disclosing their exact strategy.

Asked about how the border wall was to be paid for, Priebus proclaimed that were was a “buffet of options,” although anyone who’s eaten at one knows how rancid the offerings can get late in the day.

“I’m kind of surprised that people are surprised that he’s actually conducting himself the way that he said he would,” Priebus commented, forgetting that the reason may be that Trump hasn’t acted consistently for a day in his life.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer, taking a temporary respite from his urgent war on Dippin’ Dots, appeared on ABC’s This Week to say about the travel ban that “in some cases it will be a bit of an inconvenience.” (Sorry, Sean, taking your shoes off at security is an inconvenience. Being instructed to turn around and go home is downright rude.)

Appearing on Fox News Sunday was Kellyanne Conway. She was identified as “counselor to the president,” although consigliore” would be a more accurate job title. Conway was her usual charming self. It was just a “routine screening process,” she explained about the ban, using words like “temporary” and “circumstantial.” When asked why these countries in particular had been chosen — and not, say, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, from where terrorists have actually traveled — she explained that they were merely following the guidelines laid down by the Obama administration. Because, you know, they take all their cues from him.

“He [Trump] is privy to information that the rest of us aren’t,” Conway argued, forgetting that anyone can watch Fox News.

Like her colleague Steve Bannon, Conway took the opportunity to insult the press, calling the Fourth Estate “offensive.” Expressing outrage that she had been criticized for using the Orwellian term “alternative facts,” she whined, “It’s always zing, it’s always gotcha.” She also called for the firing of those “silly political analysts and pundits” who had gotten the election so wrong.

“We know all their names,” she said, chillingly, while Chris Wallace stared at her with a frozen smile on his face. Sensing his unease if not utter fear, she tried to be comforting. “We turn the other cheek,” she cooed, adding, “I’m here every Sunday morning. I haven’t slept in in months.”

(Kellyanne, I think I speak for many Americans when I say, please take next weekend off. Watch the Super Bowl. Relax.)

One was hard-pressed to find any Republicans criticizing Trump’s actions, with the reliable exception of John McCain. Talking with Face the Nation’s John Dickerson, the gadfly commented that the implementation of the ban had been “confused.”

“Obviously, this process was not vetted,” McCain pointed out, in uncharacteristically subtle fashion. He lamented that the policy would hurt our efforts to fight ISIS in Iraq and elsewhere.

“Is Iraq the same as Iran? Of course not,” he declared, answering his own rhetorical question. When asked about the recently announced reorganization of the National Security Council, he commented that the inclusion of White House advisor Steve Bannon in their meetings — while removing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence — was a “radical departure.” (Or, as former National Security Advisor Susan Rice tweeted, “stone cold crazy.”)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was more circumspect, telling Martha Raddatz, “I’m not going to make a blanket criticism of this effort.” (Way to show some cojones, Mitch.) He also said that “we don’t have religious tests in this country,” even though Trump had just days earlier said in an interview that Christians would get special treatment.  

Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of Democrats on display blasting the administration’s actions, Rep. Keith Ellison, a candidate for Democratic National Committee Chairman, declared, “We’ve never had a religious-based ban before,” adding, “They can’t deny that this is a Muslim ban.” Congressman Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a former Marine, said that he stood by his tweet directed to Trump in which he said, “I’m ashamed that you are our president.”

“What Trump is doing will make the fight against terror more difficult,” Moulton added. And Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.), making his first Sunday morning appearance since the election, thundered, “The Trump administration is poised to do horrible damage to our country, our values, our people and our reputation!”

During his show, Todd made several glowing references to the 70th anniversary of Meet the Press, which felt even more poignant when you realized there was a very good chance it may not be around to celebrate its 74th if Trump and his minions get their way. There to celebrate was Tom Brokaw, who said about recent events, “I’ve seen a lot of transitions … I’ve never seen one quite as seismic as this one.”

He also reminisced about his experiences covering Richard Nixon, whose running war with the press now seems almost quaint. Ah, the good old days.