Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to backtrack a comment about Hawaii from last week that many Americans found offensive, using one of the oldest tricks in the book to deflect the criticism. Sessions blamed the outrage over his Hawaii comment on people's lack of humor, but the comment isn't funny to anyone who knows the broader context.
Sessions made the comment last week during an interview on The Mark Levin Show, a conservative talk radio program, while talking about the future of the travel ban that was blocked by Hawaiian federal judge Derrick K. Watson.
"I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power," Sessions said to Levin.
This attitude toward Hawaii, as some "island in the Pacific" is so dismissive that it would be difficult not to be offended, especially if you are from there. First of all, the history of the U.S. and Hawaii is so wildly messed up that the subject absolutely deserves special sensitivity when discussing it, even a century later. Plus, Sessions is supposed to be a defender for all Americans, not just those for whom it is convenient for him to protect.
Instead of recognizing his mistake and offering a sincere apology, however, Sessions decided to do what people often do when caught making an offensive statement, and what the country has often seen the Trump administration do so far: blame it on other people. Sunday, Sessions tried to defend his comment during an interview with ABC's This Week.
"Why not just call it the state of Hawaii?" Stephanopoulos asked Sessions when the subject came up. "Nobody has a sense of humor any more," Sessions said.
It's unclear how exactly this was supposed to be a joke, and Sessions didn't seem to be joking at all when he made the initial comment. But even if it had been meant in jest, nobody was laughing. When people say they are offended by something you said, the proper and polite thing to do is to apologize. Sessions doesn't get to decide what's funny and what's not, and good intentions don't matter if the actions still resulted in hurt feelings.
Sessions messed up, but instead of taking responsibility for it, he tried to say that it was everybody else's fault for taking the comment seriously. The larger problem with that defense is that Sessions is in charge of one of the most important sections of the federal bureaucracy, and the American people are supposed to be able to take him seriously when he makes a statement. In this case, they took him seriously when he undermined the validity of an American state, and they won't let him off the hook just because he claims it was a joke.