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Opinion: Nikki Haley’s ‘SNL’ cameo raises questions about Trump we should all be asking

Opinion: Nikki Haley’s ‘SNL’ cameo raises questions about Trump we should all be asking

Editor’s NoteDean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show.” Follow him on Threads. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, taking part in a skit in which she pressed “Donald Trump” on some vitally important issues.

Dean Obeidallah - CNN
Dean Obeidallah - CNN

Haley’s questions had to do with the refusal by the real-life former president — not the actor who plays him brilliantly on the comedy skit show — to debate her. And she reprised her frequent suggestions from the campaign trail that the 77-year-old president might be suffering cognitive decline.

Both issues raise red flags about Trump that all of us, from journalists to average Americans, should be demanding answers about.

The “SNL” sketch was a parody of a CNN town hall — one that never really took place — co-hosted by Gayle King (cast member Punkie Johnson) and Charles Barkley (cast member Kenan Thompson) with Trump played by the very funny James Austin Johnson.

Johnson’s Trump began delivering laughs by answering questions from random South Carolina voters, including one that asked “Trump” what made him think he could defeat President Joe Biden. Johnson-as-Trump answered that voters are “sick of having an alleged criminal like Joe Biden in the White House,” and instead want “a convicted criminal — someone they can trust to get the crimes done right.”

Later in the skit came the unannounced appearance by Haley, who was introduced as a “concerned South Carolina voter.” The former Palmetto State governor posed an important question to Johnson’s Trump: “Why won’t you debate Nikki Haley?” That led Trump to respond, “Oh my God, it’s her. The woman in charge of security on January 6.”

Of course, this joke was meant to evoke Trump’s gaffes at a campaign rally last month, when he repeatedly told an audience that “Nikki Haley” was in charge of security at the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. In fact, Haley was not serving in any government position at the time and, despite Trump’s repeated assertions to the contrary, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not to blame for lapses in Capitol security that day either.

Haley then raised the issue of Trump’s mental fitness, asking, “Are you doing OK, Donald? You might need a mental competency test.” “Trump” quickly assured her that he had “aced” one such test, adding, “They told me I’m 100% mental.”

Trump’s repeated lapses and his refusal to debate Haley were raised by “SNL” for laughs, but they deserve serious examination. The more worrying of the two issues is Trump’s possible cognitive decline, a topic Haley has been raising frequently as of late.

The list of the former president’s recent verbal slip-ups is too long to ignore. Even conservative media personality Megyn Kelly — who interviewed Trump one-on-one in September — recently stated on Glenn Beck’s radio show that “there’s no question that Trump has lost a step, or multiple steps,” as she ticked off some of his recent mental errors, including repeatedly confusing Biden with former President Barack Obama.

Then there is Haley’s demand that Trump debate her, a matter which in my view is not unrelated to the issue of Trump’s mental acuity.

If Trump were to take the debate stage, voters would have the chance to hear him responding live to questions and would be in a better position to assess his mental sharpness. Trump’s refusal to debate during the GOP primaries so far has deprived the nation that opportunity. Indeed, before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped out of the GOP presidential race, his campaign suggested that a lack of mental sharpness by the former president might be the reason “his handlers won’t let him debate.”

Trump’s refusal to take part in any debates so far points to a broader issue: his repeated rejection of the trappings of our democracy. Trump became the first president in more than 150 years to refuse to attend the swearing-in of his successor. He has trafficked in falsehoods and mocked the military service of war heroes.

But Trump has gone well beyond rejecting democratic norms. He has rejected democracy itself with his alleged efforts after the 2020 election to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, for which he is now facing numerous felony charges in federal and state courts, although he denies having done anything wrong. It’s a far lesser transgression, but Trump’s refusal to debate Haley should be viewed by all Americans through that prism.

With increasing frequency, “SNL” and late night comedians like Stephen Colbert are highlighting Trump’s mistakes in their jokes, keeping the issue current in pop culture. Given that Trump would become commander in chief if he wins the presidency, journalists must also dig deeper on this topic.

Reporters need to delve further into what’s behind Trump’s jaw-dropping gaffes and his alarming rejection of democratic norms. The stakes are far too high for our nation to overlook these issues.

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