On Christmas Day, while most Americans were enjoying their turkey and eggnog, Republican National Committee Chairman and incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus sent out a holiday message to Americans. That message begins with this paragraph:
Merry Christmas to all! Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King. We hope Americans celebrating Christmas today will enjoy a day of festivities and a renewed closeness with family and friends.
Many people who read that were immediately taken aback, questioning whether Priebus was referring to Donald Trump as the "new King" and comparing his election to the birth of Jesus. The statement is ambiguous -- perhaps deliberately so -- but to a number of people who took to social media to comment, the message seemed quite clear.
Later in the day Sean Spicer, RNC Communications Director and soon to be White House Press Secretary, responded to the outrage over the message in typical Trump fashion:
That tweet was one of several sent by Spicer about the matter. The general gist was "Jesus is the king to Christians and how dare you insult him by interpreting our vague message in a political manner?". Spicer attacked CNN for running a story about the flap and even criticized Buzzfeed's reporting on it despite the fact that their story included tweets from a few who interpreted it in the way Spicer insisted it was intended.
But was Priebus really referring to Donald Trump as the "new King?" The wording of the statement leaves wiggle room for the GOP because the president-elect's name is never mentioned. There's a case to be made by Priebus, Spicer, and the RNC that he was not trying to compare Trump to Jesus. But that case is on fairly shaky ground.
"Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King." It seems strange to refer to Jesus as a "new King" in 2016, given that he has been regarded as the "king" of Christians for some 2,000 years. Poorly worded? Possibly. Maybe Priebus, like Trump, needs an editor.
Yet, it's also worth noting is that Trump's Reddit fans have been unironically referring to him as their "god-emperor" on the message board for months. Was Priebus sending them a nudge and a wink with his statement? He certainly has to be aware of how many Trump devotees refer to the incoming president in disturbingly worshipful terms.
Trump is a master at saying things in a way that allows him to later back away from them and at the same time accuse others of bias. Priebus's message and Spicer's response to the criticism appear to be taken directly from that playbook.