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First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
The Daily Trump: Filling a Time Capsule
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People will look back on this era in our history to see what was known about Donald Trump while Americans were deciding whether to choose him as president. Here’s a running chronicle from James Fallows on the evidence available to voters as they make their choice, and of how Trump has broken the norms that applied to previous major-party candidates. (For a Fallows-led, ongoing reader discussion on Trump’s rise to the presidency, see “Trump Nation.”)

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Four years ago, the man on the left won 47.2% of the popular vote for president. When all of this year's votes are counted, the man on the right will probably come in slightly below that number. Mike Segar / Reuters

Back in May, I kicked off a Trump Time Capsule series, designed to note what we knew, when we knew it, about the man who was trying to become president. Earlier this month, just before the election, I wound up the series with installment #152.

From the beginning I imagined this as a temporary, moment-in-time project. To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether it would last beyond 10 or 15 entries. Now that the race is over and the reality of the 45th presidency is sinking in, every day I’ve received numerous notes like this one:

I saw a clip of Paul Ryan the other day, blithely dismissing concerns about Trump’s kids running his business and being part of the transition team. The thought occurred to me: This should be in the Trump Time Capsule.

Really, why did the Trump Capsule end? I know it was to record abnormal aspects of his campaign, but it was also a way to pressure and shame Republican leaders, by making them—and the public—fully cognizant of what they were supporting. I feel like we need that now. You’re still mentioning abnormal things that Trump is doing in the transition. I think it’s important for the public to know and to prod Republicans.

Also, if you would seriously consider restarting this, can make a suggestion? What about having a conservative/Republican join you in this? (Think of someone like Alan Simpson.) This would be a booster shot to the project, inoculating it against the liberal bias virus. This could give more authority to your observations. Actually, it’d be great if a group of journalists, politicians, academics from across the political spectrum could band together and speak in one voice on these issues.

Good question. Answer after the jump.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Five and a half months ago, as Donald Trump effectively clinched the Republican nomination, I thought it would be worth keeping track day-by-day of what the American public knew about Trump while it was deciding whether he would become its next president. Thus the Trump Time Capsule series, which began with installments #1 through #3 on May 23, and comes to an end with #152 today.

The main idea was to chronicle what was different about Trump: Norm-changing, unprecedented statements or positions or revelations that would have stopped any previous candidate but that did not impede him.

As I look back over these unfolding stories, I see at least 40 or 50 that would have had that campaign-ending potential in any previous year. The mocking of first John McCain and then the Captain Khan family? The “Mexican judge”? The “grab ’em by the pussy” Access Hollywood tape and subsequent complaints? The de-facto admission that he’s paid no taxes, and the trail of fraud and buncombe left by his businesses and “charities”? The refusal to provide tax information at all? The disprovable-even-as-he-said-them series of lies? The ever-more evident intrusions on his behalf by a foreign government? “She should be in jail”? “It’s all rigged folks, I tell you”? I alone?

To put these into perspective, just think back to the comparatively pipsqueak “scandals” of a more innocent time: Whether Sarah Palin really read newspapers. Whether Barack Obama called some people “bitter.” Whether Mitt Romney thought 47 percent of the public might be freeloading. Whether Rick Perry had to leave the race because he forgot one of his talking points in a brain-freeze on stage. Whether Dan Quayle could spell “potatoe.” Whether Al Gore exaggerated his role as a founder of the internet. Whether the young George Bush had had a DUI. The chagrin these episodes caused to their victims is almost touching. The candidates’ embarrassment indicated that they believed there was a standard in public life they needed to live up to.

***

This cycle’s only “scandal” that fits the pre-existing scale is the Hillary Clinton email saga, which has been ludicrously exaggerated by adversary outlets (Breitbart / Fox) and by “mainstream” media (most cable TV, too often the NYT) to the point where many voters assume that it’s on a par with, say, Donald Trump’s reckless comments about nuclear weapons or treaties or rule-of-law, his deceptions about his finances, his long record with women, his numberless provable lies.

Hillary Clinton’s management of her email server was a mistake, which probably reflects something more general about her—just as other similar-scaled mistakes by other candidates in the past reflected more generally on them. But there is no sane argument that it has deserved even one tenth the press attention it has received this year. As Matt Yglesias points out in a new Vox item, TV coverage this cycle, in aggregate, spent more airtime on the email “scandal” than on all policy matters combined.

Presented with minimal elaboration, today’s installment of the “what is Director Comey thinking?” saga:

CNBC report, on Halloween 2016

This story is still in the “unnamed sources say...” category, though it’s by an experienced and reputable reporter, Eamon Javers. Like everything else in these chaotic final days of this unendurable campaign, its full implications are impossible to know while the news is still unfolding.

