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The manufactured outrage over Barron Trump, explained

A witness at an impeachment hearing used a play on words using Barron Trump’s name to make a point about presidential powers and Republicans are very mad about it.

Constitutional scholars Noah Feldman and Pamela Karlan arrive to testify before the House JudiciaryCommittee about impeachment in December 2019.
Constitutional scholars Noah Feldman and Pamela Karlan arrive to testify before the House JudiciaryCommittee about impeachment in December 2019.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Barron Trump is apparently not a name you’re supposed to bring up — even in the most benign of circumstances — lest you want to spark manufactured outrage. Or at least, that was the result of an impeachment witness’s play on words in a point about presidential powers and the Constitution.

Here’s what happened: During the House Judiciary Committee’s first impeachment hearing on Wednesday, one of the witnesses, Stanford University professor Pamela Karlan, made a reference to President Donald Trump’s 13-year-old son, Barron, in explaining the difference between the president and a king.

“Contrary to what President Trump says, Article Two [of the Constitution] does not give him the power to do anything he wants,” Karlan said. “And I’ll just give you one example that shows you the difference between him and a king, which is the Constitution says there can be no titles of nobility, so while the president can name his son Barron, he cannot make him a baron.”

The quip sparked some chuckles in the audience, but the situation quickly spun out of control. The White House and some Republicans cried foul at the use of Barron’s name, since he’s a child. It’s true that it is a norm to leave the president’s children out of partisan attacks, but this wasn’t really an attack. Karlan wasn’t making a dig at Barron Trump, she was just making a point about presidential powers. But here we are.

Soon after the remarks were made, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham tweeted that Karan had made a “classless move” in using a “teenage boy who has nothing to do with this joke of a hearing (and deserves privacy)” in her testimony. “And what’s worse, it’s met by laughter in the hearing room. What’s being done to this country is no laughing matter,” she wrote.

Then the first lady, Melania Trump, jumped on the issue. “Pamela Karlan, you should be ashamed of your very angry and obviously biased public pandering, and using a child to do it,” she said in a tweet.

Vice President Mike Pence said the impeachment hearings had “reached a new low” when Barron Trump’s name was used. Trump’s reelection campaign sent out a statement claiming that Karlan’s remarks “reinforced for all Americans that Democrats have no boundaries when it comes to their hatred of everything related to President Trump.” And plenty of other Republicans piled on as well.

By the end of the hearing, Karlan apologized. “I want to apologize for what I said earlier about the president’s son. It was wrong of me to do that. I wish the president would apologize, obviously, for the things that he’s done that’s wrong, but I do regret having said that,” Karlan said.

If this entire controversy feels extremely asinine, it’s because … it is. Karlan wasn’t making any sort of attack on Barron Trump, she was making a point about the limits of presidential powers in the Constitution. Republicans are mad about impeachment, and so they’re grasping at anything they can to further their argument that it’s a partisan witch hunt run by out-of-control Democrats. Speaking the name of a teenage boy is not the end of the world — which, of course, plenty of people pointed out on Twitter, where chatter about weird controversies flourishes.

There are conversations to be had about talking about presidential kids. This is not that.

How and whether to talk about a president’s children, especially when they are young, has long been a question in American politics. There’s a general agreement in American society and the press that they’re off-limits. But Chelsea Clinton, Jenna and Barbara Bush, and Malia and Sasha Obama were all the subject of public scrutiny and discussions about its fairness while their fathers were in the White House. Barron Trump has been, too.

During Trump’s inauguration, Barron Trump was the subject of a lot of jokes and memes, some of which were pretty questionable. One SNL writer remarked that “Barron will be this country’s first homeschool shooter.” She later apologized and was suspended from the show. In August 2017, a Daily Caller reporter criticized Barron Trump’s attire and wrote that “it’s about time the president’s son starts dressing the part.”

These episodes are direct criticisms of Barron Trump and obviously more egregious that Karlan’s play on words. “Barron Trump deserves the chance every child does-to be a kid. Standing up for every kid also means opposing POTUS policies that hurt kids,” Clinton wrote in a Facebook post after the inauguration.

What Trump and Republicans are doing in crying foul about Karlan’s remark is trying to manufacture outrage over a misstep that barely was or, frankly, wasn’t. It’s a play they’ve run over and over again. They’re going to take any opportunity to criticize impeachment they can, including, apparently, this.