One of the oddities of our political moment is how frequently we are asked to tease out the layers of meaning of remarks by President Donald Trump as though he had chosen them with the care of a good poet. The latest controversy — although by the time this appears it may have been overtaken by another one — concerns the president’s comment, “These aren’t people. They’re animals.”
The New York Times and USA Today were among the media outlets that suggested that Trump had referred to illegal immigrants as a class. His defenders, who on this occasion include some people who are not knee-jerk supporters of his, say it’s important to look at the context. A sheriff had been complaining to Trump about the difficulty of deporting members of MS-13, the criminal gang, before he made the remark. So, Trump’s defenders say, he meant to describe MS-13 members, not illegal immigrants, as animals. As the controversy continued, Trump himself said that’s what he meant.
Media outlets that presented Trump’s remark without mentioning the MS-13 lead-in did their audience, and Trump, a disservice. They could have provided more useful context by noting that the sheriff was specifically referring to members of the gang who were not charged or convicted of serious crimes.