clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Donald Trump’s war with ESPN and Jemele Hill, explained

The White House suggested that Hill should be fired, and Trump demanded an apology from ESPN after she called him a white supremacist.

President Donald Trump. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The president of the United States is mounting a concerted effort to shame a private employee and even get her fired — all because she criticized the president.

The latest came from President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, in which he blamed ESPN host Jemele Hill for the network’s rating drops. That came after ESPN suspended Hill — apparently for tweets in which she criticized Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for saying that he wouldn’t let any player “who disrespects the flag” on the field, forcing the team to take a stance against the NFL protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

But there’s a deeper grudge behind all of this. Last month, Trump claimed on Twitter that people are dumping ESPN “in RECORD numbers” due to “its politics (and bad programming).” That seemed to be a reaction to Hill’s tweets earlier that week arguing that Trump is “a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists.”

Earlier on, the Trump administration was even more explicit. Asked about Hill’s tweets, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I think that’s one of the more outrageous comments that anyone could make, and certainly something that I think is a fireable offense by ESPN.”

In short, the White House’s official position seemed to be that Hill should be fired for her remarks — or she should at least formally apologize for the comments (which she has not done).

This is just the latest feud that Trump and the White House have embroiled themselves in after someone criticized the president or his allies. From US retailer Nordstrom to his own attorney general, Trump has relentlessly attacked anyone who, according to his own worldview, has crossed him.

In this case, though, the remarks go deeper than just a feud. Trump has long been mired by accusations of racism, due to his long history of racism. That came to a head in August when white supremacists descended onto Charlottesville, Virginia, causing chaos in the small city — and even a death after a neo-Nazi ran his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. After the protests, Trump suggested that “both sides” were equally to blame for the violence, drawing a false equivalency between white supremacists — one of whom, again, literally killed someone — and the anti-racism protesters.

This is what Hill was referencing in her initial tweets. And her blunt language has apparently infuriated the president so much that he’s still tweeting about it weeks later.

How ESPN and Jemele Hill became the White House’s latest targets

As with many of Trump’s feuds, this goes back to Twitter. Last month, Hill argued in a series of tweets that Trump was a white supremacist who had surrounded himself with and empowered other white supremacists.

ESPN shortly after issued a statement, saying that the comments “do not represent the position of ESPN” and that Hill “recognizes her actions were inappropriate.”

According to a report by Lindsay Gibbs at ThinkProgress, ESPN at first attempted to take Hill off the air and replace her with another black anchor. But because her own co-host and other black ESPN employees stood by her, the network reportedly backed off. (ESPN denied the account. Spokesperson Josh Krulewitz told ThinkProgress, “We never asked any other anchors to do last night’s show. Period.”)

For ESPN, part of the problem is that this is just the latest example of the sports network getting dragged into a political battle. With Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem due to police brutality and all the commentary that surrounded that, the network has treaded into a politically charged space that it wants little to do with — since any sign that the network is politically biased could potentially alienate, say, Trump supporters or ardent defenders of the police, who could otherwise be consistent ESPN customers.

These concerns are further magnified by ESPN’s subscriber and viewer drops over the past several years, noted by Daniel Holloway at Variety: “From 2015 to 2017, ESPN has seen its number of subscribers fall 7.4% to fewer than 88 million. Its ratings have faced an even steeper decline, with average total viewers falling 19.2% from 2014 to 2016.”

It’s unlikely politics are the sole reason for this; other theories range from cable cord cutting to a general decline in interest in football. But ESPN certainly doesn’t want to risk anything when its numbers are declining.

Hill, however, has not apologized for her remarks. She only clarified that they were her own personal views, and expressed regret that the comments may have “painted ESPN in an unfair light.”

She later went further in a column for the Undefeated, writing that “Twitter wasn’t the place to vent my frustrations because, fair or not, people can't or won't separate who I am on Twitter from the person who co-hosts the 6 p.m. SportsCenter.”

She also thanked members from the National Association of Black Journalists’ Sports Task Force for standing by her.

This outcome has not satisfied the White House. So Trump has repeatedly targeted Hill with his own criticisms.

But that’s not, apparently, what got Hill suspended. On October 9, ESPN announced it had suspended Hill over inappropriate social media use:

Jemele Hill has been suspended for two weeks for a second violation of our social media guidelines. She previously acknowledged letting her colleagues and company down with an impulsive tweet. In the aftermath, all employees were reminded of how individual tweets may reflect negatively on ESPN and that such actions would have consequences. Hence this decision.

