Reporter's Notebook

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.”)

Show None Newer Notes

Trump Time Capsule #5: ‘Gang of Eight? Never Heard of It!’

As a reminder, these dispatches are meant as a chronicle for time-capsule purposes, recorded at a time when no one can be sure that Donald Trump won’t become the 45th President of the United States. They are meant to note the traits that distinguish Trump from the first 44 presidents and from all previous major-party nominees. As more members of his party’s establishment accommodate themselves to Trump, this record is also meant as a reminder of the kind of person they are now deciding to find acceptable.

Daily Trump #5, May 26, 2016. What’s this ‘Gang of Eight’ I keep hearing about?

The most jarring part of Donald Trump’s announcement speech nearly one year ago was what he said about immigrants. You can see the whole thing, which even now is startlingly coarse, in the C-SPAN archives here. The part about Mexicans begins around time 9:00, and is cued in the clip above.

What’s the news? It’s in a great story out today in Bloomberg Businessweek by Joshua Green — longtime friend of mine, Atlantic and Washington Monthly alumnus — that is about Reince Priebus but includes an interview with Trump. In it Trump discloses that he had not actually thought about the immigration issue, or other issues, before diving in head first. From Green’s story, with added emphasis:

“I’m not sure I got there through deep analysis,” he said [speaking of another policy]. “My views are what everybody else’s views are. When I give speeches, sometimes I’ll sign autographs and I’ll get to talk to people and learn a lot about the party.”

He says he learned that voters were disgusted with Republican leaders and channeled their outrage. I asked, given how immigration drove his initial surge of popularity, whether he, like Sessions [Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama], had considered the RNC’s call for immigration reform to be a kick in the teeth. To my surprise, he candidly admitted that he hadn’t known about it or even followed the issue until recently. “When I made my [announcement] speech at Trump Tower, the June 16 speech,” he said, “I didn’t know about the Gang of Eight. … I just knew instinctively that our borders are a mess.”

The intensifying California drought, via Wunderground.

Daily Trump #6: May 27, 2016. Drought? What drought?

The rains of the past El Nino season have slightly offset the disastrous multi-year drought in California, which is the worst in the state’s recorded history. Just in case you skipped through that previous sentence too quickly: for as far back as weather records have been kept, there has never before been as long or severe a shortage of rainfall as what California has endured since 2012. (Tree-ring records show prolonged droughts in much earlier eras, some lasting for centuries.) Some reservoirs in northern California have been partly refilled by the recent rains; most in the south are still very dry. The water supply is nowhere close to back to normal, and what the new “normal” might be no one can say.

Everything about life in California has been affected by the drought. Governor Jerry Brown has turned to it in all of his recent State of the State messages, both as an emergency to confront and as a parable for the state’s future. For instance, here is the way he spoke about it in this year’s address (emphasis added):

One of the bright spots in our contentious politics is the joining together of both parties and the people themselves to secure passage of Proposition 1, the Water Bond. That, together with our California Water Action Plan, establishes a solid program to deal with the drought and the longer-term challenge of using our water wisely.

Our goal must be to preserve California’s natural beauty and ensure a vibrant economy – on our farms, in our cities and for all the people who live here. There is no magic bullet but a series of actions must be taken. We have to recharge our aquifers, manage the groundwater, recycle, capture stormwater, build storage and reliable conveyance, improve efficiency everywhere, invest in new technologies – including desalination – and all the while recognize that there are some limits.

Achieving balance between all the conflicting interests is not easy but I pledge to you that I will listen and work patiently to achieve results that will stand the test of time. Water goes to the heart of what California is and what it has been over centuries. Pitting fish against farmer misses the point and grossly distorts reality. Every one of us and every creature that dwells here form a complex system which must be understood and respected.


This is the way a leader sounds if he has invested the time to understand an issue; if he recognizes the stakes in dealing with it seriously; if he is willing to take on the complex work of finding areas of agreement, including among groups with deeply conflicting interests; and if he is willing to begin a process that cannot possibly be completed on his watch but which his state cannot afford to delay. You can agree or disagree with Jerry Brown’s water policies or other aspects of his leadership. (I’m generally an admirer.) Either way, no one can doubt that he is giving this his all.

