James Fallows
James Fallows
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More +
  • Trump Time Capsule #73: 'The Second Amendment People'

    Noted for the record: Today, August 9, 2016, was the day the Republican standard-bearer made a joke in public about his Democratic rival possibly being shot to death:

    To the best of my knowledge, this has not happened before in modern times. I am in transit today and pass the baton to The Atlantic’s David Graham for a full rundown of the episode. For instance:

    The suggestion that the assassination of a presidential candidate—or the killing of Supreme Court justices, or an armed insurrection, depending on interpretation—could solve a policy dispute is a shocking new low for a campaign that has continually reset expectations. Trump’s defenders often scold the media for being humorless, or taking Trump’s comments too seriously. So let’s preemptively dismiss that counterargument: This aside was clearly intended to be a joke. It is also entirely shocking and appalling, even in that context.

    At no point in recent American history has the nominee of one of the two major parties even jested about the murder of a rival.

    In BoingBoing, Xeni Jardin has a complementary account.


    It shouldn’t need to be said, but still I will say:

    • People don’t do this. If an ordinary citizen made a similar joke at a town meeting, or if someone in the media like me were to say something similar on a TV or radio show, the Secret Service would probably want to know more. Through modern times, which is to say since the assassination of John F. Kennedy (and of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the attempted assassinations of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace, and so on), “jokes” about shooting a president or presidential candidate are categorically not funny. Make a joke about blowing up a plane while at an airport, and you’ll be in trouble. Make a joke about guns as the solution to an election outcome you don’t like, and at the very least you are not showing commander-in-chief temperament.
    • Have you no sense of decency? Any Republican “leader” who stands with Trump after this will forever share the stain Trump is bringing to public life. This is like standing with Joe McCarthy after the Joseph Welch “Have you no sense of decency?” episode. It is like standing with Bull Connor. “Responsible” Republicans, the reputation of your party’s nominee can’t be changed at this point. Yours, and the party’s, are being set now.

    Again for the time capsule: With 90 days until the election, one nominee has joked about the other being shot to death, and as of this moment his party elders stand with him.

  • Trump Time Capsule #72: 'Most Reckless President in American History'

    Three Secretaries of Homeland Security: from left, the current incumbent Jeh Johnson; the first Secretary, Tom Ridge; and the second, Michael Chertoff. Both Ridge and Chertoff are Republicans, and they both signed the new letter declaring Donald Trump "dangerous." Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    Noted as part of the ongoing record, the extraordinary statement signed yesterday by 50 veterans of national-security policy in Republican administrations, arguing that Donald Trump would be “a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well being.” You can read the original document here, and a NYT story about it here.

    Why this is extraordinary:

    • That it exists at all. Election-year rhetoric usually brings statements about candidates who are “wrong” or “unprepared” or “weak” or “bad choices for America” or what have you. And usually these are from people in the trenches of political warfare, not from the career policy-expert class.

      This statement is not part of political-debate-as-usual. It’s one more, and in its way the most dramatic, in the recent series of unusual, “this time it’s different” statements of flat disqualification. Recent examples include: the comment by the incumbent president (Obama) that a nominee (Trump) is “unfit” to serve; the observation by a former CIA head that a foreign government had flattered and conned a nominee and turned him into an “unwitting agent of the Russian Federation”; and the warning from a former allied Prime Minister that a candidate presents “a serious threat to the security of the west.”
    • Who signed it. If you have followed the ins and outs of foreign policy over the years, you will instantly recognize most of these names, and you will also understand that they are bona fide Republicans and conservatives. Some mainly had military, diplomatic, or intelligence careers before rising to senior posts in (mainly) Republican administrations: for instance, John Negroponte, a longtime diplomat who became Director of National Intelligence under GW Bush. Some have had multiple policy positions in GOP administrations: for instance, Robert Zoellick, who became U.S. Trade Representative, Deputy Secretary of State, and then president of the World Bank under GW Bush. Others have been in and out of academia and government. Philip Zelikow, a scholar who was lead author of the 9/11 Commission Report and was State Department counselor under Condoleezza Rice (and whom I’ve come to know as a friend) has signed on. So has Tom Ridge, former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and first Secretary of Homeland Security under GW Bush. So has his successor at DHS, Michael Chertoff.

      I could add a note about almost every person on the list, but I’ll just say: in most Republican administrations, you’d expect to see lots of these same names in serious foreign-policy jobs, and many others as part of the informal brains-trust. Why does this matter? First, it means that they have some standing to speak. Second, it means that they have something to lose.

      The sympathetic view of the failures by Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, and others to separate themselves from Trump is that they can’t “take the risk.” The people signing this latest letter are taking a quite definite personal and career risk. For the ones still interested in appointive office, the next Republican administration is their next realistic chance for a job. But they’re saying: that’s not worth tolerating Trump. As someone with comparable experience, but mainly with Democratic politicians, wrote me about the letter: “Their bravery in warning about Trump—at personal risk and sacrifice—deserves to be remembered and honored.”
    • What they said. This is a very tough statement. Again, if you have followed the ins and outs of foreign policy over the years, you will understand that they are bona fide Republicans and conservatives. It’s worth reading the argument, not just the signatory list, because of the clarity with which they make their case. Sample:

      “He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior. All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”


    I don’t know whether this will change anyone’s mind, but it is one more sign that Trump, as candidate, really is different from the array of nominees the electorate has chosen from before.

    So it is offered for the record, with 90 days to go until the election, and also with: no tax returns or plausible health report yet in prospect from the Trump campaign; no response from the campaign on the origins of the pro-Russian change in the GOP platform; no response to David Fahrenthold’s ongoing efforts for the Washington Post to see whether Donald Trump has ever actually made any of the charitable contributions he has publicized and promised; and on down the list.

  • Challenging the Premise of the 'Trump Time Capsule'

    Another unprecedented president? The Battle of New Orleans, Edward Percy Moran / Library of Congress

    In the 70-plus installments collected here, I’ve been recording (some of) the ways Donald Trump differs from people who have previously come so close to the presidency.