This was seemingly in response to Hill’s recent tweets criticizing Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, arguing that his position on the NFL protests put players in a tough spot.

Like many things on Twitter, though, Trump is embroiled in this. Trump has repeatedly spoken out against the NFL protests, recently praising Jones for his stance against the demonstrations. The protests are about police brutality and racial injustice, but Trump has mischaracterized them as disrespectful of the flag, military, and country because, as part of the demonstrations, players refuse to stand for the national anthem. Even as other major events, including North Korea and the hurricane in Puerto Rico, have gone on around him, Trump has continued tweeting against the NFL protests.

That Trump is so loud about NFL protests over racial injustice yet was so ambivalent about white supremacist protests in Charlottesville only speaks to Hill’s original point: It sure looks like the president is at least pandering, if not sympathetic to, white supremacist or white nationalist causes. That’s further demonstrated by the many petty feuds that Trump has picked in the past, while largely leaving white supremacists out of his sights.

Trump very frequently lashes out at anyone who criticizes him

Time and time again, the president has lashed out at just about anyone who has criticized him or his allies.

Just a couple weeks into his presidency, for example, Trump bashed US retailer Nordstrom on Twitter: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!” There, he used the power of the White House to attempt to throw a job-creating US company under the bus just because it had let go of his daughter’s clothing line.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Trump’s list of feuds is so large that the New York Times keeps an ongoing count of all the people, places, and things that Trump has insulted on Twitter. As of late September, the list included nearly 380 targets.

Of course, Trump doesn’t just randomly insult people on Twitter; he often does it with his mouth too.

It’s helpful to look at some of the people Trump has bashed over the past few years. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it gives you a pretty good indication of how vast Trump’s feuds spread:

The list really could go on and on.

In fact, Trump’s belligerent nature is a crucial to his public persona. That he’s so willing to stand up to anyone he sees as a threat is one of the things that made some people like Trump in the first place.

Take, for instance, his position on terrorism. Trump consistently blasted Obama and Clinton for failing to call out, from his view, “radical Islamic terrorism” — never mind that there are important national security considerations for not using that phrase. To a lot of Trump supporters, this dog whistle about Muslims spoke to who the real enemy is, and they loved that he was willing to call it out even if it wasn’t “politically correct.”

So when there’s an attack that may have been caused by a Muslim perpetrator, Trump quickly jumps on Twitter to declare it as terrorism — even before the authorities have confirmed anything — and will use it to push his policies, such as his travel ban.

This aspect of Trump’s persona is important to understanding why he lashed out at an ESPN host for her Monday night tweets. It’s also crucial to understanding why Hill said what she did about Trump and white supremacists: Even though Trump is seemingly willing to attack just about anyone, he seems to be less willing to fully condemn white supremacists for, well, being white supremacists.

Trump really has pandered to white supremacists in the past

Trump has been repeatedly asked to denounce white supremacists who show support for him. In these instances, Trump has dragged his feet or failed to denounce them at all.

The latest example came after the Charlottesville protests in August. Trump initially blamed “many sides” for the chaos, even though only one side — white supremacists — were responsible for the death of a counterprotester after a Nazi sympathizer drove into a crowd.

That seemed to briefly change on the Monday after the protests, when Trump held another press conference in which he condemned “this weekend’s racist violence,” said that “racism is evil,” and called out the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists in particular.

That new tone, read from a teleprompter and seemingly insincere, lasted for a day. The Tuesday after the protests, Trump again shifted back to his “many sides” rhetoric and even excused the white supremacist protests.

“I think there is blame … on both sides,” he told reporters. “I have no doubt about it. You don’t have a doubt about it either. If you reported it accurately, you would say that.”

Trump also argued, “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.”

This was a crowd of people holding Confederate flags, Nazi symbols, and KKK regalia. Yet Trump said that this group included “some very fine people.”

This wasn’t the first time something like this happened. When he appeared on CNN’s State of the Union in February last year, host Jake Tapper gave him what should be a pretty easy task: condemn the KKK. Trump dodged.

Here’s the exchange, which is really worth reading in full to see just how evasive Trump is when asked to, out of all things, condemn a KKK grand wizard:

TAPPER: I want to ask you about the Anti-Defamation League, which this week called on you to publicly condemn unequivocally the racism of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, who recently said that voting against you at this point would be treason to your heritage. Will you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don’t want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election?

