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Anatomy of a Smear: How the Media Created a Malicious Lie About Trump's 'Animals' Comment

On Wednesday afternoon, President Donald Trump hosted a "California sanctuary state roundtable" discussion at the White House. Infamously, he referred to violent MS-13 gang members as "animals." Americans wouldn't get that impression from reading Thursday's headlines, however.

"Trump Calls Some Unauthorized Immigrants ‘Animals’ in Rant," screamed The New York Times's Julie Hirschfeld Davis. Her article referenced MS-13 only once, buried as an aside in the third paragraph: "He exhorted his administration to 'do much better' in keeping out undesirable people, including members of transnational gangs like MS-13."

USA TODAY ran with the headline "Trump ramps up rhetoric on undocumented immigrants: 'These aren't people. These are animals.'" To their credit, Gregory Corte and Alan Gomez included a bit more context than The New York Times did. Even so, MS-13 did not come up until the fourth paragraph, and the opening sentence suggested that the president was "calling undocumented immigrants 'animals.'"

NPR's Scott Neuman ran with the same kind of twisted headline: "During Roundtable, Trump Calls Some Unauthorized Immigrants 'Animals.'" Unlike USA TODAY and The New York Times, Neuman updated the story, including remarks from counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Perhaps worse than these selective headlines, various media outlets shared a selectively edited clip of Trump's comments on Twitter. The clip removed the vital context of his comments — along with any mention of MS-13 — suggesting that the president was referring to all illegal immigrants as "animals."

CNN shared the context-less video, complete with a quote from Trump. "We're taking people out of the country. You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people — these are animals," CNN quoted. The outlet provided a context without any mention of MS-13: "During a meeting with public officials who oppose California’s sanctuary policies, Pres. Trump criticized US immigration laws."

While Trump did make the remarks at a meeting about California's sanctuary policies, that disclaimer does not count as context to explain the "animals" comment. Even so, each outlet seemed to think it did. Here's ABC News:

CBS News did the same, identifying the target of Trump's "animals" remark as "some undocumented immigrants."

NBC News provided even less context. The outlet didn't attempt to reinterpret Trump's remark as applying to illegal immigrants, but it also refused to mention MS-13.

CSPAN did the same.

The New York Times, once again the worst offender, tweeted: "Trump lashed out at undocumented immigrants during a White House meeting, calling those trying to breach the country’s borders 'animals.'" Notice the lack of that important qualifier, "some."

Contrary to The New York Times, CNN, CBS News, and others, Trump clearly was referring not just to "undocumented immigrants" but to MS-13 members in particular.

Trump opened the event discussing the threat of violent gang members. He attacked sanctuary state laws because they harbor violent criminals:

A law that forces the release of illegal immigrant criminals, drug dealers, gang members, and violent predators into your communities.

California’s law provides safe harbor to some of the most vicious and violent offenders on Earth, like MS-13 gang members putting innocent men, women, and children at the mercy of these sadistic criminals.  But we’re moving them out of this country by the thousands.  MS-13, we’re grabbing them by the thousands and we’re getting them out, Kevin.

Here is the exchange in question, in its proper context:

SHERIFF MIMS:  Thank you.  There could be an MS-13 member I know about — if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.

THE PRESIDENT:  We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country.  You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are.  These aren’t people.  These are animals.  And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.  And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out.  It’s crazy.

Conway called out the attacks for what they were — a sensational rush to judgment. "Others who rushed to judgment to get the President rather than to get the story owe [President Trump]- and the grieving loved ones who have lost family members to gang violence - an apology," the counselor tweeted.

At a press conference Thursday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders clarified that Trump was "very clearly referring to MS-13 gang members who enter the country illegally and whose deportations are hamstrung by our laws."

As if there were any remaining doubt, the president himself explained, "I'm referring and you know I'm referring to the MS-13 gangs that are coming in. I was talking about the MS-13. And if you look a little bit further on in the tape you'll see that. So I'm actually surprised that you're asking this question 'cause most people got it right."

"MS-13, these are animals," he continued on Thursday. "They're coming into our country, we're getting them out. They come in again, we're getting them out. We need strong immigration laws. ... We have laws that are laughed at on immigration. So when the MS-13 comes in, when the other gang members come into our country, I refer to them as animals and guess what? I always will."

Sarah Huckabee Sanders further defended Trump's remarks. "If the media and liberals want to defend MS-13, they're more than welcome to," she said. "Frankly, I don't think the term that the president used was strong enough. MS-13 has done heinous acts."

"It took an animal to stab a man 100 times and decapitate him and rip his heart out," she added. "It took an animal to beat a woman they were sex trafficking with a bat 28 times, indenting part of her body. And it took an animal to kidnap, drug and rape a 14-year-old Houston girl."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) attacked Trump's "animals" comment. "Does he not believe in the spark of divinity, the dignity and worth of every person?" she asked, insisting that "we are all God's children."

Pelosi was right to attack Trump's comment as dehumanizing from a Christian perspective. Even though human beings are inherently sinful and capable of doing utterly heinous acts, they cannot lose their dignity as made in the image of God. This does not make all people "God's children," however — only those who believe in Jesus have that right (John 1).

The inherent dignity of all people is a central moral foundation for Western civilization and the American idea. Trump's comments do arguably threaten that. Even so, attacking violent murderous MS-13 gang members as "animals" is something extremely different from dehumanizing all illegal — or "undocumented" — immigrants.

Trump's comments may still have been wrong and even slightly offensive, but that doesn't make the misreporting of outlets like The New York Times any more innocent. One of the worst effects of America's polarization and post-truth culture is this disastrous idea that so long as someone opposes my team's enemies (Trump or the Left) they must, therefore, be virtuous. Americans — and especially outlets like The New York Times— should defend truth, even at the expense of their own tribal camp.

Some journalists did rise to this occasion. CNN's Oliver Darcy called out various media outlets for misrepresenting Trump's comments, and CNN's Jake Tapper helped spread the message.

Tapper later tweeted screenshots of the White House transcript showing the full context.

He also retweeted Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who called the Left's outrage "disgusting" and declared, "Let the record reflect that I have no issue with people who murder & rape being referred to as 'animals.'"

Also to its credit, the Associated Press (AP) deleted a tweet about the "animals" comment, acknowledging that it quoted the remarks out of context.

Whether or not Trump should have called MS-13 gang members "animals," the media should certainly have reported that the president did not just attack "some undocumented immigrants" this way. Intentionally removing the context or twisting the facts to make Trump out as an immigrant-hating bigot is dishonest, no matter how offensive the president's remarks were.