    Here are two readers who disagree with the premise of the series, from a long-term-historical perspective and a more recent one. I’ll quote them each and then explain where I agree, and don’t.

    First, from an American overseas:

    I am a U.S. citizen currently living in Seoul. While I do not support Trump, and although I will vote Democrat come this election, I do not believe Trump is as unprecedented as some of the other readers seem to believe. In this case, I am writing to you with specific reference to the President Obama’s remarks against Trump’s temperament, and Trump’s talk of a rigged game. Both have clear analogues to the 1824 electoral cycle.

    Andrew Jackson, as I am sure you know, horrified the Democratic-Republican elite. He paved the way for Common Man candidates by slowly expanding suffrage and embracing the Jeffersonian ideal of a Yeoman America. Thomas Jefferson, a former president at the time, had this to say about the prospect of a Jacksonian presidency:

    I feel much alarm at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know for such a place. He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions, and is, in fact, an able military chief. His passions are terrible. When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator, and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings, and as often choke with rage.

    Truly, Jefferson was not the active president, but I think that a quibbling detail. He was the author of the constitution and the founder of the ruling party. I support our president, but Obama’s prestige now could not contend with Jefferson’s then. But notice the same critique: Like Trump, Jackson was seen as unfit for his temperament, not his ideas. His passions were so intense as to disqualify him from office.

    And of course, like Trump, Jackson saw power in conspiratorial terms. His Bank Veto still reads like an Industrial Workers of the World manifesto. And, as I’m sure you know, in 1824 Jackson saw his electoral loss as a conspiracy, a Corrupt Bargain where Clay and Adams stole the White House from him. Jackson, by fundamentally undermining the electoral process and the legitimacy of the new president, was tapping into the zeitgeist and leading it towards victory four years later. Trump is doing the same.

    Jackson is not my favorite president, and I suspect a President Trump would wreck synonymous havoc on minorities and the American economy. But America survived Jackson, who was an obvious danger to our democracy. We will survive Trump, although he may change us—or kill us all in nuclear fire.

    On this comparison, I’m happy to stipulate that so much is so dramatically different between the America of the 1820s and the America of 2016 as to bring any “unprecedented” judgment into question. (For instance: back then there was no electricity or real-time communication; there still was slavery; only certain white men could vote; etc.) So I’ll more frequently say “unprecedented in modern times.”

    But while recognizing that historians talk about the revolution of Jackson’s arrival, and that temperamentally Jackson may be closer to Trump than any other real-world president, the differences between them as plausible national leaders are still immense.

    By the time he was elected president in 1828, Jackson had: been elected to the House once; been elected to the Senate twice; served as military governor of Florida; and won more popular and electoral votes for the presidency than any other candidate in 1824, only to lose to John Quincy Adams when the House of Representatives decided the outcome. All this is apart from his experience as battlefield commander.

    If Donald Trump had had any elective-office experience whatsoever (for instance: Green Party candidate Jill Stein was elected a Town Meeting Seat in Lexington, Mass.), or had ever held any public or military office of any kind, it would be easier to suggest some likeness.

    After the jump, the more contemporary dissent from a reader:


  • Trump Time Capsule #71: Someone's Lying About the GOP Platform on Ukraine

    Paul Manafort, not changing the Russia part of the platform at the GOP convention Carlo Allegri / Reuters

    Let’s take this in sequence, because each step matters.

    1. Two weeks ago at the GOP convention in Cleveland, the Republican platform was altered to remove any reference to arming Ukraine in its struggles against Russia (which seized Crimea from Ukraine two years ago).

    2. This was notable in its own right, as a departure from a bipartisan support for Ukraine. It also attracted attention because of Donald Trump’s general admiration for Vladimir Putin, and because of the specifically Ukrainian business dealings of Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort. His past clients in his PR work had notably included the pro-Russian former Prime Minister of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. In early 2014 Yanukovych fled his country amid protests and is now in Russia.

    3. Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, who was fully aware of this background, asked Manafort whether his campaign had been involved in the pro-Russian platform change. Manafort flat-out and categorically denied it. As reported in TPM (emphasis added):

    “Where did it come from then?” Todd pressed. “Because everyone on the platform committee had said it came from the Trump campaign. If not you, who?”

    “It absolutely did not come from the campaign. I don’t know who everybody is, but I guarantee you it was nobody that was on the platform committee,” Manafort replied.

    When asked once more if anyone on the campaign was involved, Manafort said, “No one, zero.”

    I was watching the exchange that Sunday morning and immediately noted the baldness of Manafort’s statements. Shortly afterward, in installment #66 of this Trump series, I said that a claim by Reince Priebus (that he had only recently learned the schedule for Clinton-Trump debates) “cannot be true,” and that Manafort’s claim “is very unlikely to prove true.”

    4. A story today in the Washington Post appears to move us from “unlikely to prove true” to plain old untrue. Reporters Steve Mufson and Tom Hamburger quote platform committee members who say that the change did in fact come at the Trump staff’s behest. For instance:

    The Republican platform committee at the party’s convention was one place Trump campaign aides have promoted that view, according to national security experts who were there. They said Trump campaign staffers weakened language that would have called for military support of Ukraine.

    “It was troubling to me that they would want to water down language that supports a country that has been invaded by an aggressive neighbor,” said Rachel Hoff, a member of the platform committee. “I think the U.S. should properly come to Ukraine’s aid in that struggle. In the past that would not be considered a controversial Republican position.”

    I wrote to Hamburger to confirm that the source of the quote, Rachel Hoff, was also saying explicitly that Trump’s staffers were involved in the change. Hamburger said that indeed she was, and that several other people, unnamed in the story, said the same thing. (He also said that he’d asked the Trump campaign to comment but had not heard back.)


    Let’s step back and consider what this amounts to. On the same day that a former head of the CIA said that Putin had shrewdly played to Trump’s vanities and made him an “unwitting agent,” members of the Republican party’s platform committee are saying that his campaign manager is flat-out lying about having engineered a pro-Russian policy change that would help his former clients.