Here, by contrast, is the way a shallow narcissist sounds if he knows nothing about the issue, doesn’t care to learn, and is just shooting off his mouth with the latest thing he heard:

AP story, in Time
Donald Trump at a rally in March, with a sign depicting his promised Wall. (Jonathan Drake / Reuters)

It’s increasingly evident that something is seriously wrong with Donald Trump. That would be his own business, and his own problem, except for the chance that he could become the next president and thus be in position to command major regulatory, investigative, and military powers. As a reminder, during this period when Trump could still become president, and when more and more of the Republican party is deciding to deem him acceptable, the items in this series are for-the-record notes of things he does and says that no real-world president would or should.

Daily Trump #7: May 27, 2016, the “Mexican” judge.

Reid Epstein of the WSJ has a riveting account of Trump’s speech yesterday in San Diego. Epstein’s account is the more powerful because he is so obviously trying to keep it deadpan, and let the facts and words of Trump’s statements speak for themselves.

The three crucial facts the story conveys are: 1) that Trump spent a full 12 minutes of his speech, an eternity in rally-time, in a personalized complaint about an ongoing fraud lawsuit against his Trump University; 2) that he did not argue the merits so much as dismiss the legitimacy of the suit and the judge hearing it, and in fact threatened retaliation against the judge; and 3) that among his complaints was that the federal judge was “Mexican.” That judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was born in Indiana, received his undergraduate and JD degrees from Indiana University, and has spent his entire life and career in the United States. That career includes working as an assistant U.S. Attorney in California and as a drug-offense prosecutor there.

Samples from the story:

“I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump, a hater. He’s a hater. His name is Gonzalo Curiel,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd of several thousand booed….

To the San Diego crowd, Mr. Trump argued that Judge Curiel should be removed from the case because he is biased against him. The evidence Mr. Trump presented: Rulings against him and the fact that Judge Curial was appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama. The Senate confirmed Judge Curiel by a voice vote in September 2012 [that is, with no recorded opposition]….

Mr. Trump also told the audience, which had previously chanted the Republican standard-bearer’s signature “build that wall” mantra in reference to Mr. Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border, that Judge Curiel is “Mexican.”

“What happens is the judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great. I think that’s fine,” Mr. Trump said.

Judge Curiel was born in Indiana….

“I think Judge Curiel should be ashamed of himself,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m telling you, this court system, judges in this court system, federal court, they ought to look into Judge Curiel. Because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace, OK? But we’ll come back in November. Wouldn’t that be wild if I’m president and I come back to do a civil case? Where everybody likes it. OK. This is called life, folks.”


What’s wrong here? Why is this something that would be considered out of bounds for real-world presidents or serious contenders? In ascending order of importance:

Donald Trump yesterday at the Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters). Based on comparison with photos from other angles, the hair beneath Trump’s ear is part of his own dangling coif, rather than belonging to someone standing behind him.

Daily Trump #8, May 29, 2016, Illegal immigrants have it too easy

Yesterday at the Rolling Thunder mass motorcycle rally here in Washington  — which I could hear while at The Atlantic’s offices half a mile away, but didn’t attend — Donald Trump said, “illegal immigrants are taken better care of than our veterans.”

This is not true, and no one who has thought about it for more than one second could imagine otherwise.

  • A wide range of preferences and programs are designed to favor military veterans, as an incentive to ongoing recruitment and as recognition of past service. For instance: nearly 30% of the total federal workforce, and as many as half of new federal employees, are veterans. By definition, the proportion of known illegal immigrants in the federal workforce would approach zero.
  • Well over a million veterans and their families have attended college with GI Bill-type benefits enacted since 9/11. For most scholarship or aid programs of any kind, proof of citizenship or legal residency is required.
  • The VA hospital system has had numerous, serious, well-publicized problems. On the other hand it exists (unlike some notional Illegal Immigrants Hospital System), and before the recent scandals it was often studied and cited as a model of progressive medical practices. Many millions of veterans receive medical care through the VA. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for Medicaid, Medicare, treatment under Obamacare exchanges, or most private insurance coverage and generally rely on emergency rooms or cash-up-front treatment centers.
  • Veterans can go to their congressional representatives or the press for redress of grievances. Illegal immigrants by definition have a very limited range of rights, and few ways to assert them.

I would go on, but it’s kind of an insult to public intelligence to treat this as a serious claim. (“Donald Trump said yesterday that two was a larger number than five. Let’s examine why this is not true….”)