But at face value the report underscores the depth of the bad judgment that James Comey displayed last week. It suggests that the director of the FBI knew, reflected upon, and was deterred by the possible election-distorting effects of releasing information early this month about Russian attempts to tamper with the upcoming election. Better to err on the side of not putting the FBI’s stamp on politically sensitive allegations—even though, as Javers’s source contends, Comey believed the allegations of Russian interference to be true:

According to the [unnamed former FBI] official, Comey agreed with the conclusion the intelligence community came to: “A foreign power was trying to undermine the election. He believed it to be true, but was against putting it out before the election.” Comey’s position, this official said, was “if it is said, it shouldn’t come from the FBI, which as you’ll recall it did not.”

That was at the beginning of October. But at the end of the month, three weeks closer to the election, he manifestly was not deterred by the implications of his announcement about the Abedin/Weiner emails. And this was even though, by all accounts, he did not know what they contained or even whether the emails  were new. (As opposed to duplicates of what the FBI had already seen.)

The news of this is still in flux. I’m noting here just to mark its appearance more or less in real-time.

***

We all have another week to get through. In theory, James Comey has seven more years in charge of the FBI.

James Comey, who has changed the 2016 election in a way that cannot be undone. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The rules in politics haven’t changed that much in recent years. What has changed is adherence to norms, in an increasingly destructive way.

I made that case, using examples different from the ones I’m about to present here, nearly two years ago. The shift in norms is also a central part of Thomas Mann’s and Norman Ornstein’s prescient It’s Even Worse Than It Looks and Mike Lofgren’s The Party Is Over, plus of course Jonathan Rauch’s “How American Politics Went Insane,” our very widely read cover story (subscribe!) this summer.

Today’s examples:

—Before 2006, use of a Senate filibuster to block legislation or nominations was an occasional tool-of-the-minority, not a routine practice. Now it has become so routine and, well, normalized that a story in our leading newspaper can matter-of-factly say, “It actually takes 60 votes to bring a Supreme Court nomination to the Senate floor.” Actually it takes 60 votes only if there is a filibuster, which didn’t use to be normal. Inconceivable as it now seems, three of Ronald Reagan’s nominees—Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and O’Connor—were approved unanimously. Most Democrats in the Senate disagreed with some or all of their views. Not a single Democrat voted against them.

—Before February of this year, the universal assumption was that a sitting president’s nominations for the Supreme Court would be considered, although of course they might be voted down. But before the sun had set on the day of Antonin Scalia’s death, Mitch McConnell had made clear that the Senate would not consider any nomination from the 44th president, and since then John McCain and others have suggested that, depending on who becomes the 45th president, her nominations might not be considered either. (For historic reference you can see an official list here, showing relatively prompt consideration up-or-down of previous nominees.)

—Before this year, the norm through the post-Watergate era was that any major-party presidential nominee would make tax-return information public, in enough time before the election for voters to consider the implications of income sources, debts, donations, and other entanglements. Donald Trump has flatly refused, and his own party’s members barely bother to mention it anymore.

—Before this summer, sitting Supreme Court justices, no matter how evident their partisan leanings, avoided publicly taking sides in upcoming elections. Ruth Bader Ginsburg ignored that norm by saying in July how much she hoped Donald Trump did not become president. To her credit, and in contrast to these other cases, within a few days she belatedly honored the importance of this norm by apologizing for her remarks.

***

The official rules didn’t change in these circumstances. The norms—that is, the expectation of what you “should” do, what you “really have to do,” what is the “right thing” to do, even if the letter of the law doesn’t spell it out—have changed. For its survival, a democracy depends on norms. That’s why the shift matters.

And that is the context in which I think about James Comey’s plunge into electoral politics, with his announcement about whatever “new” Clinton-related email information the FBI may or may not have found.

FBI director James Comey appearing before Congress last month. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

This is an item I wrote last night but was too busy to look over and check this morning, so I didn’t post it. Then I was in meetings all day. I’m posting it now with a new first paragraph in the wake of today’s announcement from FBI director James Comey about “re-opening” the email investigation into Hillary Clinton. Otherwise I think the main point still stands.

New intro: Are these extra emails that James Comey has found likely to contain a criminal or national-security bombshell that was not in the thousands of emails the FBI has already reviewed? Anything is possible, but my guess is no. Is this announcement, which is so certain to roil the news through this weekend, likely to change the fundamentals in the election and give Trump the edge? Again anything could happen, but again my guess is no.