    There are two other possibilities, of course. One is that members of the platform committee have for some reason decided to lie about the Trump campaign’s role; the other, that all this happened without Manafort’s being aware, so that he was telling Chuck Todd the truth as he understood it. Take your pick. For me, the odds overwhelmingly favor Manafort being involved and then imagining he could bluff his way through a denial, Baghdad Bob-style.

    By now, on this 71st step down the long Time Capsule trail of tears, you might think that I would be growing blasé. Not about this one. For any other candidate in any other campaign, what we’ve learned today would be a genuine shock. Even in this campaign, with 94 days to go and “responsible” Republicans still aboard, it should count as news.

  • Trump Time Capsule #70: 'An Unwitting Agent of the Russian Federation'

    Mike Morell at far right, as acting CIA Director with other members of the national-security team at a White House briefing in 2013. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    I first met Michael Morell more than 25 years ago, when he was a young economic analyst for the CIA and I had returned from several years in Japan. It was at an unclassified meeting about economic trends in Asia. (As a reporter working overseas, you routinely meet or interview analysts from various countries’ intelligence services. Usually you can figure out who some of the actual spies in the embassies are, but my kind of work didn’t normally put me in contact with them.)

    I met him occasionally since then and watched and admired his progress through the years, which led to his twice becoming acting director of the agency. I liked him and respected his coolly analytical dispassion, in comparison with which Barack Obama would seem a hothead. If Morell had partisan views of any sort, I never heard them. His book The Great War of Our Time is respectful (and respectfully critical) of the two presidents with whom he worked most directly, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

    Thus for Morell to write, as he does in the New York Times this morning, that he will vote for Hillary Clinton and “do everything I can to ensure that she is elected as our 45th president,” is more notable than you might think. Career CIA analysts have their preferences, like anyone else. They don’t routinely make this sort of public endorsement. This is a very unusual step for someone like him to feel compelled to take.


    The details of Morell’s case for Clinton, and against Trump, are also more interesting than you might expect. This part of Morell’s description of Donald Trump’s liabilities sounds familiar, though again it’s unusual considering its source:

    These [harmful] traits include his obvious need for self-aggrandizement, his overreaction to perceived slights, his tendency to make decisions based on intuition, his refusal to change his views based on new information, his routine carelessness with the facts, his unwillingness to listen to others and his lack of respect for the rule of law.

    But it builds toward this, which again from a CIA veteran has a particular edge:

    President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated….

    Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.

    In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.

    That is: Trump, the self-proclaimed best negotiator of all time, has been flattered and conned by a genuine pro.


    This is where things stand with 94 days to go until the election and with Donald Trump, the “unwitting agent,” still refusing to release the tax forms or the medical report routinely expected from nominees in the modern era. And still Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and other “responsible” Republicans say: this man should be Commander in Chief.

  • What's (Less) the Matter With Kansas

    Downtown Dodge City, Kansas James Fallows / The Atlantic

    This week’s election news out of Kansas was the defeat in the GOP primaries of some of the hardest-line Tea Party Republicans, at both the Congressional and local- and state-legislative level. The most publicized single upset was that of Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas’s First Congressional District, which covers a huge amount of mainly rural territory in the western half of the state. The “Big First” also includes Dodge City and Garden City, which we began writing about last month.

    A theme in the local coverage of these election results, which very powerfully matches what we saw there and plan to discuss further, is the contrast between (on the one hand) the harsh, tribal-friction, polarized tone of today’s national politics plus the very conservative policies that Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies have brought to Kansas, and (on the other) the tone of civic, economic, and educational life at the local level in these same places.

    When they went to the polls, residents of the First District and the state as a whole voted for Huelskamp, Brownback, and all Republican presidential candidates in the past 80 years except two. (The exceptions were FDR against their own Alf Landon in 1936, then LBJ against Barry Goldwater in 1964.) But in their community life, they passed a significant permanent sales-tax increase for public investments; a largely white electorate voted a significant bond issue for a public school district with mainly minority students; and handled the complexities of multi-ethnic life in a way different, more “we’re in this together” way from what each night’s news might suggest.

    That’s for further elaboration in days to come. For now, my purpose is to point out this latest post by my wife Deb Fallows, about how children of migrant laborers are being educated, cared for, and incorporated in this small city in western Kansas. It follows her report last week on how a similar process is underway at Dodge City High School.

    This is operating-level America, which is so many places is practical-minded and inclusive in a way that differs starkly from the campaign struggle that will engage the country for the next 96 days. Our main hope for the country is that this real-world practicality and humanity will prevail. Deb’s story tells you more about it, and also has an embedded video of Edward R. Murrow’s famous Harvest of Shame. As a bonus you see it below.

    All this is why, even while going crazy during the election, I feel more positive about the country’s prospects than I otherwise might.


    The title of this item is obviously an allusion to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas, about the tension between economic interests there and in other non-super-elite parts of America, and their voting behavior.

  • Update from Philip Rucker on Trump as Aerospace Guy

    Previous items today concerned Donald Trump’s reaction to an airplane crash that was noted briefly on Fox News, while he was in the middle of a major newspaper interview. Trump said he’d “never liked that plane, structurally,” but the question is which plane he considered flawed. Had he just seen news about the crash-landing of a Boeing 777 in Dubai? Or about a Navy F-18 in Nevada? Or a twin-engine Piper Seneca in Arizona?

    I asked Philip Rucker, who was conducting the great WaPo interview with Trump, whether he noticed or remembered what Trump had seen. His reply:

    I wish I had a definitive answer for you, but unfortunately I do not.

    Unlike Donald Trump, I was seated with my back to the TV, so I wasn't paying much attention to what was on the screen. The TV was tuned to Fox News. I recall it was a small plane crash and not the Emirates 777. It might have been the Sedona crash….  I do not believe it was a military plane, but I cannot say for certain.