It was a pure statement of grievance, fitting Trump’s skillful-but-dangerous pattern of expertly reading, and then pandering to, the audience in his immediate range and in position to cheer in response.

As always, the point of these updates is not to dissuade any current Trump supporters or to suggest that the accuracy of Trump’s claims is the basis of his appeal. Rather the purpose is time-capsule chronicling of what is known about this person, at a time when the Republican party is lining up behind him and he might become president.

Daily Trump #9, May 31, 2016. “You’re a sleaze.”

How do we put in perspective Donald Trump’s angry criticism of reporters, collectively and by individual name, at his press conference today? The clip below begins with one notable early moment. The final 10 minutes of the conference are more or less all in that same vein.

When I compare today’s performance with others I have seen myself or have heard of, the closest matches are discouraging. One is to the only vice president ever forced to resign because of corruption, Spiro Agnew. (John C. Calhoun also resigned as VP, but that was over policy differences.) The other is to the only president ever forced to resign, Agnew’s ticket-mate Richard Nixon.


Every politician, above all every president, gets angry at the press. I had a whole chapter to this effect in Breaking the News. In essence the point was: every politician can list all the things he does that aren’t strictly posturing, favor-trading, dissembling, or compromising. But the posturing and dissembling inevitably dominate the news.

At the same time, many politicians also enjoy hanging out with, sparring with, and picking up intel from reporters. It’s always a complex relationship.

From time to time politicians let the anger out. But those in-public outbursts, especially by presidents or major-party candidates, have been treated as exceptions, memorable precisely because they are rare. The two most famous cases illustrate the point.

One was a speech by then-VP Spiro Agnew in Houston in 1970, lamenting the media’s tendency to oversimplify. In retrospect, it’s an argument carried out at a very high level. For instance: “Subtlety is lost, and fine distinctions based on acute reasoning are carelessly ignored in a headlong jump to a predetermined conclusion. Life is visceral rather than intellectual.”

If you spoke this way at a current political rally, someone in the crowd would yell, “Booorrrr-innng!” [More from the speech below.] And yet even this formally phrased critique was remarkable enough that it still stands out, 46 years later, as a prominent case of a politician really letting it rip against the press.

The other was a breathtakingly bitter crack by then-President Richard Nixon, already standing on the banana peel of Watergate, at a White House press conference soon after the “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973. (The person at whom Nixon snaps in this clip is Robert Pierpoint of CBS, whom I happened to know.)

So, this Nixon was remarkably angry, and let it show. But to put it in perspective: this was one of the most famously bitter moments in the entire public career of a famously bitter man, at a time of near-existential personal crisis for him. (Another was “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more,” when he thought his public life was over after he lost the race for governor of California to Pat Brown in 1962.)

Yet even these Nixon and Agnew moments, still notable many decades later, pale in their anger and crudity compared with a string of comments Donald Trump reeled off today, when the only pressure on him was not real crisis but the routine annoyance of press questions.


So we know that the best temperamental comparisons for Trump are to two people eventually forced from office — and we know that Nixon, in particular, made these cracks under vastly greater pressure than anything being applied to Trump right now. We know this about Trump, at the moment when much of the Republican party is deciding to line up behind him — and the lining-up goes on.

Near the end of today’s conference, Trump was asked whether the snarling at the press conference was a fair sample of how he’d deal with the press if he were president.

“Yes, it is going to be like this,” he said.

I think there’s actually a reason to keep laying this out, but we’ll get to that. For now, let’s look at a genuinely impressive moment of Donald Trump in the public eye.

Daily Trump #10: June 1, 2016. The tragedy of the gorilla.

In the same press conference yesterday at which he angrily lambasted the press, and resented even being questioned about money he had raised for veterans groups, Donald Trump seemed thoughtful and reflective when asked about the gorilla episode at the Cincinnati zoo. He didn’t have to be told what the episode was about or the tradeoffs involved. (For anyone reading this after summer-2016: a child fell into the enclosure of a beloved gorilla from an endangered species, and zoo officials finally decided to shoot the gorilla to rescue the child.)

That is Trump at his best, explaining his reasoning and judgment in a way anyone could follow and respect, even those who might disagree.


Less than 24 hours later, this passage from Michael Wolff’s story about Trump in the Hollywood Reporter was making the rounds:

“And Brexit? Your position?” I ask.




“The Brits leaving the EU,” I prompt, realizing that his lack of familiarity with one of the most pressing issues in Europe is for him no concern nor liability at all.

