This fall, the Trump administration found its new favorite non-denial denial. When a reporter asked the embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about a rumor that he had called the president a “moron” back in July, he replied, “I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that.” When the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked to comment on political criticism from the Republican senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, she dismissed their criticism as “petty comments.” In an Oct. 5 briefing, she brushed off the “moron” story as a “petty, ridiculous accusation” after chastising the media for spending only “5 percent of your time” on “big issues” and filling the rest with “petty palace intrigue.”
Never mind that the Trump administration is normally eager to litigate everything from whether the president owns a bathrobe to the size of his inauguration crowds, or that Sanders herself is the reigning queen of what The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen recently called “the petty power struggle” — the art of belittling questions so thoroughly that press briefings come and go with no actual information dispersed. This is the projection presidency, the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” administration. Its deployment of “petty” as a weapon is particularly canny because it parrots a legitimate strain of press criticism, one that warns reporters against getting sidetracked by meaningless White House spectacles. But at the same time that Sanders is acting appalled by correspondents’ questions, the president’s own petty grievances are working overtime to lure us to national distraction. His recent Twitter rebuke of Time magazine — a “you can’t fire me because I quit” move, in which he claimed to have turned down a potential “Person of the Year” designation — set off an entire trivial news cycle that pushed aside more quotidian political news, like updates on tax-bill negotiations.
Amanda Hess, “Small Talk”, The New York Times Magazine (10 December 2017), 13-14.