    The crash was only briefly on the newscast. Much of the time during our interview Fox was covering Trump.

    So odds favor the Sedona crash of the Piper Seneca—in circumstances (night flight, mountainous terrain, older pilot flying on his own) that likely have nothing whatsoever to do with aircraft-structural concerns.


    Meaning-of-Trump point: the way his mind works. Immediately after an Egyptair flight disappeared over the Mediterranean in June, Trump declared,

    What just happened? A plane got blown out of the sky. And if anybody thinks it wasn’t blown out of the sky, you’re 100% wrong, folks, OK? You’re 100% wrong.

    No one knows for sure now, and no one had any idea then, what had happened to that Egyptair plane. Yet Trump moved instantly to “you’re 100% wrong!” mode. Again this week, in his instant reaction to whatever crash he saw, Trump responded instantly (and probably incorrectly). And he was in a position to make this misjudgment because he was so interested in seeing news that was mainly about himself.

    I know, there’s hardly any news value in pointing this out any more, but: the man doesn’t know very much, isn’t aware of what he doesn’t know, thinks poorly, yet is super-decisive. Ryan, McConnell, Rubio, Cotton, et al: Heck of a job!

  • Donald Trump, Aerospace Engineer

    Maybe this is the plane Donald Trump "never liked, structurally"? LCPL JOHN MCGARITY, USMC via Department of Defense

    In an item earlier today I quoted a Boeing engineer who was dumbfounded / amused by Donald Trump’s off-hand comment that he “never liked that plane, structurally” about the mighty Boeing 777.

    Several people have written in to say that maybe we’re not giving Trump full credit. Perhaps news of some other airplane crash might have been on the screen when it caught his eye and occasioned this remark. (Sample letter after the jump.) The possibilities include:

    • A Navy F-18 that crashed on a training flight in Nevada not long before Trump’s interview. Fortunately the pilot parachuted to safety.
    • A twin-engine Piper Seneca aircraft that crashed near Sedona, Arizona, on a nighttime flight around the same time. Unfortunately the 76-year-old pilot, the only person aboard, was killed.
    • The Emirates 777 that crash-landed in Dubai, fortunately with relatively few casualties. This is the one the Boeing staff assumed Trump was talking about.

    So we’re left with these choices:

    - Trump was questioning the structural fitness of one of Boeing’s best-selling and (on the evidence) structurally soundest models. After the 777’s introduction in the mid-1990s, its first fatal episode was the pilot-error Asiana crash into a runway at SFO three years ago; or

    - Trump was saying he “never liked that plane, structurally” about the Navy’s workhorse F-18, which first flew back in the 1970s and which has had critics of its cost, complexity, and design, but not on grounds that people “never liked it, structurally”; or

    - He was reacting to a light-airplane crash at nighttime, in mountainous terrain, with an older pilot who was flying by himself—that is, in circumstances where “structural” problems of the airplane virtually never turn out to be relevant.

    Or, something else. Just adding this to round out the explanation. I have written to Philip Rucker, of the Post, to ask if he noticed what was on TV to see which crash Trump would have been talking about.

  • Cows! Squirrels! Airplanes! The Many Thoughts of Donald Trump

    A Boeing 777-300, flown by Emirates. Want to know what's good and bad about this airplane? Of course there is only one expert to consult. Paul Spijkers via Wikimedia

    Last night I mentioned the resemblance between Donald Trump’s frequently distractable discourse—I don’t like mosquitos! Back to Mike Pence!—and Danny DeVito’s famous “Cows!” scene in Throw Momma From the Train. As a public service, I offer a glimpse of Cows once more:

    Many readers have written in to say that the closer comparison might be Dug the Dog, with his “Squirrel!” scene from the great movie Up. You be the judge:


    During one of Trump’s Cows! / Squirrel!  interludes in his interview with the Washington Post, he offered the following observations about plane-crash news that was flickering across the screen:

    [Trump looks at a nearby television, which was tuned to Fox News.] Oh, did they have another one of these things go down? It’s terrible that crash. Never liked that plane, structurally. I never thought that plane could—

    The dash-mark at the end is when the interviewer, Philip Rucker, tries to bring Trump back to the topic at hand.  

    A reader in the Northwest took particular note of Trump’s comments:

    I’m a stress analyst at Boeing and I just wanted to let you know that we’ve been chuckling at Trump’s latest quote from his interview with Philip Rucker: “Never liked that plane, structurally...”

    I assume he was referring to the Emirates 777-300 that crashed in Dubai. I’m with many of my co-workers in hoping that a reporter asks a follow-up question on what, precisely, Mr. Trump dislikes about the structural design of the 777.  I’m sure his answer would delight and entertain! Or, more surprisingly, he might be well versed in shear flow theory. Who knows!?

    The reader’s email had the subject line “Donald Trump—Structural Engineer.” Other possibilities would include: “Donald Trump—New Frontiers in Bullshit” or “Donald Trump—It’s Even Worse Than You Think.”

    But on reflection, I like plain old “Donald Trump—Structural Engineer” for its understated charm. What Donald Trump doesn’t know about an airplane matches what he doesn’t know about everything else.  

  • Trump Time Capsule #69: 'Cows!'

    Just another day on the Trump campaign. (Detail from Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, The Prado, Madrid / Public Domain)

    Too much, too fast. To jot some of it down, for the long-term record:

    1. There is no there there. For some reason, Donald Trump agreed to another long on-the-record interview with a major newspaper. The three previous times he has done so—two sessions with David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the NYT in March and July, and one in March with the full editorial board of the Washington Post—the result was a long run of negative coverage about the knowledge gaps his comments revealed and the risky claims he had made. For instance, the second NYT interview was the source of his observation that under a President Trump the U.S. might honor NATO obligations to defend European allies, or might not, depending on whether the country under attack had paid up.