“Oh yeah, I think they should leave.”

It is hard not to feel that Trump understands himself, and that we’re all in on this kind of spectacular joke.

Many average U.S. citizens can be perfectly functional and happy despite not having heard of the “Brexit” — the proposed British exit from the European Union — just as many average citizens can do just fine never having heard of the “nuclear triad” on which U.S. deterrent strategy is based. But (and it’s embarrassing to spell this out) please remember that (1) anyone who has actually read an international-business story in the WSJ, the FT, the Economist, the NYT, and so on in the past year would have seen the term, just as anyone who had read about the modern military would have come across the “triad”; and (2) anyone responsible for U.S. international business and strategic dealings, and for understanding the macro forces on the U.S. economy in the year ahead, should be aware of this serious potential change in a regional economy even bigger than that of the U.S.


As this goes on, it’s not really about Trump any more. We know exactly who and what he is. He’s a genuinely-charming-at-times salesman and schmoozer with sub-Palin-level knowledge of public affairs, more on a par with “Chauncey Gardiner” of Being There. He instantly knows all about the gorilla, and next-to-nothing about the international economy. This isn’t his fault. It’s who he is and what he does.

Nor do I think that a litany of Trump’s knowledge-holes or judgment-lapses will make any difference to his already-committed supporters. It’s part of what they like about him.

But the people who I hope are thinking about how they’ll look in history’s eyes, are the leaders of a major political party now lining up to declare this man acceptable. Not one of them can pretend later on that they didn’t know what they were signing on for.

House Speaker Paul Ryan after his meeting with Donald Trump last month, when Ryan was still saying he was undecided about supporting Trump. (Jim Bourg / Reuters)

This is all over the news, so I’ll just note its existence for the record.

Trump Time Capsule #11: June 2, 2016. “Mexican heritage.”

On the very day that House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had denounced candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigrants, announced his support for Trump as presumptive nominee, Trump himself escalated his criticism of the federal judge hearing the fraud case against Trump University. In an interview with Brent Kendall of the WSJ, Trump said that judge Gonzalo Curiel should be removed from the case because of his ethnicity:

In an interview, Mr. Trump said U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel had “an absolute conflict” in presiding over the litigation given that he was “of Mexican heritage” and a member of a Latino lawyers’ association. Mr. Trump said the background of the judge, who was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrants, was relevant because of his campaign stance against illegal immigration and his pledge to seal the southern U.S. border. “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest,” Mr. Trump said.

I note this mainly for the historical record of what was known about Trump as the party prepared to accept him, but let me underscore these points:

  • This is the man Paul Ryan has decided to get behind, on the very day Ryan got behind him.
  • Even before Trump purified his objection so that it was about the judge’s ethnicity, Jeffrey Toobin had a powerful item on the New Yorker’s site on why Trump’s previous comments were so odious and outside-normal-bounds.
  • Thanks to The Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum for pointing me toward the ringing decision by federal judge Leon Higginbotham on why his own racial identity, as an African-American, and his involvement in civil-rights causes should not automatically disqualify him from hearing discrimination cases. (David Graham has an Atlantic item about it here.) That ruling was followed by many others, and is in direct opposition to Trump’s claim, as is the American idea itself.
  • Part of what is so horrible about Trump’s relentless insults to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans is the recognition that he has sort of gotten away with it. Gotten away? Here’s what I mean: I think if he had been on the verge of saying that a Jewish judge should be disqualified because he was Jewish, a Catholic because she was Catholic, a black because he was black, or a woman because she was a woman, even Trump would have hesitated and been afraid of the backlash.

No one is going to change Trump’s mind at this point, nor peel off his most committed supporters. But the “responsible” Republicans lining up behind Trump, from Mitch McConnell to Marco Rubio to Jon Huntsman to Ryan himself, should be called out and asked: You’re supporting this? People are going to be remembered, in the long run, for how they lined up on Trump 2016. You’re sure about this?

I strongly encourage you to watch this CNN clip from Jake Tapper’s latest interview with Donald Trump:

Trump Time Capsule #12, June 3, 2016. I’m Building a Wall

You may think you’ve heard it all about this dispute; you may think there is no conceivable juice to be wrung from Trump’s complaints about federal judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is hearing the fraud case against Trump University; you may think this is asked-and-answered, and tedious.

