A few years ago, the TV comedy team of Key & Peele had a running shtick: the Obama Anger Translator.
Jordan Peele would speak to the camera in the measured, deliberate cadence of Barack Obama. Standing over his shoulder would be partner Keegan Michael Key, twitching with barely contained rage as he translated Obama's words into the sort of rant the mild-mannered president could only have fantasized about delivering.
President Trump has an anger translator, too: Bakersfield's congressman, Rep. Kevin McCarthy. In their case, though, it works in reverse: Trump tweets out unhelpful, uninformed, or just plain wrong threats and accusations, sometimes angrily, and McCarthy calmly "clarifies" the president's words in the more gracious language of a seasoned politician.
It happened again this week when Trump tweeted out a threat to cut off emergency funding for areas of California devastated by wildfires last year.
"Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” Trump tweeted, perhaps unaware that most of the burned acreage is federally managed. “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
Republican legislators from California, none of them normally given to criticism of the president, expressed outrage.
"Tone deaf" was how Assemblyman Steve Gallagher, R-Yuba City, characterized Trump's tweet. "Wholly unacceptable” was how state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, in a joint statement with Gallagher, termed it.
Some called on McCarthy to similarly reject the president's threat.
McCarthy must have known from experience that that wouldn't be necessary: He would simply translate.
"The President's message shows clear frustration about an important issue that has not been resolved," McCarthy wrote in a prepared statement, "(and that's) how we deal with addressing wildfires in California going forward so that more lives aren't at risk. We are all frustrated with the lack of proper forest management that could mitigate the damage."
McCarthy also made clear that Washington would not walk away from California — no matter what might be suggested.
“The President and his administration understand the severity of the devastation and have delivered for Californians," McCarthy wrote, noting that Trump had personally viewed some of the Camp Fire's aftermath. "House Republicans worked with the administration to pass supplemental appropriations in October of 2017 and February of 2018 that provided California access to tens of billions of dollars of disaster relief and recovery funding."
McCarthy cited additional support approved by Congress later in 2018 and promised to seek more funding for wildfire relief and prevention.
As of Saturday, Trump still had not clarified his FEMA directive. It appears at this point to have been pure bluster.
We knew McCarthy wasn't going to abandon Trump on this issue, but he surely wasn't going to abandon the California firefighters who worked the front lines either. The McCarthy family has a deep and proud firefighting tradition: McCarthy's late father, Owen, was Bakersfield's assistant fire chief. Owen McCarthy's brother — the congressman's uncle, Tom McCarthy — was Kern County fire chief.
Rep. McCarthy puts out fires of a different sort.
The Trump Anger Translator went into action in January 2018, too, when Trump tweeted out his opposition to a bill to reauthorize the government's authority to conduct foreign surveillance on U.S. soil.
"'House votes on controversial FISA ACT today,'" Trump wrote, quoting a Fox News headline. "This is the act that may have been used, with the help of the discredited and phony Dossier, to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration and others?"
That's not how the Republican leadership wanted its members to vote, however, and it was left to McCarthy to ease their minds. At a meeting of confounded GOP lawmakers, he stood up and handed his cellphone to Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, who read aloud the president's backtracking tweet, issued an hour after the first, alarming one.
"With that being said," Trump tweeted, "I have personally directed the fix to the unmasking process since taking office and today's vote is about foreign surveillance of foreign bad guys on foreign land. We need it! Get smart!"
McCarthy clearly has a way with the president — a touch that allows him to nudge Trump in the desired direction without offending or embarrassing.
He did it almost exactly one year ago when, in a White House meeting with legislators on immigration reform, Trump seemed to be leaning favorably toward an agreement with Democrats to protect "Dreamers" — but without demanding any concessions in return. McCarthy to the rescue: "Mr. President, you need to be clear, though. ... You have to have security,” he gently objected. Trump pulled back, hanging onto the border-wall card for later use.
"The president picks up on Kevin being a different kind of guy," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told The Washington Post last year. "(He's) someone who speaks in analogies and uses empathy, who doesn't really ever get emotional but doesn't get too in the weeds, either."
We sometimes make light of the apparent affinity between the president and "my Kevin," but that affinity allows McCarthy to inject a measure of stability and (partisan) direction into the chaotic meanderings of this administration.
They may not quite have the comedy chops to justify a second- (or third-) career foray into two-man standup, but McCarthy and Trump definitely have an act that bears watching.