    He’s done it again, and this newest one, yesterday with Philip Rucker of the Post, made news for Trump’s studied refusal to endorse either Rep. Paul Ryan or Sen. John McCain in their hard-fought GOP primaries. These are two people who, especially Ryan, have piled their personal dignity up in a pyre and set it alight, through their stance of “rebuking” Trump but still saying he should be Commander in Chief. And Trump says, Meh.

    But the real news of the transcript is the utter void of knowledge or ability to maintain consecutive thought it reveals, on any topic other than Trump’s own greatness. Time and again, Rucker shows Trump’s attention flitting away to whatever has caught his eye on a TV running in the background. E.g., when Trump is talking about how his daughter Ivanka would not have put up with sexual harassment like that at Fox News:

    RUCKER: Would you want her to follow the path that Gretchen Carlson did?

    TRUMP: I’d want her to do what makes her happy. I’d want her to do, Phil, what makes her happy. [Trump looks at a nearby television, which was tuned to Fox News.] Oh, did they have another one of these things go down? It’s terrible that crash. Never liked that plane, structurally. I never thought that plane could—

    RUCKER: Why should she have to change careers or jobs?...


    RUCKER: Well, half the people in your rallies are veterans.

    TRUMP: [Looks at the television again] Look at this. It’s all Trump all day long. That’s why their ratings are through the roof. I’d hate to say, Philip, if I wasn’t running, the television networks would be doing less than half the business.

    I’ve transcribed interviews with presidents and presidential-aspirants over the years. This is not the way the rest of them talk. When listening to Trump I often think of Danny DeVito’s “Cows!” moment from Throw Momma From the Train, which you see 40 seconds into the clip below.

    2. “You can get that baby out of here.” At a rally in Virginia, Donald Trump grew annoyed at a baby that was crying and asked to have it removed from the hall.

    Write your own punch line.

    3. I feel your pain here in—wherever you are. That rally with the baby was in Ashburn, Virginia, a DC suburb that is one of the richest tech-and-defense-areas not just in the state but in the whole country. In his speech Trump went on a litany of how Ashburn had been devastated by factory closures—mentioning factories hours away at the other end of the state or in other states altogether. This is more or less like giving a speech in Palo Alto and imagining that you are addressing drought-stricken farmers and migrant laborers in Merced. Betsy Woodruff has the delicious details here.

    Obvious-but-worth-making point: if you have any experience in politics, the incompetence behind such a performance is almost impossible to comprehend. I could write six more paragraphs but I’ll just say: it’s like a junior high-school drama club appearing on Broadway. (Or, to use an Ashburn-specific reference: it's like Coach Jim Zorn’s famous “swinging gate” play.)

    4. Yeah, we’re on the same ticket, but we keep our endorsements separate. After Trump studiously declined to endorse Paul Ryan, his VP pick Mike Pence made clear that he “strongly supported” Ryan, thus disagreeing with his running mate.

    In the known political universe, this kind of thing does not happen. Yes, VP Joe Biden signaled his support for same-sex marriage long before President Obama did, but that was years into the administration rather than in the heat of the campaign.

    5. Republicans abroad. The worldwide vice president of Republicans Overseas, Jan Halper-Hayes, told the BBC that Trump was “out of control” and therefore she could no long support him.

    6. A narcissist with nuclear weapons. John Noonan, a nuclear expert who had advised Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, unleashed a long Tweet-storm arguing that Trump’s ignorant cavalierness about nuclear weapons threatened to upset the decades-long balance-of-terror that had kept nuclear weapons from being used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can read the whole thing here; sample below.

    John Noonan on Twitter


    To put this in perspective: Howard Dean’s campaign for president in 2004 was dealt a serious blow by a single five-second “screaming” episode. Rick Perry was hurt badly in 2012 by one 10-second brain freeze on a debate stage. Dan Quayle never fully recovered from spelling out potatoe in 1992.

    Those were single episodes, with outsized consequences. Yet in 2016 Donald Trump does something like this practically every hour.

    This is part of what he did on just another average day, 96 days before the election, with tax returns and a plausible physical-exam report nowhere in sight.

  • Trump Time Capsule #68: We Wuz Robbed

    Noting it for the long-term record: August 1, 2016 — four days after the end of the Democratic convention, three days into the Captain Khan disaster (for Trump), on the same day as the post-convention polls shifted strongly in Hillary Clinton’s favor — Donald Trump began emphasizing that the election this fall could well be “rigged.”

    From around time 17:00 onward in the clip below, showing a discussion with the nonpareil Sean Hannity, Trump warns that something fishy is going on. The clearest statement is around time 18:05: “Starting on November 8, we better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged.”

    Why this is worth noting, beyond its departure from norms:

    1. A powerful element of the emerging Picture Of Trump is that nothing is ever his fault. For instance: When it seemed that the final-night ratings for the DNC, featuring Hillary Clinton, might have drawn a bigger audience than his own convention-acceptance speech, Trump stressed to reporters that he had not really had much to do with the convention — he had just showed up. But when the ratings came in and showed that he had actually “won” that final night (although the Democrats got larger audiences for the other three nights), he began promoting that fact in multiple tweets. Success is his; screw-ups are by losers.

      Since nothing is ever his fault, then if polls seem headed the wrong way, the only explanation can be cheating. “A lot of people are talking about something going on.”
    2. Assuming that current results hold up and Trump loses in November, it does not bode well for the country to have a rigged-election / stab-in-the-back narrative seeded so far in advance. Compare, for instance, both Richard Nixon after the 1960 results came in and Al Gore in 2000, each of whom had much stronger grounds (especially Gore) to challenge the legitimacy of the outcome, but both of whom said: let’s move on.

      Thus we note one more bit of damage Trump is inflicting on the body politic, with 97 days to go until the election —and still no tax returns or medical report.


    After the jump, reader comments on Trump’s “rigged” narrative.

  • Trump Time Capsule #67: 'Unfit'

    The incumbent President of the United States said today that one of the two possibilities to succeed him is “unfit to serve as president” and is “woefully unprepared” to do the job. You can see Barack Obama’s comments starting around time 13:00 in the C-Span clip below, from his press conference this morning with the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong.