But apart from anything it ends up telling us about Comey, the episode does illustrate something about candidates in general, and Clintons in particular, and about the process of learning in politics. Follow along with me if you will (now back to pre-Comey version of the post):

***

Bill Clinton was overall a successful and very popular president. If he had been eligible to run for a third term, he would have won. If his relations with Al Gore were such that Gore would have welcomed his campaign support (as Hillary Clinton now welcomes that of the Obamas), it would probably have made enough difference—in New Hampshire, in Tennessee, above all in Florida—to have spared the country the recount nightmare and Bush v. Gore and put Gore in office.

I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and would have voted for him again in 2000.

And yet, I will never understand or excuse the recklessness and indiscipline with which he put so much at risk through sexual misbehavior. He risked his presidency (which survived), his successor’s chances (which did not), his historic legacy, and of course his marriage.

When it comes to Bill Clinton, it is possible simultaneously to think, He was very good at what he did. And to ask, Why oh why was he so reckless?

***

Let’s apply this logic to Hillary Clinton:

John Kerry, with Bruce Springsteen at a campaign event in Ohio 12 years ago today. This was a few days before Kerry narrowly lost Ohio and thus the presidential race to George W. Bush. What Donald Trump has said about elections as this campaign nears its end is dramatically different from what other candidates including Kerry have said at comparable stages. Reuters

Donald Trump was of course “joking” when he said yesterday in Toledo, Ohio, that “we should just cancel the election and just give it to Trump, right? What are we even having it for?”

In the clip below, you can see what we’ve come to recognize as a classic Trump-rally two-track message. It’s a mixture of claims that would be outrageous if taken seriously, with a half-joking affect that lets Trump suggest that he’s not being serious at all. As a result, he can have it both ways. People who want to, can take this as something Trump is really supporting. (This is a variation of, “A lot of people are saying....”) But if anyone gets huffy and calls Trump on it, he can say, “What kind of dummy are you? Of course that was a joke!”

So, it’s a joke. But it’s a joke that connects with other non-joke Trump statements deeply at odds with the very process of democratic transfer of power. For instance, “I alone” can save us (a refrain from the convention onward). Or, “It’s rigged, folks, rigged” (of recent months). Or “I’ll keep you in suspense” (at the final debate, about accepting the vote outcome.)

Why do all of these deserve notice? Because other nominees just do not say things like this. Really, this is new—and different, and dangerous, and worth recording as it happens to remember when this election has passed.

***

Even when under pressure, even when telling themselves that the deck is unfairly stacked, other American public figures have been careful to pay public homage to the electoral process and the need to accept its outcome. Please consider these two examples:

John McCain, 2008. Trump’s remarks were in Toledo yesterday, October 27. Eight years ago on that same date, on October 27, 2008, McCain was also in western Ohio, in Dayton—swing states are swing states. Like Trump right now, McCain was far enough behind in enough polls in enough states to know that he was likely to lose. But here is the way he talked about the election and its outcome on his October 27:

That was then. William J. Clinton Presidential Library / Reuters

With only 13 full days to go until the election, with many millions of early votes already cast, and with apparent trends all running against Donald Trump, it’s time to begin tapering off the Time Capsules™.

Pro or con, everyone knows as much about this candidate as anyone could need for making a choice. The accumulating public record about Trump’s thoughts and temperament, while the country was deciding whether to make him its president, is what I’ve been trying to keep up with in this series, starting five months (!) ago.

So with the proviso that I’m now looking for developments unusual even for Trump—not just another raft of misstatements, not “just” another charge of financial or personal misconduct, not just another illustration of the speared-fish wriggling of Republicans like Paul Ryan impaled upon their support for Trump—here is today’s video-heavy installment.

***

First, an unexpected side of Trump for those who are awash in his 2016-campaign persona. In my story about debates in last month’s issue, I mentioned how brutally simple Trump’s language has been in campaign speeches, interviews, and debates. Simple words, simple sentences, simple thoughts. One surprising exception, as I mentioned back in installment #10, was Trump’s impromptu and nuanced discussion of the tragedy of Harambe, the now-famous gorilla shot to death at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Here’s another, more extended example: Trump discussing the symbolism of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, in a clip by the famed Errol Morris (Fog of War etc) nearly a decade ago.

