Tillerson's 'moron' moment was a gift for late night

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Rex Tillerson

The NBC News report on Wednesday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called President Trump a “moron” was simultaneously worrying, hilarious, and a relief. Worrying because it’s a terrible thing when your worst fears seem to be confirmed — that even Trump’s most trusted appointees lack faith in his ability to do the job he was elected to do. Hilarious because, well, “moron” is a funny word, and one that is so precisely apt, it prompts the kind of surprised amusement that is the very definition of humor. And a relief because finally someone besides your neighbor, and perhaps you, is saying this out loud — it reassures one that one is not alone in the world.

So how did the various media cover what Jimmy Kimmel called “the M word” story? MSNBC, as you might imagine given its corporate connection to NBC and its liberal tilt, was all over this. All In With Chris Hayes did a segment on it, as did Ari Melber guest-hosting The Rachel Maddow Show. It was the lead story for Lawrence O’Donnell, the only primetime news host whom one can easily imagine calling one of his own employees a moron.

Over on Fox News, however, there was far less mention of “moron.” Did Tucker Carlson address it on Wednesday? Not that I noticed. Sean Hannity? Nada. Shunted back to the afternoon, The Five did a segment on it, with the only plausible response: As Jesse Watters said, everyone calls their boss a moron, right? On her new show, The Daily Briefing, Dana Perino said that it was “remarkable” that Tillerson had “come out to address this,” which was a polite tiptoe around the fact that Tillerson’s response to the NBC report never actually denied he’d called the president a moron.

For late night television, “moron” was a gift. Stephen Colbert has long approached Trump from this angle — not that the president deserves criticism of his ideas and policies, but more that Trump is intellectually and emotionally unfit to occupy the office. That’s why on Wednesday night, in talking about Trump’s North Korea tweets, whose content directly undermines Tillerson’s efforts at diplomacy, Colbert put one of the “Little Rocket Man” tweets onscreen and said, “Spoken like a true moron.”

Jimmy Kimmel, in whom the various recent health care bills have sparked a fresh political conscience, also leapt on the story. Kimmel made sure to add that one of the reporters covering it, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, said that according to her source the phrase Tillerson actually used to describe Trump was “an effing moron.” (Hilariously, Joe Concha of the blog The Hill — a media reporter who frequently pops up on Tucker Carlson Tonight to give right-wing criticisms of the media — wrote a column yesterday saying the NBC report was flawed and dishonest because NBC failed to use the F word in its initial report.)

Why is this story significant, in media terms? Because it breaks down another barrier. It demonstrates that the instincts so many citizens have about the president, conclusions that had heretofore been considered too rude to say in public but which are widely felt, are shared at the highest levels of government. I also think it’s comforting. I have always assumed that the vast majority of Republicans who voted for Trump were intelligent people who had watched him during the campaign and arrived at the conclusion that Trump is whatever your variation on “moron” is, but made the calculated decision that he was a moron-agent-for-change and worth a gamble vote. I’m glad to see that sort of thinking confirmed. Sad, but glad.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. on CBS. Jimmy Kimmel Live airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. on ABC.

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