    To the best of my knowledge, nothing like this has ever happened before.

    Presidents of one party call nominees from the other party “bad choices” or “wrong for America” or “risky bets” or in some other way second-best options to their own preferred candidate.

    As far as I am aware, none of them has previously declared a major-party nominee categorically unfit.

    Again we have two possibilities. Either Barack Obama, with a career’s worth of hyper-deliberate careful phrasing behind him, has suddenly made a lurch toward hyperbole. Or Donald Trump does in fact merit classification in an unfit category of his own.

    Obviously I believe the latter is the truth. We’ll get to the pushback and ramifications in subsequent installments, including President Obama’s question to the Republican leaders who “rebuke” Trump but still support him: “What does it say about your party, that this is your standard bearer?”

    For now, this is one more for-the-record note of how Campaign 2016 has crossed one more previously unexplored frontier.

  • 'A Fundamental Decency': The Difference Between Rob Ford and Donald Trump

    A sign two years ago for then-mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, whose style many have likened to Donald Trump’s. Ford died of cancer early this year; a reader explains an important contrast with Trump. (Mark Blinch / Reuters)

    Many people have noted the campaign-style similarities between Donald Trump and Rob Ford, the late mayor of Toronto. John Spragge, who lives in Toronto, says that the Capt. Khan episode points out an important difference:

    I am the Canadian systems analyst who sometimes writes you from Toronto. Earlier in this campaign, I compared Donald Trump to the late Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

    I still believe Mr. Ford drew much of his support from people who feel alienated and left out, and I believe getting elected mayor had dire personal consequences for Mr. Ford, just as I believe attaining the presidency might have serious consequences for Mr. Trump. However, over the past week I have come to see important distinctions between Mr. Ford and Mr. Trump; I think Mr. Ford’s greater skill at retail politics speaks to a fundamental decency. As I put it in a web log post [JF emphasis added]:

    When I asked myself how Rob Ford would have responded to Khizr Khan’s speech, it occurred to me: Rob Ford would have called the Khans. He would have talked to them. Rob always called people who disagreed with him. He would have listened the he Khans. He would have expressed sympathy with their sacrifice. He would probably not have changed any of his positions, but he would have given the Khans the courtesy of a hearing.

    All Rob Ford’s most vehement opponents, which some times included me, acknowledged his ability as a retail politician. He listened to people, and whether he agreed with us or not he gave the impression he cared what we thought. I think he genuinely did; I think he had a real desire to help and connect with people, and unlike Donald Trump, he did not respond to opposition with the fury of wounded vanity.

    Rob Ford was diagnosed with cancer during the last election and has since died. Since the emergence of Mr. Trump, many Toronto residents have seen the parallels between the social forces that gave rise to his candidacy and Mr. Trump’s. I think we owe it to his memory to acknowledge that nothing in his record suggests he would have treated the Khans the way Trump did.


    Thanks to the very large number of people who have written in with responses to yesterday’s item, about why Republican “leaders” are standing with Donald Trump and for how long they’ll do so. An assortment of those is coming up when I can get to it, along with the next sixteen zillion Time Capsule entries.

  • Supporting Trump: The GOP's Equivalent of the Iraq War Vote

    Jonathan Erns / Reuters

    In the Time Capsule thread (now up to #66), I’ve been chronicling some of the ongoing words, deeds, and gestures that the Republican party has decided to swallow from its nominee. This parallel “Trump Nation” thread is mainly for reader reaction to the spectacle of 2016, and in particular what the “responsible” GOP is showing about itself.

    Trump himself is beyond criticism or judgment. What we see is who he is. But I think that people looking back at our time will be much harsher in their judgment of the Republican “leaders” who are trying to have it both ways.

    The Speaker of the House, the Majority Leader of the Senate, senators like Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, governors like Chris Christie and the now-trapped Mike Pence, figures from the past like Rudy Giuliani — every one of these people knows what is wrong with Donald Trump, and every one of them will be telling us as of November 9 that they were never really with him, they always saw what was wrong, how did this ever happen? But for now, every one one of them is saying, Vote for Trump!

    You can understand, sort of, their constraint. If they come out and say, Vote for Hillary Clinton, in the short run they might infuriate substantial portions of their own electoral base. And if the longer run, if she does win, then every “liberal” thing she does, starting with her Supreme Court appointments, can be thrown back at them. Oh, there’s your President Clinton with her Bolshevik on the Court. Happy now? Oh, there’s your President Clinton, with …  

    You can understand it. But to say it’s “understandable” is not to say that it’s right, or even smart. I think they’re making a mistake not just from some lofty historical perspective but in how they will look in the relatively near future. Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination eight years ago, and the vastly better known Hillary Clinton did not, because she had joined most senior members of her party (including Joe Biden and John Kerry) in being wrong in a hugely consequential choice, the Iraq war, and Obama had been right.

    A reader says you can extend that analysis to the choice of backing Trump:

    As I’ve watched the way that Trump has been able to overcome unforced error after unforced error that should, and used to, effectively mean the end of a viable campaign, I’m interested in the box that this puts the GOP elite.  Most seem to be trying to thread the needle in the Paul Ryan mode—I support the nominee, but I speak out not too forcefully on the most egregious statements.  

    What we may be seeing is the real-time development of another Bush Iraq War moment. In this scenario, it will seem obvious to anyone after an easy win by Clinton that they should have publicly called out Trump and said they were bound by conscience not to support him.

    This raises an interesting question.  In this scenario, who takes the role of Obama, who got used his anti-war position to jump start his road to the White House?  It was a huge risk for a little known Senator, but the payoff was huuuuuuuge!

    Right now you can probably rule out the Bushes or Romney or just about every elected GOP bigwig. Does it just leave Kasich?

    Or, with all his complications, Cruz.