If you watch the brief clip, I think you’ll be surprised. I was. For context:

  • Trump has just come off a solid week of being criticized high and low for racist comments about a judge’s “Mexican heritage”;
  • He has heard a million times that Judge Curiel, despite his “heritage,” is impeccably American, having been born, raised, and schooled in Indiana and then having worked as a prosecutor in California;
  • Even the Republicans who have most recently endorsed Trump, notably Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and John McCain, have publicly lamented his anti-Latino tone; and yet...

This very afternoon, Tapper asks him, “If you are saying he cannot do his job, because of his race, is that not the definition of racism? And Trump answers with: “We’re building a wall. He’s a Mexican! We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.” Thus obviously the judge would be aggrieved.

To his credit Tapper persists in pointing out that the wall would have no effect on a person already in the United States because he was born here. Note the incredulity on Tapper’s face at the end of the clip when he tells Trump, “He’s not a Mexican. He’s from Indiana!” (I wish only that Tapper had thought to say, “He’s not a Mexican. He’s a Hoosier!”) Even considering everything we’ve seen and heard recently, I found this a remarkable 68 seconds of video. Judge for yourself.


Once again, why bother recording any of this? I have no illusion that Donald Trump will change his mind or his views, nor that his core supporters might be peeled away. This is who he is, and it’s part of what some people like about him.

But it is worth being 100% eyes-open about the man that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Jon Huntsman, Nikki Haley (so far), Reince Priebus, and other leaders of the Republican party are declaring acceptable as a potential commander-in-chief. As I write this, we can’t be sure that Donald Trump won’t end up as 45th President of the United States. But there should be no confusion — now, or when we consider this time in retrospect — about what his supporters are signing on for.

Donald Trump’s response the morning after Hillary Clinton’s speech lambasting him.

There is too much going on to catch up with fully, so let me mention a case that is not about something Donald Trump said or did but rather about something that didn’t happen.

Trump Time Capsule #13: June 4, 2016. Crickets.

- On June 2, Hillary Clinton gave a speech attacking Donald Trump’s qualifications to be president, in unusually blunt and dismissive terms. Right off the bat she said, “Donald Trump’s ideas are not just different, they are dangerously incoherent. They are not even really ideas, just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies. He is not just unprepared, he is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability, and immense responsibility.” It went on from there.

- In all previous happenings of the known political world, the party subject to such attacks would have been ready to respond. While Clinton was still speaking, the “Let’s set the record straight!” emails from GOP HQ would have been pouring in. As soon as the speech was over, worthy-seeming surrogates would have crowded the cable news shows to say how unfair the criticism was, how sound and thought-through Trump’s policies were, how he had the experience and judgment for the challenges ahead.

- In the actual Trump-era political world, the candidate himself put out one of his trademarked Tweets, shown above. (Which the Clinton campaign was obviously prepared for. They instantly pounced on Trump’s “no basis in fact” and conclusively rebutted it.) And people tell me that Fox commentators have been talking about crooked Hillary — I haven’t watched. But … that’s it.

From the party as a whole? Nothing. Crickets.

  • To the best of my knowledge, not one Republican Senator has stepped up to say: “Secretary Clinton’s criticisms are unfair. Donald Trump is the man for the job.” Not Mitch McConnell or Marco Rubio or John McCain.
  • Not any prominent Representatives. Not Paul Ryan or Kevin McCarthy or any of their committee chairmen.
  • Not any governors (though we should check on Chris Christie).
  • Not any former Republican Secretaries of State or Defense or Treasury, or former Republican nominees or presidents, or national security advisors or trade negotiators.
  • Not Reince Priebus or anyone from the party establishment. No one.
  • Nor has any party leader chimed in to support his attack on Gonzalo Curiel, the “Mexican” judge from Indiana. (Update The never-disappointing Alberto Gonzales, White House counsel and Attorney General for GW Bush, has now weighed in to support Trump on the “Mexican” issue. Read that, then please see Garrett Epps’s Trumpo delenda est absolute demolition of the “Mexican” dispute.)

Many Republicans have continued attacking Hillary Clinton. But as far as I’m aware, no prominent party official has stepped up to say: She’s wrong when she says that Donald Trump is completely unfit for the job he seeks. (The Sunday shows tomorrow are still ahead, but they will be three days late — an eternity in modern news-cycle time.)

