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Why USA Today’s ‘Trump unfit to scrub toilets’ editorial was a huge misfire

  • USA Today's editorial board recently published a scathing and often accurate attack on President Trump's behavior.
  • But the column quickly descended to its own level of hypocritical nastiness.
  • It thus became the latest example of over-the-top Trump criticism that actually helps Trump's cause overall.
President Donald Trump delivers remarks to reporters at the start of a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
President Donald Trump delivers remarks to reporters at the start of a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2017.

Newspaper editorials bashing President Donald Trump are a daily occurrence. But an op-ed by the USA Today editorial board earlier this month turned things up more than a few notches. It also proved that many of the president's biggest critics continue to undermine their attacks by sinking to his level.

Responding to Trump's tweet claiming that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand would "do anything" for a campaign donation," the editorial accused him of hitting rock bottom and being unfit for office.

The key line in the column speaks for itself:

A president who'd all but call a senator a whore is unfit to clean toilets in Obama's presidential library or to shine George W. Bush's shoes.

Let's not be naïve. Love or hate Trump, the editorial made very good points about his incivility and disrespectful tone which adds to the already ugly level of discourse in this country.

This president takes advantage of the most powerful messaging platform in history. He not only has 44.8 million Twitter followers, but his every word is publicized and scrutinized.

Sadly, he routinely uses that attention to take potshots at his rivals and rarely takes the high road. Whether he's sticking it to Mika Brzezinski for "bleeding badly from a face-lift" or attacking senators from both parties, the national discourse suffers when he keeps in the gutter.

For that, he shouldn't get a pass.

But most of the correct points USA Today made about that issue were lost in a self-made haze of naked opportunism. These are failings that not only undermine this particular editorial, but a great deal of anti-Trump criticism.

The essay first fails when it trashes Trump's lowly behavior, and then matches it with equally low discourse about Trump cleaning toilets.

"USA Today must have known that publishing a piece where you talk about Trump not being fit to scrub toilets would serve as dynamite "click bait.""

The column also made no effort to qualify one of its most scathing arguments. Instead of honestly saying Trump called some of the people who participated in the controversial march in Charlottesville, Va., "very fine people," the column says he called "white supremacists" very fine people. There's a difference.

The authors similarly failed to accurately portray Trump's criticism of chain migration in light of the Port Authority bombing attempt by a Bangladeshi immigrant last week. The editorial rhetorically asks why "all immigrants brought to this country by family are suspect?" just because one chain migrant attempted this attack. But the president never said "all immigrants brought to this country by family are suspect."

The piece also commits serious sins of omission. At one point it says that the basic decency of President George W. Bush was "never in doubt."

That statement simply doesn't hold up. Attacks on personal decency have been a regular reality for leading Republicans for decades. Leading Democrats accused John McCain of supporting racism. Mitt Romney got hit with that "racist" label, along with being fingered for supposed sexism and hatred for the poor. And how can anyone forget how President George W. Bush was accused of failing to help victims of Hurricane Katrina because of his alleged racism? "Decency never in doubt?" It seems the USA Today doesn't remember much of the news pre-2009.

The result of decades of this kind of crying wolf about other Republicans enabled candidate Trump to dodge much of their impact. When you throw words like "racist" and "sexist" at every Republican, they lose their meaning. This editorial just looks like more of the same.

But there is one aspect of the editorial that was right on the money. USA Today must have known that publishing a piece where you talk about Trump not being fit to scrub toilets would serve as dynamite "click bait."

Now, this profession is a competitive and increasingly challenging industry, and there's nothing wrong with trying to get more business. In that context, the Trump effect is undeniable. The wall-to-wall coverage of all things Trump has helped boost cable TV news ratings and many online newspaper subscriptions across the board.

In this environment, it sure looks like USA Today wanted to make that column stand out in the crowded field of Trump-related content. They succeeded in that goal, but failed in another in that it looks like "fighting with Trump" isn't about principles as much as it is about dollar signs.

In this way, Trump is actually very lucky. Those who criticize him for his undeniably bad behavior seem unable to avoid behaving just as badly. When mainstream papers stoop to the level of conjuring up images of the president of the United States scrubbing toilets, Trump actually wins.

Perhaps his critics will figure that out before 2020.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.