Yesterday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary, stood in at the daily press briefing for her boss, Sean Spicer, while he was away on Navy Reserve duty. It was a daunting time to dance onto the global stage. The day before, President Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, who was heading an investigation as to whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election.
And although the “folksy, friendlier” Sanders got good reviews for her demeanor — not getting too combative with the press, and conducting the briefing indoors, in full lighting and many feet away from foliage — her performance was not without its bumps in syntax.
In explaining President Trump’s justifications for firing Comey on Monday, Sanders said Comey had “committed basic atrocities” during his time heading the bureau.
?Lookups for ‘atrocity’ are up over 5200%. No one is looking up ‘basic’. https://t.co/jrYYCNFWwl
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) May 10, 2017
“Having a letter like the one he received, and having that conversation that outlined the basic atrocities in circumventing the chain of command and the Department of Justice,” she said. “Any person of legal mind and authority knows what a big deal that is.”
(Sanders was apparently referring to, at least in part, the news conference Comey held before the election in which he announced Hillary Clinton would not be prosecuted for her email scandal, which was widely viewed as overstepping his job description.)
It is unclear what exactly “basic atrocities” means as an expression. Atrocities, as defined before the Trump administration, are commonly understood to be somewhat deluxe in their sadism. According to United Nations literature, “atrocity” refers to three legally defined international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. “Atrocity crimes are considered to be the most serious crimes against humankind,” says a UN guide. “Their status as international crimes is based on the belief that the acts associated with them affect the core dignity of human beings.”
Going above your boss’ head does not yet qualify.
After the briefing, California Rep. Adam Schiff criticized Sanders’s word choice on CNN. “For her to say Comey was guilty of some ‘atrocity’?” Schiff said. “It’s embarrassing.”
Surprisingly, as of this afternoon, Instagram — which went a long way toward making “basic” a universal slang term — had not jumped on the #basicatrocities hashtag.