And yet: almost all of these people are preparing to accept Trump as their nominee and have said they “support” him.

You could say it’s “clever” for the Republican establishment to go through the motions of supporting Trump, while making it 100% clear that they know he’s toxically unqualified. I don’t really understand why they think that’s wiser than saying: No, here I draw the line. Maybe later on they’ll explain. For now this note is just to record the state of affairs and of public knowledge, six-plus weeks before the convention.

Jake Tapper’s full interview with Donald Trump, aired today, is an important part of the time-capsule process, of recording what was known about the presumptive GOP nominee as the party lined up behind him. But let me point out one very brief segment.

Trump has claimed that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, was against the Iraq war. Tapper, to his great credit says, What’s the evidence for that? It goes from there:

“I haven’t been asked that question before,” Trump says, of Tapper’s request for proof that he was against the war before it started going bad. “Nobody’s said that to me before.”

That is flatly, completely, and 100% untrue.

It’s a big, fat, easily disprovable lie. It’s hardly the most consequential thing he has gotten wrong, but in its baldness it is amazing.


Back in February, at a Town Hall on this same CNN network, Anderson Cooper asked Trump about a 2002 interview with Howard Stern (!) in which he appeared to support the war. You can see it here.

Set aside Trump’s explanation of his 2002 comment: he wasn’t a politician, he hadn’t given it great thought, once the war started he turned against it earlier than his Republican opponents did. Fine. That doesn’t change the reality that what he just told Tapper is a plain and easily demonstrable lie. He had been asked the question, and more than once. This wasn’t even the first time he’d been asked the question on CNN itself.

If you’re interested, there has been a slew of other coverage on this theme. For instance this item by me, plus Politifact, the NYT,  BuzzFeed, and the Huffington Post. Maybe, since Trump has no detectable campaign organization, no one made him aware of this. But we know for a fact that Anderson Cooper asked him this very question, to his face, on national TV less than four months ago.

Did Trump not remember? Does he assume no one else would? Does he not even recognize the contradiction between what he’s just told Tapper and what the tapes with Cooper reveal? Does he think that if he believes what he’s saying, everyone else will too?

None of these explanations, or others, is reassuring. The point for now is that the man the GOP is lining up to support calmly told a flat-out lie he should have known would be trivially easy to disprove, and didn’t seemed fazed a bit.

Update this parallels another flat-out, clearly disprovable Trump lie today about his position on Libya, as explained here.

Tweet on the morning of June 6, 2016, apparently in response to articles saying that Donald Trump has no campaign organization.

Time Capsule #15, June 6, 2016, Donald Trump Has No Campaign

As with item #13 in this series, “Crickets,” this one is about something that didn’t happen rather than something that did.

It’s now been nearly five weeks since Donald Trump appeared to clinch the Republican nomination, with his win in the supposed Ted Cruz stronghold of Indiana. While the Democrats have continued to scrap since then, Trump has enjoyed a long period in which his attention, organization, message, and drive could shift toward the general election in November, and what it will take to overcome (presumably) Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s thematic message and personal demeanor through this time have not fully matured into inclusive “Presidential” mode, to put it mildly. The latest remarkable example, breaking via Abby Livingston of the Texas Tribune as I type this entry, is the letter from Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela, from a heavily Latino district in southern Texas, to Trump saying “you can take your border wall and shove it up your ass.”

But two stories today illustrate a different important development, or rather the lack of one. That is Trump’s apparent indifference about putting together the sort of organization that is always necessary to run a nation-wide general election campaign.


Why do you need more than one visible and voluble candidate, with his millions of social-media followers, to become president? Because managing a general-election campaign is more like coordinating a vast military operation than like running a viral-marketing campaign.

