In an extensive tirade against Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) for her vote in support of his impeachment on Wednesday night, President Donald Trump went after her late husband John, the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, and suggested that he might be “looking up” from hell now.
“‘John would be so thrilled. He’s looking down.’… I said, ‘That’s okay. Don’t worry about it,’” Trump recalled Dingell telling him during a phone call in February after her husband’s passing. “Maybe he’s looking up, I don’t know.”
The attack on the former Congressman caught Dingell and her colleagues by surprise. In response, Dingell tweeted that Trump’s “hurtful words” made her healing from her husband’s passing in February “much harder.”
“Mr. President, let’s set politics aside,” Dingell said. “My husband earned all his accolades after a lifetime of service. I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”
A number of Dingell’s Democratic colleagues responded more forcefully, including Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), who called Trump “mentally ill,” and Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, who said people would remember his “cruel” and “disgusting” remarks. GOP Reps. Fred Upton and Paul Mitchell, both from Michigan, also criticized Trump and called on him to apologize for his attack.
Cindy McCain, another widow whose husband, former Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has become a frequent target of Trump’s since his death in 2017, also tweeted her support to Dingell.
This is not the first time that Trump has attacked Dingell by invoking her late husband. Just a few days earlier he tweeted that the last time he had spoken to her was when she thanked him for honoring John Dingell but that she was now tearing him apart in the “impeachment hoax.”
Despite the bipartisan backlash to Trump’s remarks, some news outlets chose to report on the incident with framing that presented the attack on Dingell’s husband and her response as comparable political shots.
NEW: Rep. Debbie Dingell hit back at President Trump after he mocked her and her late husband, Rep. John Dingell, whom he suggested may be in hell: You brought me down in a way you can never imagine"https://t.co/TpRcyOadqP
— Axios (@axios) December 19, 2019
In a tweet linking to its coverage of the incident, Axios reported that Dingell “hit back at President Trump after he mocked her and her late husband.” The article itself was later updated “with more details and context,” though it is unclear if that included a revised headline.
Former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien tweeted that Axios’ framing was an excellent example of the media framing one-sided issues as false equivalences.
“According to @axios Congresswoman Dingell ‘hit back’ by talking about her grief after the President suggested her dead husband is in hell? That’s ‘hitting back’?” O’Brien said. “Whew. Media is not serving you, folks.”
In response to a comment arguing that the framing was less a result of false equivalence and more an issue of “sloppy” and “lazy” writing, O’Brien said the tweet was “obviously sloppy and lame,” but also “due to the ‘both sides’ mindset.” Meanwhile, Lis Power, director of media intelligence at Media Matters, called the framing “an absolutely idiotic way to characterize this exchange.”
In addition to Axios, Time Magazine came under fire for reporting that Dingell “hit back” at Trump. Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for the New York Times, was also criticized for focusing on the optics of Trump’s remarks.
“He often has no sense of place at these events. Doing this in Michigan is not the best spot,” Haberman tweeted.
One Twitter user replied: “Maggie, you could have cut off your statement after the first five words and been perfectly accurate.” Another comment read, “Where is a good spot to denigrate the memory of someone by implying they went to hell because the family didn’t show you enough deference?”
Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, defended Trump’s comments on Thursday morning by saying that he is a “counter puncher” and was merely “riffing” off of the political attacks he has faced during his term. Grisham expressed her sympathy for the Congresswoman’s loss but did not apologize on behalf of the President or indicate that the President is prepared to offer an apology himself.