  • Trump Time Capsule #66: Khan, Koch, Crimea, and the NFL

    Trump on Twitter

    I’ve been offline for several days writing a magazine article. (Debates!) On return, I see that Donald Trump has lit off another string of firecrackers, Chinese New Year-style. As a short recap:

    • His campaign against the bereaved parents of a decorated American combat casualty, Army Captain Humayun Khan, goes on. His associate Roger Stone shamelessly broadened it with unfounded slurs against the Khan family. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other Republicans (including Mike Pence!) “distanced themselves” from Trump’s criticism of the Khans.  John McCain went further, in an outright denunciation of what Trump had said. But not even McCain was willing  to draw the obvious conclusion: that such a man is unfit for leadership. He and the rest still say, Vote for Trump!
    • Trump told George Stephanopoulos that the National Football League had sent him a letter complaining that the dates for this fall’s debates conflict with two NFL games. The NFL immediately denied that it had ever sent such a letter. The Commission on Presidential Debates pointed out that the dates had been set last year, with full knowledge of all parties. As a headline in Deadspin put it, “NFL Says Trump Is Full of Shit.” More on the debate fracas and related events in upcoming posts.
    • Trump claimed that the Koch brothers had asked him for a meeting to offer support, but he had turned them down because he wasn’t anyone’s puppet. Koch representatives quickly said this did not occur.
      Trump on Twitter
    • Trump told Stephanopoulos that Vladimir Putin “is not going to move into Ukraine” and seemed caught unaware when Stephanopoulos pointed out that in fact he already had, via the seizure of Crimea two years ago. The next day Trump sent out a Tweet denying the plain meaning of what he had said on air the previous day.
      Trump on Twitter

    • Trump went out of his way to criticize the local fire marshal at an event in Colorado Springs, saying that the marshal “didn’t know what he was doing” and was “probably a Democrat.” Trump did not mention that 30 minutes earlier, that same fire department had rescued Trump and others from an elevator where they had been stuck for 30 minutes. Typical politicians, and for that matter typical human beings, would have found a way to use the episode to say something positive about the fire marshal, the department, the city, the spirit of service, or something similar. Or they might not have mentioned it at all. Trump turned it into an attack on the group that had just helped him.
    • And on the margins, Trump said he had never met Putin, after making much in the past of his talks with him. RNC chairman Reince Priebus said he hadn’t known of the fall debate schedule until just now, which cannot be true. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort said categorically that Trump representatives had nothing whatsoever to do with the pro-Russian changes in the RNC platform, which is very unlikely to prove true. And so on.


    “Big lies” are in a sense safe, because no one can disprove them. “We’re going to win so much you’ll get tired of winning!” But when you say something that is who-when-where specific — they sent me a letter, they asked for a meeting — you run the risk or someone saying, No they didn’t. As the NFL, the Kochs, and others are now saying about Trump’s claims.

    There are two possibilities:

    • Trump is aware. That is, he knows he is lying and does not care. This is an extension of his old “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and not lose any votes” observation. Or
    • He is unaware. That is, he thinks these things are true while he is saying them; or he thinks that if he says them this way they will become true; or he remembers them this way and therefore believes they are true. Yes, they sent that letter …

    I can’t know, but my money is on the latter. I believe that Donald Trump is telling the “truth” as he perceives or remembers it when opening his mouth, which is one reason he sounds so insistent. Unfortunately what he believes does not match the contours of our real world. Update On CNN today, Fareed Zakaria has a blistering denunciation of Trump’s Crimea comments. He puts them in the definition of bullshit from Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit treatise, in which the difference between lies and bullshit is that bullshit artists are indifferent to whether what they’re saying is true or false.

    I want to steer clear of “medicalizing” discussion of Trump’s fantasies, his microscopically thin skin, his seemingly uncontrollable outbursts. I have no idea whether we’re seeing his basic personality and temperament, or something else. And from a civic perspective, it doesn’t matter. Either he doesn’t know the difference between truth and falsehood, or he knows it and does not care. Either is a big problem in a president.

    Either way, something is wrong with him.


  • Trump Time Capsule #65: 'I'd Like to Hear His Wife Say Something'

    Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, at the Democratic Convention, in front a picture of him before his death in Iraq. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

    The most personally moving, and most fundamentally patriotic, moment of the Democratic National Convention was the appearance by the bereaved parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, and the statement about the meaning of their son’s life and death, and about the Constitution, by Mr. Khizr Khan.

    After Khizr Khan spoke, politicians and commentators on most networks said they were moved, humbled, inspired, choked up. (Commentators on Fox did not say these things, because their coverage cut away from the Khans for Brit Hume and Megyn Kelly, plus a Benghazi ad.)

    Donald Trump’s response to the speech and Khans’ story was this, according to Maureen Dowd in the NYT:

    “I’d like to hear his wife say something.”

    Dowd’s quote doesn’t render Trump’s tone, but it’s become clear since then that he was implying that, as a Muslim woman, Ms. Khan was not allowed to speak.

    The truth is that she was overwhelmed by grief.  If you’d like to hear “his wife” say something, you can do so starting at time 5:15 of the clip below. Lawrence O’Donnell asks Ms. Ghazala Khan about her final talk with her son, before his death while protecting his troops and numerous civilians. She begins, “He called me on Mother’s Day.” Then watch for the next minute. Or watch it all. (There is some pre-roll ad in this clip.)

    If you go back and start at time 2:30, you will hear Ms. Khan saying that her son felt a responsibility to “take care of my soldiers, because they depend on me.” She told him, “I begged my son, don’t be a hero. Please come back as my son. He came back as  … [after a sob] a hero.” The last word is delivered with a tone of bottomless tragedy.


    Why do I mention this? I am not imagining that even an episode as heartless as this will necessarily change any committed Trump supporters’ minds. Although the accumulation of Trump’s offenses should increasingly shame the “respectable” Republicans standing up for him. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, this starts with you.  

    But it is important to document the starkness of the two conceptions of America that are on clear view, 100 days before this man could become president. The America of the Khan family, and that of Donald Trump.

    “Until this moment, I think I never really gauged your cruelty.” Joseph Welch, 1954.