  • Issues come up faster, and in more complexity, and with higher stakes and more pitfalls, than any one person can possibly handle. You need people other than the candidate to talk about foreign policy (and within that, Asia and Europe and the Americas and terrorism and Israel-Palestine and ...), and about budget policy, and about economic trends, and about the latest gaffe or rumor or comment from friend or foe.
  • Of the 50 states plus DC that will cast electoral votes, some are in range for the GOP and some are not, and knowing exactly where and how to spend time and money, and what the local political networks are, and what issues are trending and hurting, is a big, complicated process that requires a lot of region-by-region sophistication and info. The relevance and power of “data analytics” for targeting voters and raising money was a huge part of Barack Obama’s success in 2008 (as Joshua Green described for us) and has only grown more important.
  • Speaking of money: Money, money, money. Trump’s not going to self-fund, and he can’t do all the events or court all the donors himself.
  • Turnout. You need actual people working city by city.
  • Logistics. When I was traveling on a general-election campaign back in 1976, my greatest respect was for the “advance” teams that had to line up back-to-back events each day around the country. It’s really hard; it’s a hundred times more complex and visible these days than it was back then; it can’t be run ad-hoc.
  • Candidate-wrangling. Campaigning is really, really tiring. Someone needs to protect the candidate, and when necessary play the “candidate-whisperer” role of saving him/her from his own worst instincts and impulses. It is not 100% obvious that anyone is in a position to save Trump from himself in this way.
  • Endorsements, surrogates, joint appearances, alliances. These are important and also a PITA to arrange. Every official is important in his own eyes, they all need to be flattered and respected and brought on board.


Donald Trump did better than almost anyone (including me) thought possible in the primaries, but they were a different game. The main axes of operation were the mass rally, at which Trump excelled; and the multi-participant, scrum-like chaos of the “debates,” at which he also excelled. His skills still matter, but it’s a different sort of challenge now.

Thus the significance of this amazing story by Benjy Sarlin, Katy Tur, and Ali Vitali for MSNBC, and a complementary piece by Jim Rutenberg in the NYT.   

Sample of the first, which has the headline “Donald Trump does not have a campaign”:

Donald Trump is a candidate without a campaign – and it’s becoming a serious problem….

Veteran operatives are shocked by the campaign’s failure to fill key roles. There is no communications team to deal with the hundreds of media outlets covering the race, no rapid response director to quickly rebut attacks and launch new ones, and a limited cast of surrogates who lack a cohesive message.

Aides appeared unprepared for the Trump University story last week, despite knowing in advance that unsealed court documents would reveal explosive allegations of fraud….

The absence of a response to the Trump U story left the candidate to fill the vacuum with a torrent of demagoguery against the federal judge overseeing the case, Gonzalo Curiel, who Trump said was biased by his “Mexican heritage” despite his Indiana birthplace.

Those were the days! At the debate at the Reagan library last September, with Donald Trump in his accustomed leader’s position in the middle and Lindsey Graham at the far left in this view. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

No one can be sure of anything in this campaign, and as of now Donald Trump has enough pledged delegates to be declared the GOP nominee in Cleveland six weeks from now.

But if something else somehow happens, people might look back to this date, June 6, 2016, as a moment when things began to look different. By which I mean:

  • The stories this morning, on MSNBC and in the NYT, as noted in #15, about the absence of anything resembling a Trump campaign organization.
  • The report early this afternoon in Bloomberg, about a chaotic call between Trump and some surrogates, in which Trump urged them to go even harder in defending him on the “Mexican judge” front. Important note: the lawsuit the judge is presiding over, on Trump University, has nothing to do with his presidential campaign. In normal circumstances candidates would try to contain or ignore it.
       Instead Trump told the likes of former Senator Scott Brown and former governor Jan Brewer, “to attack journalists who ask questions about the lawsuit and his comments about the judge,” according to the story. “The people asking the questions—those are the racists. I would go at 'em.” Completely apart from the details in the story, a bellwether fact is that some participants felt they could instantly go to the press about it. 
  • A hundred hours, more than four days, have passed since Hillary Clinton’s evisceration of Trump as unfit for the job. Not even one prominent Republican officer holder has come forward to defend the judgment, temperament, or readiness for the job of their party’s presumptive nominee.
    Nothing like this has ever happened before. 
  • A prominent Republican spoke up against Trump. Senator Lindsey Graham, who of course had run unsuccessfully against Trump and then had ambiguously suggested he’d finally support the party’s nominee, flat-out called for other Republicans to un-endorse Trump, because of the “Mexican judge” controversy. According to the NYT:

Senator Lindsey Graham… urged Republicans who have backed Mr. Trump to rescind their endorsements, citing the remarks about Judge Curiel and Mr. Trump’s expression of doubt on Sunday that a Muslim judge could remain neutral in the same lawsuit… 

“This is the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy,” Mr. Graham said. “If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it,” he added. “There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”


What does this all mean? It’s impossible to know until it’s over. But if this proves to have been a turning point, I can say that it felt like such a thing in real time.