Eric Trump yesterday, a scion and thus namesake of the new hotel brand. Chris Keane / Reuters

Late to this for family reasons, but catching up on an actually astonishing development:

Through the campaign, Donald Trump at times seemed more intent on promoting his business interests than in advancing a political campaign. He took time off this summer to fly to Scotland and tout the opening of a new Trump golf resort. He turned what was billed as a major campaign announcement into a promo for his new DC hotel. A surprisingly large share of the money he’s raised for his campaign’s expenditures has gone to his own businesses (notably Mar-a-Lago).

That is why today’s story, in Travel and Leisure, is so piquant and O. Henry-like. What Trump might have imagined would further burnish his personal brand may in fact be poisoning it. T&L reports that Trump’s new hotels will no longer carry his name!!! Instead they’ll be called “Scion.” Groan, given the actual scions, but fascinating in its own way. From T&L:

Amidst reports that occupancy rates at Trump Hotels have slipped this election season, the company has announced that new brand hotels will no longer bear the Trump name.

The newest line of luxury hotels, geared towards millennials, will be called Scion, the company said.

Wait till this sinks in: the name that Donald Trump thought was his greatest asset, the basis of his claims of wealth, is now such commercial baggage that they’re keeping it off his buildings.

***

People know the famous chef José Andrés  as, well, a famous chef. I had a chance to get to know him a few years ago in strange circumstances in Beijing.

But I think he deserves long-term attention as probably the first “public” person to take personal and commercial risks in a forthright stance against Trump. Shortly after Trump’s “they’re sending rapists” speech, José Andrés said he would not open a restaurant, as previously agreed, in Trump’s new DC hotel. Trump immediately sued him back.

Would that some part of José Andrés’s backbone had been transplanted into the Speaker of the House.

Joining a few friends for a casual dinner last night. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

“Light” events are some of the heaviest lifting in political life. Comedy is hard to begin with, and for the kinds of people involved in politics, jokes are vastly more difficult to write or deliver than “substantive” remarks. And for presidents or presidential aspirants, we’re talking about a special kind of joke. These eminent figures need to come across as “modest” and self-deprecatory, but only up to a humble-brag point. (That is, just enough so the audience and reviewers will say, “Oh, isn’t it charming that he’s willing to laugh at himself!”) Real comedy often includes a “what the hell!” willingness to say something that will genuinely shock or offend, which national politicians can’t afford to do. The White House Correspondents Dinner, the Gridiron, the Al Smith Dinner—any event like this is hard (as David Litt, a former member of the Obama speechwriting team, explains in a very nice item just now).

But you’ve got to do it. And to seem to “enjoy” it. And to maintain the closest simulacrum you can to a “genuine” smile or laugh, when others are making fun of you.  

Last night at the Al Smith Dinner, which is the subject of Litt’s essay, Donald Trump could perform only a tiny handful of the basic moves. In the process he spectacularly reinforced a crucial point about himself, even as Hillary Clinton was demonstrating an under-appreciated implication of one of her familiar traits. Let’s go to the tape and see what he didn’t do, and what she did.

***

The clip below is cued to begin as Trump takes the stage, nearly an hour and a half into the whole elephantine pageant. (Reflect for a moment: you’re sitting there for the first 90 minutes, eating while in formal wear and on camera and purporting to socialize, realizing that a high-stakes performance is ahead at the end of the night.)

With two and a half weeks to go, the debate phase of the competition is at last at its end. In real time last night I did an endless tweet-storm commentary whose beginning you can find here and that wound up this way:

Most of what I thought, I said at the time. But to summarize:

1) Predictability. To my relief, most of the expert forecasts I quoted in my debate preview piece matched what actually occurred.

The match-up really did turn out to be an extreme contrast at every level—intellectual and rhetorical styles, bearing on stage, what each candidate talked about and didn’t. The things Jane Goodall foresaw about Trump’s primate-dominance moves actually took place, when he was free to roam the stage in debate #2. As his fallen rivals from the Republican primaries had predicted, Trump faced much greater challenges in these head-to-head debates than he had in the crowded-podium prelims. Back then, he could chime in with an insult whenever he wanted and otherwise just stay quiet and roll his eyes. In the head-to-head round, especially the last debate, he struggled to fill his allotted time with details on any topic and fell back on slogans from his stump speech. Also predictably, Hillary Clinton was as prepared as she could be and barely put a foot wrong.

Most impressively of all, Hillary Clinton’s 100-percent-completely-foreseeable “Take the bait, please!!” strategy—foreseeable enough that I said in the article that this is what she would do—worked marvelously well.

The Republican nominee, soon after news came in of a crime in North Carolina.