TRUMP: Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. Did he endorse me? Or what’s going on? Because, you know, I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists. So you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.

TAPPER: I guess the question from the Anti-Defamation League is even if you don’t know about their endorsement, there are these groups and individuals endorsing you. Would you just say unequivocally you condemn them and you don’t want their support?

TRUMP: Well, I have to look at the group. I mean, I don't know what group you’re talking about. You wouldn’t want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I’d have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them and certainly I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong. You may have groups in there that are totally fine — and it would be very unfair. So give me a list of the groups and I’ll let you know.

TAPPER: Okay. I’m just talking about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan here, but—

TRUMP: Honestly, I don't know David Duke. I don't believe I've ever met him. I’m pretty sure I didn't meet him. And I just don’t know anything about him.

For the record, Trump had, in the past, known plenty about David Duke. When Trump declined to run for president in 2000 as a member of the Reform Party, he said that he didn’t want to be associated with Duke, who had supported Pat Buchanan’s nomination for the Reform Party. Trump at the time called Duke “a bigot, a racist, a problem.” This only seemed to change once he began running for president in 2015.

Trump did eventually disassociate himself with Duke a few days after the Tapper interview, when he finally said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “David Duke is a bad person, who I disavowed on numerous occasions over the years.” He added, “I disavowed him. I disavowed the KKK.” He later blamed his initial refusal to do so on Tapper’s show on a faulty earpiece, which doesn’t make much sense if you look at the transcript.

But even how Trump eventually rebuked Duke was uncharacteristic. When Trump finds a target, he usually uses evocative language to criticize them — such as when he suggested that Rosie O’Donnell is a “fat pig” at a Republican debate, and when he nicknamed his Republican primary opponents “Little Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted.” With white supremacists, he used nearly passive language.

The same issue would pop up after Trump’s election, when reporters once again asked him if he accepted the support of white nationalists. Trump used his now typical passive language for white supremacists, saying, “I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.”

This all came on top of Trump’s history of racist remarks both before and during his 2016 campaign. During Obama’s time in office, Trump was a leader in pushing the “birther” theory, suggesting that Obama was not born in the US — an idea that researchers have found is driven by racial resentment. On the campaign trail, Trump argued that Mexican immigrants were criminals and “rapists,” said Muslims should be banned from entering the US, argued a federal judge should recuse himself from a case due to his Mexican heritage, and seized the mantle of the “law and order” candidate — a dog whistle playing to white fears of black crime.

Hill also referenced Trump’s comments about the Central Park Five — a case that’s now widely characterized as a modern-day lynching. In 1989, five minority teenagers were accused of attacking and raping a jogger in New York’s Central Park. Trump quickly ran an ad in local papers demanding, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” The teens’ convictions were later vacated after they spent seven to 13 years in prison, and the city paid $41 million in a settlement to the teens. But Trump in October 2016 said he still believes the teens are guilty, despite the DNA evidence to the contrary.

White supremacists love Trump

Here’s the thing: White supremacists love this stuff. After Charlottesville, the white supremacist publication, the Daily Stormer, praised Trump, saying, “God bless him” for his remarks on the protests.

And as Sarah Posner and David Neiwert reported at Mother Jones, what the media largely treated as gaffes — Trump retweeting white nationalists, Trump describing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and criminals — were, to white supremacists, real signals approving their racist causes. One white supremacist wrote, “Our Glorious Leader and ULTIMATE SAVIOR has gone full-wink-wink-wink to his most aggressive supporters.”

Some of them even argued that Trump has softened the greater public to their racist messaging. “The success of the Trump campaign just proves that our views resonate with millions,” said Rachel Pendergraft, a national organizer for the Knights Party, which succeeded David Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. “They may not be ready for the Ku Klux Klan yet, but as anti-white hatred escalates, they will.”

As Hill said in her tweets, this is the emboldening that America saw in Charlottesville. Asked to explain the Charlottesville protests, David Duke argued, “We are determined to take our country back,” he said at the protests, describing them as a “turning point.” “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.” (Although he did criticize some of Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville later on.)

Trump has recently tried to push back against this — by, for example, agreeing to sign a congressional resolution that condemns white supremacists. But the perception that Trump has pandered to white supremacists, held by both white supremacists and their opponents, remains.

So Hill’s comments may cause a lot of backlash for ESPN, a largely apolitical network that doesn’t want to alienate Trump-supporting viewers. The reality, however, is that Hill’s remarks didn’t come out of nowhere.