    Update: According to ABC, Trump has told George Stephanopoulos this about the Khans:

    “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”

    Until this moment, I think I never really gauged his cruelty.

  • Trump Time Capsule #64: A Hymn for the Election

    A reader gives the background for the hymn you hear performed above by the London Philharmonic Choir. (The singing starts about 35 seconds in.) It has an Atlantic angle, in that the lyrics are by one of the magazine’s founders and editors, James Russell Lowell. There’s a modern-day angle too:

    I’ve had an ear-worm on and off for the last few weeks and finally identified it as the hymn “Once to every man and nation”. (The lyrics are by James Russell Lowell, as you probably know.)

    I think I can thank Donald Trump for putting this in my head.

       Once to ev'ry man and nation
       Comes the moment to decide,
       In the strife of truth and falsehood,
       For the good or evil side;
       Some great cause, some great decision,
       Off'ring each the bloom or blight,
       And the choice goes by forever
       'Twixt that darkness and that light.

    Ryan, McConnell, Pence, Giuliani, Christie, Rubio, and others on the sidelines or on the wrong side: once to ev’ry man and nation. You are making a choice that matters and that you will regret.


  • Trump Time Capsule #63: What's In the Tax Returns?

    Mark Salter, former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain, has written an essay for Real Clear Politics on why he cannot vote for Donald Trump. It deserves note for the long-term record because this is not how associates of a party’s former nominee usually talk about the current one, and because of its insistence on the importance of tax returns.

    Salter concludes (emphasis added):

    Could it be that a major party nominee for president is beholden to Russia’s leader and might compromise the security interests of the U.S. and our allies to maintain that relationship?  We don’t know the answer….

    We can’t begin to answer the question until Trump releases his tax returns for the last several years. The media should make this the focus of every interview with Trump and senior Trump staff. The Republican Party chairman should urge him to release his returns. The Republican leadership in Congress should insist on it. Every American voter should demand it.

    There are legitimate suspicions about whether Trump’s business relationships could compromise his loyalty to our country. Unless and until he puts them to rest, not by dismissing them but by disproving them, he should be considered unfit to hold the office of president.


    To bear in mind, with 101 days to go until the election:

    • The Trump campaign’s standard response is that it won’t release the returns because they’re “under audit.” The IRS says, No problem! It’s just fine with us for you to release them. Trump’s excuse is a total crock, and one that has not been accepted from any previous nominee  — although, as a lawyer has pointed out, Trump’s clinging to it may be a clue as to problems in the returns.
    • There’s already an established record of Trump putting his business interests above other concerns, from his flying to Scotland to tout his golf resort during the Brexit vote to turning a campaign appearance into an infomercial for his steaks.
    • Since the time of Richard Nixon, most serious candidates from both parties, and all nominees, have released tax and medical reports as part of their fundamental bargain with the public.

    This is yet another norm that Trump is breaking — as Republican figures like Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, and the rest cement-in their position on the wrong side of the Character Divide.

  • Trump Time Capsule #62: 'A Man Who Can Be Baited With a Tweet'

    Last night, in her overall very successful acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton said with ruthless precision about her opponent:

    Ask yourself: Does Donald Trump have the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief?

    Donald Trump can't even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign.

    He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. When he's gotten a tough question from a reporter. When he's challenged in a debate. When he sees a protestor at a rally.

    Emphasis added, as it was in her delivery:

    Imagine—if you dare, imagine—imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.

    I can’t put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis. She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started—not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men—the ones moved by fear and pride.

    And here is Donald Trump’s response this morning, after some apparently-staff-generated tweets last night whose grammar and syntax were more stately than his norm (and whose message ID said “iPhone” rather than the Android Trump seems to use personally):

    Trump on Twitter

    Think of the strategic outlook you are seeing demonstrated on Trump’s side. On national TV, a woman has said that it is easy to get under his skin — after a much richer real billionaire has made fun of him with, “I’m a New Yorker, and New Yorkers know a con when we see one.” And Trump’s response is … to take the bait and show that it has gotten under this skin.

    Something is wrong with this man, if in no other way than in simple impulse-control.


    After the jump, a reader on the implications of episodes like these:

  • Trump Time Capsule #61: 'A Serious Threat Against the Security of the West'

    From Carl Bildt, on Twitter

    Just a quick place-holder note on where things stand, near the end of the DNC and in the middle of the Trump-Putin flap. Today’s theme: foreign policy and the military.

    America’s influence in the world is so great that non-Americans pay attention to the political process and have their favorites. European and Latin American publics generally prefer U.S. Democrats. The Chinese often lean Republican. We know how Putin is going this year.

    But it’s unusual to get statements as direct as the one shown above, posted yesterday by a former Prime Minister of Sweden.

    It’s less unusual, but still striking, to see the 160-or-so academics and foreign-policy veterans who have signed an open letter drafted by Ali Wyne, for The American Interest, which accepts Donald Trump’s premise that it is time to re-think in a deep way America’s habitual military commitments and strategic assumptions. But then it goes on to detail what is reckless about him and his proposals. The conclusion:

    Many critics of his candidacy appear to have believed that they could blunt his momentum by lampooning his disposition and mocking his proposals. With less than four months before the United States elects its next president, however, it is evident that neither of those tactics has succeeded; it behooves Americans—policymakers, analysts, and citizens alike—to take Mr. Trump seriously and interrogate his vision of foreign policy.

    If you have any background in this field, you will find the list of names interesting. (Also see Michael Hirsh’s new piece on the Republican-vs-Democratic national-security teams. Here is a previous note from 120+ conservative foreign policy experts warning against Trump.)


    This is noted as part of the ongoing record of Trump, at a time when Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, and other “responsible” Republicans still stand behind him, and when former leaders like the two Presidents Bush, James Baker, Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, and others may be giving him the cold shoulder but have not spoken up directly to warn against him.

    And, 102 days out from the election, still no tax returns or plausible physical-exam report, which through the post-Nixon era have been basic prices-of-entry for presidential candidates.