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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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

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Trump Time Capsule #10: The Gorilla and the Brexit

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.

“Huh?”

“Brexit.”

“Hmm.”

“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.

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.

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.

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:

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

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.”

Vince Foster (Reuters)

As a reminder, for time-capsule purposes this is an ongoing chronicle of the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president could, should, or would say or do.

Daily Trump #4: May 23, 2016, the Vince Foster case. Six months into Bill Clinton’s first term, his lifelong friend and deputy White House counsel, Vince Foster, died of a gunshot wound along the George Washington Parkway outside Washington. All available real-world evidence is that Foster, who was suffering from clinical depression, had killed himself. That was what a special counsel officially determined, in a report issued a year later.

Then and thereafter, conspiracy-theorist madmen have maintained that there must be more to the case. Maybe Foster, who had been working with Hillary Clinton at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, was having an affair with her?  Maybe in some general way he Knew Too Much? Let me emphasize that in nearly 23 years no official or investigative body has found any evidence to this effect, at all. Very much like the controversy over Barack Obama’s place of birth, it’s a “controversy” in which all the facts are on one side.

But not for Donald Trump. According to the WaPo:

When asked in an interview last week about the Foster case, Trump dealt with it as he has with many edgy topics — raising doubts about the official version of events even as he says he does not plan to talk about it on the campaign trail.

Let’s get going! (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

People will wonder about America in our time. It can be engrossing to look back on dramatic, high-stakes periods in which people were not yet sure where things would lead, to see how they assessed the odds before knowing the outcome. The last few months of the 1968 presidential campaign: would it be Humphrey, Nixon, or conceivably even George Wallace? Or 1964: was there a chance that Goldwater might win? The impeachment countdown for Richard Nixon, in 1974? The Bush-Gore recount watch in 2000?

The Trump campaign this year will probably join that list. The odds are still against his becoming president, but no one can be sure what the next five-plus months will bring. Thus for time-capsule purposes, and not with the idea that this would change a single voter’s mind, I kick off what I intend as a regular feature. Its purpose is to catalogue some of the things Donald Trump says and does that no real president would do.

***

Is this implicitly anti-Trump? No, it’s explicitly so. I’ll vote Democratic this fall, because I disagree with the current Republican party’s stance on tax policy, budget policy, health policy, climate and environmental policy, voting-rights policy, labor policy, educational policy, gun policy, infrastructure policy, foreign and military policy, and judicial appointments too. But if Donald Trump were the Democratic nominee, I would not vote for him.

I believe he should not become president mainly because of his temperament. Presidents make an astonishingly large number of hour-by-hour judgment calls. Nothing about Donald Trump’s judgment is reassuring from my point of view. His tweets are highly entertaining! But so is Tosh.0 Again, I’m not trying to persuade anyone. I am just laying out my logic.

And so, the chronicle begins: things Donald Trump has said or done that would be highly undesirable from an actual president. The running tally is meant to document his outlier status as he moves toward the general election.

***

Daily Trump #1. May 20, 2016, the EgyptAir disaster. Trump, a few hours after the news of the missing plane: “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.”

Why this deserves notice: Indications are that terrorism was probably to blame for this crash. But the gap between probability and certainty is what presidents must remain aware of. A president who leapt to conclusions like this would be an active danger. Good example: the care with which the Kennedy Administration dealt with the complications of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bad example: the George W. Bush administration’s rush toward war with Iraq.