In the Harry Potter books, there was the evil Lord Voldemort — “he who must not be named.”
In Donald Trump’s world, there are Ivanka Trump and John Kelly — they who must not be questioned.
The operative word in this latter world, we learn, is “inappropriate.”
“I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s affirmatively stated that there’s no truth to it,” Ms. Trump said, scolding the NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander in an interview on “Today.”
Alexander wanted to know if the women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct should be believed.
After all, Ivanka Trump bills herself as a champion of women, is a close adviser to her father and a frequent representative of the United States abroad.
Uncomfortable, yes. Inappropriate, no. (And yes, I thought a similar question to Chelsea Clinton about her father’s accusers during the 2016 presidential campaign was fair game, even though — unlike Ivanka — she was not a government representative.)
The Ivanka episode echoed Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s response to journalists about White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly last October. Kelly got the facts wrong — or lied, if you will — when he tried to discredit Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, a Florida Democrat who had criticized President Trump for the insensitive way he spoke to a soldier’s widow in a condolence phone call.
“If you wanna go after General Kelly, that’s up to you, but I think that — if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate,” Sanders said.
There’s that word again.
Sorry, but being a first daughter, or a general, doesn’t let anyone off the hook here.
The question to Ivanka Trump might have been inappropriate if she had no role in government or no voice on women’s issues, but that’s far from the case.
As for Kelly, Sanders’s claim was silly on its face, and merely a way to avoid the real question — a perfectly legitimate one.
Far from backing off, journalists should hone their questioning skills and find new ways to pin down this particularly slippery administration.
“The immediate news cycle rewards speed, but the most effective questions require an almost lawyerly precision, along with careful honing and preparation,” said Frank Sesno, author of “Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change ” and the director of the journalism school at George Washington University.
Sesno added: “Especially with this coached class of public officials, every question has to be outcome-driven — strategic about what you are looking for.”
We need more of that.
Journalists have pretty much given up on asking about Trump’s tax returns, for example — a matter of great public interest.
Is there a better way to ask?
Instead of questioning Trump — or his spokeswoman — on when he’s going to release his returns or if he’s ever going to release them, what if the query went something like this: “Do you think Americans are entitled to know how tax reform has affected you personally and how it affects your businesses?”
What if, instead of merely fact-checking Trump or tallying up his false statements, he — or his spokeswoman — were asked about them directly:
“Fact-checkers have found more than a thousand examples of your saying things that are simply untrue. These are often simple matters of fact, for example, your repeated statements that the United States is the highest-taxed nation in the world. Why do you — or why does the president — say so many things that aren’t true?”
I’m not suggesting that these kinds of questions magically will produce tax returns or satisfying answers about presidential falsehoods. And, granted, Trump tends to choose friendly interviewers who wouldn’t dream of making him uncomfortable.
Still, there are opportunities. Journalists need to do a better job of finding them. Alexander deserves points for trying.
Failing to ask these kinds of big-picture questions is tantamount to accepting that important norms have collapsed.Those norms include the idea that a president will reveal his finances to citizens and that he will be held accountable for speaking truthfully.
Asking reasonable questions of those who think they’re in a protected class certainly isn’t wrong.
What’s wrong is that, too often, we’ve given up on getting answers.
This piece was originally published in the Washington Post.