(Critic's Notebook): In many workplaces, there are procedures for employees in danger of getting the ax. There are meetings; there are hearings; you step into an office and plead your case.
So it is in the Trump administration, whose labor secretary, R. Alexander Acosta, has been in danger amid growing outcry over his role in cutting what has been called a “sweetheart” plea deal over a decade ago for Jeffrey E. Epstein, who was indicted Monday for child sex trafficking.
But in a workplace run by a video junkie, you defend yourself not in front of a disciplinary committee but on TV.
For an hour Wednesday afternoon, cable news became the White House human resources office. Acosta parried and deflected questions from journalists, in the process making the meta-argument that the Viewer-in-Chief should not cancel him.
The case involved numerous victims of sexual abuse, but Acosta had little to say to them. Asked repeatedly by journalists whether he had an apology or any other message for them, he instead repeated that Epstein should be punished, that victims should continue to come forward and that the late aughts were “a different time.” Asked pointedly abut his dealings as a U.S. attorney, he offered fluffy, passive verbiage.
But the real communication was directed off-screen, to the fabled audience of one, Donald Trump. Acosta was in the cable crucible in part because, reportedly, the binge-watching president had been keeping a close eye on coverage of Acosta and the Epstein case and did not like how things were looking. According to journalists covering the White House, Trump directed him to go on the air.
There is a long history of Trump administration officials, or would-be appointees, pleading their cases to Trump through TV. Staffers in the White House have appeared on his favorite news shows to send their boss messages through a screen that are apparently less persuasive when delivered by a mere flesh-and-blood human. Officials like Stephen Miller, Trump’s chief policy adviser, have seemed to rocket in the president’s esteem, and built power, on the basis of his boffo reviews of their aggressive media hits.
Most memorably, Brett Kavanaugh may have salvaged his Supreme Court nomination on national TV in a Senate hearing in which he showed Trump his own furious reflection. After Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, Trump was disappointed by a restrained interview on Fox News in which he believed that Kavanaugh had come across as feeble. After Kavanaugh came back and detonated in front of the Judiciary Committee, Trump tweeted a delighted review and stuck with him through confirmation.
In Acosta’s case, the charges against Epstein are so ghastly, and the stories continuing to emerge from his accusers so numerous and wrenching, that aggressive defensiveness and counterattack were not likely options.
But neither was apology, given that for his boss, the presidency means never having to say you’re sorry. (This was underscored in Tim Alberta’s recent reporting on the Trump campaign’s reaction to the “Access Hollywood” tape; the candidate ruled out an ABC interview that, he believed, would be about “extracting as many apologies as possible.”)
So in his TV defense, Acosta was caught between the indefensible and the unapologetic. He couldn’t say he was sorry, and he couldn’t seem not sorry. He instead seemed to want to muffle the controversy in a blanket of vague sympathy and lukewarm language, sidestepping the specific questions of why his office had not prosecuted the case more aggressively.
As for his present case: “I’m not here to send any signal to the president,” Acosta said. And yet, asked whether he had any confidence that the president would keep him on, he segued from “I serve at the pleasure of the president” to serving some of the talking points that most pleasure that president, praising the administration for “creating growth” and for standing for “the forgotten man and woman.”
We will have to see whether his hourlong episode — more tepid than the explosive drama that Trump usually prefers — was enough to save his job. It hardly began to address the anguish of the victims who have argued that Acosta let them down.
But it reminds us of the continuing reality of this administration: That it treats TV news as a show produced by and for a single viewer and that when you are called to perform in it, you had better put on the show he wants.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.