The very hardest thing about being president is that almost all of the choices you get to make are no-win, impossible decisions. Let civilians keep getting slaughtered in Syria? Or commit U.S. forces without being sure who they are fighting for and how they might “win”? Propose a “compromise” measure—on health insurance, gun control, taxes, a Supreme Court nominee, whatever—in hopes that you’ll win over some of the opposition? Or assume from the start that the opposition will oppose, and begin by asking for more than you can get? Choices that are easier or more obvious get made by someone else before they are anywhere close to the president’s desk.

These decisions are hardest when life-and-death stakes are high and time is short. In 2003, invade Iraq, or wait? In 2011, authorize the raid on bin Laden, or not? In 1962, when to confront the Soviets over their missiles in Cuba, and when to look for the possibility of compromise.

The more I’ve learned about politics and the presidency, the more I’ve been sobered by the combination of temperamental stability and intellectual rigor these decisions demand. Stability, not to be panicked or rushed or provoked. Rigor, to understand what more you need to know, but also to recognize when you must make a choice even with less information than you would like.

This is an issue I’ve discussed before, in installments #26 and #129 and several more. I keep coming back to it because it’s so important, and because this crucial measure is one on which Donald Trump keeps demonstrating that he is flagrantly unfit. What’s hardest for any president would be simply impossible for him, as he reminds us yet again today.

***

Almost immediately on hearing news that a GOP office in North Carolina had been firebombed, Trump put out the tweet you see above. Meanwhile the Charlotte Observer, a real newspaper close to the scene with actual reporters, quoted police this way:

Hillsborough police said somebody threw a bottle of flammable liquid through the window of Orange County’s GOP headquarters, setting supplies and furniture ablaze.

Somebody, from people concerned with facts and evidence. Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems, from the man asking to be put in charge of the countless judgment calls a president makes each day. This was the same judge-and-jury, rush-to-judgment thinking style that Trump displayed years ago with the “Central Park Five.”

This man demonstrates each day that he has reflexes rather than judgment and would be dangerous in any responsible role. And the supposedly “responsible” leadership of his party, to their shame, continues to say: Put him in command!

***

Styles of thought aren’t necessarily inherited. But in this case …

Then-VP Al Gore in December, 2000, with then-wife Tipper and daughter Sarah, a few days before the Supreme Court issued its politically driven Bush v. Gore ruling that halted the vote recount in Florida and effectively declared George W. Bush president. Gore said that he disagreed with the ruling but would respect the outcome—as George H.W. Bush said when losing to Bill Clinton eight years earlier, and as other candidates have done when acknowledging that a rival had won. Donald Trump begs to differ. Reuters

The greatest threat Donald Trump poses to the republic is that he might become president. With each passing hour and excess, and each new on-the-record witness to his mistreatment of women, the likelihood of that disaster goes down.

But in the past 16 months he has already done profound damage to the democratic process and the civic fiber. This installment is about one still-unfolding form of the damage. The next, #144, will be about another that could be even worse—unless something none of us has foreseen happens in the meantime to crowd it out.

***

The American fabric of peaceful-transfer-of-power is taken for granted in the U.S. and elsewhere but is more fragile than it seems. As I noted back in installment #139, nearly every presidential inaugural address through U.S. history has emphasized how unusual and crucial this civic ritual is. For an example you might not have been expecting, I give you Richard Nixon, in the opening of his first inaugural address in 1969:

My fellow Americans, and my fellow citizens of the world community:

I ask you to share with me today the majesty of this moment. In the orderly transfer of power, we celebrate the unity that keeps us free.

Five-and-a-half years later, in a televised address explaining why he would become the first president ever to resign the office, Nixon again paid homage to rules-above-men, country-above-party. To put that differently: Even Richard Nixon, for all that he did to undercut rule of law, observed the need to support regular civic order, and the primacy of established institutions, in his public remarks. The night before he resigned he said (emphasis added):

In all the decisions I have made in my public life, I have always tried to do what was best for the Nation. [JF note: Well, maybe. But in context you can give him this.] Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate, I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me.

In the past few days, however, it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress to justify continuing that effort. As long as there was such a base, I felt strongly that it was necessary to see the constitutional process through to its conclusion, that to do otherwise would be unfaithful to the spirit of that deliberately difficult process and a dangerously destabilizing precedent for the future.

But with the disappearance of that base, I now believe that the constitutional purpose has been served, and there is no longer a need for the process to be prolonged.

That statement by Nixon was one of two crucial acknowledgments in modern times of process over person, country over party, by people who (in their very different circumstances) would have preferred to stay and fight. The other, of course, was Al Gore’s decision to accept the Supreme Court’s politically driven decision to stop the Florida recount and effectively declare George W. Bush president in 2000.