WASHINGTON — It was not the racist comment that made the president angry. It was the apology from ABC.
Wading into a public outcry over remarks made by comedian Roseanne Barr, President Donald Trump did not condemn on Wednesday the language she had employed in a Twitter post about a black former aide to President Barack Obama that led to the swift cancellation of her popular rebooted ABC sitcom, “Roseanne.” Instead he expressed his own grievances with the network over what its on-air personalities have said about him, and said that he was the one who deserved an apology.
He specifically called out Robert A. Iger, the chairman of Disney, the parent company of ABC, who had phoned the former Obama aide, Valerie Jarrett, on Tuesday to apologize for Barr’s language. The president, referring to himself in the third person, complained on Twitter that Iger had “never called President Donald J. Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC.”
His response was not a total surprise. Trump has reacted to other divisive events not by issuing statements of unity or moral clarity as other presidents might have done, but by finding equivalence or diverting attention. He declared last summer that there were “fine people” on both sides of a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and when African-Americans raised the issue of police brutality last fall, he attacked the NFL players who knelt during the national anthem in protest.
While Trump did not specify the “horrible statements” that he attributed to the network, ABC is home to Jimmy Kimmel, the late-night host who is a notable critic of the president’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and “The View,” whose panel of pundits like Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg has been a reliable thorn in Trump’s side.
Later in the day, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, followed up on the president’s tweet by furnishing a list of expanded gripes that members of the Trump administration have against those in the news media who have slighted the president or his supporters.
Sanders ticked off notable names whom she said had not apologized. That included several media personalities who work or have worked under the Disney umbrella, like Jemele Hill, the former ESPN host who called Trump a white supremacist; Keith Olbermann, the liberal commentator recently hired by ESPN, who has described the president as a “Nazi” on Twitter; and Behar, a host of “The View” on ABC, for suggesting that Vice President Mike Pence’s Christian beliefs were a sign of mental illness. (She later apologized to Pence, who called the exchange “sincere.”)
Kathy Griffin, the comedian who posed for a photo shoot with a model of a severed head that resembled the president’s, was also a target of Sanders’ ire.
“The president is pointing to the hypocrisy in the media, saying that the most horrible things about this president, and nobody addresses it,” Sanders said. “Where was the apology for Kathy Griffin going on a profane rant against the president on ‘The View’ after a photo showed her holding President Trump’s decapitated head?” “And where was the apology from Bob Iger for ESPN hiring Keith Olbermann after his numerous expletive-laced tweets attacking the president as a Nazi,” Sanders continued, “and even expanding Olbermann’s role after that attack against the president’s family?”
Finishing her list, Sanders referred to Barr’s remarks. “This is a double standard that the president is speaking about,” Sanders said. “No one is defending her comments.”
But neither she nor Trump condemned them either. “They’re inappropriate, but that’s not the point he was making,” Sanders added.
Just a day earlier, the drama over Barr’s tweet had seemed to be below the president’s radar. Speaking to reporters on Air Force One before Trump appeared at a rally in Nashville, Tennessee, Sanders suggested that the president had better things to do than follow a Twitter outcry.
“That’s not what the president is looking at,” Sanders said. “That’s not what he’s spending his time on.”
A representative for Disney did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the president’s Twitter post, but the president has been incensed by ABC’s coverage before. George Stephanopoulos, the chief anchor of ABC News, conducted the first televised interview this year with James B. Comey, the fired FBI director, who skewered Trump on air. And Brian Ross, an ABC News correspondent, was suspended last year after he broadcast an incorrect report about Michael T. Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser.
Barr, who until this week was the star of one of the network’s most popular shows, was one of the few ABC personalities to live comfortably outside the president’s cross hairs. She has been vocal in her support of Trump and wanted the revival of her sitcom to address some of the divisive political issues facing the United States.
“I just wanted to have that dialogue about families torn apart by the election and their political differences of opinion and how we handle it,” she said in an interview in March. “I thought that this was an important thing to say at this time.”
Trump, who fixates on TV ratings — he publicly pondered his middle-of-the-night ratings while greeting freed American prisoners from North Korea at an air base this month — was impressed by the strong showing of the “Roseanne” reboot’s premiere. In March, he called Barr to congratulate her, and later, at a rally in Ohio, he closely aligned his populist message with the show’s success, saying to the crowd that the show’s high ratings had been “about us.”
After her triumphant return to network TV, Barr swiftly lost her show. But inflammatory tweets sent from her account had never been out of the ordinary. Barr’s post targeting Jarrett was the latest in a string of retweets and original posts — some since deleted, some still visible — that indulge in conspiracy theories, links to pro-Israel articles and attacks against the news media.
In the aftermath of her show’s cancellation, she apologized, blaming the Twitter messages in part on the sleep aid Ambien and the Memorial Day holiday. In another post that has since been removed, Barr asked her supporters to not defend her comments, saying that they were made “at 2 in the morning and I was ambien tweeting-it was memorial day too,” she said. “I went 2 far & do not want it defended-it was egregious Indefensible.”
Sanofi, the makers of Ambien, immediately pushed back.
“People of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi every day to improve the lives of people around the world,” the company said on Twitter. “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
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