Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

The Daily Trump: Filling a Time Capsule
Show Description +

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 125 Newer Notes

Trump Time Capsule #45: Why Melania's Speech Matters

The candidate and his wife last night in Cleveland. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

This is a further spelled-out version of what I was trying to say Tweet-storm style a little while ago.

Political process stories usually matter more to the politically obsessed tribe of reporters and operators than to anyone else.

But the recurring series of mis-steps by Team Trump in the weeks since their candidate clinched the GOP nomination, culminating in last night’s plagiarism episode, potentially matter in a broader way. Here’s why, in the simplest bullet-point form I can muster:

  • This is not about Melania Trump herself. She did a creditable job in challenging circumstances. The only thing she did wrong on the speech was to (foolishly) tell Matt Lauer of Today that she had written it herself. No sane person would expect her to have done so. It’s her bad luck that what would normally be a routine white-lie turns out to be immediately and consequentially untrue, as in some sitcom nightmare.
                                                      
  • In the world of national-level politics, what just happened is a really big mistake. Joe Biden’s famous “repurposing” of Neil Kinnock’s childhood story came during campaign speeches, not a formal convention address. (And remember, publicity about the episode played a big part in driving Biden out of the 1988 presidential race.) You just don’t do things like this if you’re a competent political organization — and if someone does it and gets caught, that person takes the blame, presumably by being fired.

    If Trump ends up not firing anyone, the possibilities would seem to be: Maybe he’s not tough enough to discipline his own? (But really? For the man whose trademark phrase was “You’re fired!”?) Or maybe the author is someone he can’t fire, such as the most writing-connected member of his inner circle, his son-in-law Jared Kushner? Or maybe he’ll pretend this didn’t happen or is not an error? That just lets things fester, as opposed to resolving the story as quickly as possible — which is what anyone with actual experience in politics would have tried to do.
                                                      
  • This is one of a series of things competent political organizations don’t do. You don’t have the candidate call into a live TV interview show while someone else is giving a major televised convention speech on the candidate’s behalf (as Trump did last night). You don’t turn the big unveiling of a vice-presidential pick into a rambling off-topic riff, as Trump did with Mike Pence last week. You don’t announce speakers for your convention without first checking whether they want to appear, as the Trump team apparently did with Tim Tebow. You don’t deliberately or thoughtlessly piss off your own party’s governor of the perennially most important swing state, as Trump has done with John Kasich of Ohio.
                                                      
  • These are not the “rules” of politics in some crusty, due-to-be-overthrown sense. They are signs of basic operational competence. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by a plagiarism controversy, or a spat with the host-state governor, or a Tebow-type flap. These are the equivalent of not getting your permits before breaking ground on a building, or of screwing up the plumbing plans.
                                                      
  • It is manifestly possible to win a primary election campaign despite throwing out the rulebook and running a communications strategy based on TV interviews and Twitter. We know it’s possible because Donald Trump has just done it.
                                                      
  • It is conceivable that the same operating strategy —  one guy and his family and his friends, operating on his gut — will also work in a general election. But it’s not obvious that it can or will. Running a nationwide campaign is much, much harder than the intra-party process Trump has just been through. And based on the evidence of the past few weeks, Trump and his team have consistently stubbed their toes and made rookie errors each time they face a new challenge. The flap over Melania’s speech, for which someone should have been fired by now, is just the latest illustration.
                                                      
  • Just to be clear about it, moves like these don’t represent “a fresh approach” or “shaking things up” or “being authentic.” They represent incompetence.
                                                      
  • Now, why this should matter to people other than the insiders. If managing a general-election campaign is, say, 10 times more complex than running in the primaries, actually serving as president is roughly one million times harder than that. (Won’t go into the reasons now, but some of them are here, and others three decades earlier here.)
                                                      
  • In short: success as a campaigner obviously does not guarantee success as a president. Robert Redford’s final words in the McGovern-era film The Candidate are one of many reminders. But if you can’t even handle the complexities of running your own party’s convention, how on Earth can you begin to juggle the complexities of the entire Federal budget; and dealings with the Congress; and the foreign crises that crop up each day; and filling the thousands of politically appointed positions in the executive branch; and right on down an endless list.

***

You can ignore most “process” stories if you’re not a politically interested person. But these are process stories that cumulatively matter. If a potential commander- in-chief is repeatedly wrong-footed by the challenges of a week in Cleveland, God save us if you try to deal with the whole government.

***

Update: David Frum has now weighed in with a complementary set of reasons the speech is more than a passing flap.

Donald Trump welcoming Melania onto the stage this evening. (Aaron Bernstein / Reuters)

The, umm, overlaps between Melania Trump’s speech about her husband this evening, and Michelle Obama’s speech about her husband eight years ago, don’t “matter” in any cosmic sense. Anyone with experience in politics, or life, has to cut Melania Trump some slack for the performance she put on. Speaking publicly in what is not your first language, or even your third or fourth, is very hard. A candidate’s spouse is not the candidate. While Melania Trump willingly took on the role of being Donald Trump’s wife, she didn’t necessarily sign on for being a national political spokesperson, or reading (without plagiarism-checking) what the candidate’s staffers served up.

Still. In the world of national politics, three things about this episode make the Trump campaign look seriously bad.

Number one: political speechwriters (I was once one) can’t be prideful about much. But avoiding outright plagiarism is one of those few stubborn points of pride. Sure, some sentiments are so tired and familiar that you can type them in your sleep. “I see an America ….!” But that’s just lazy and unimaginative writing; it’s cliche, rather than plagiarism. Telling your candidate’s “personal” story in phrases that come from another person’s life (as Melania Trump apparently just did) is something else. It’s something you just don’t do. Or if you do succumb, and you’re caught, you have to know that there will be trouble. Cf: younger Joe Biden’s “borrowing” from the UK politician Neil Kinnock’s speeches, which led to his dropping out of the 1988 presidential race and hurt him badly for years.

To put it more plainly: I was never the world’s greatest speechwriter. But I understood from beginning to end that if I ever came up with something that was obviously plagiarized, that would be it, and I’d be looking for a new job.

Number two: personal phoniness, on two levels. One is the surface level: a spouse purporting to describe her adored husband, in words some other wife had used to describe her spouse. The other is the follow-up, with Melania’s remarks to Matt Lauer of Today that she had written the speech by herself.

Number three: startling incompetence.  What kind of crappy campaign organization is so incompetent as to let the candidate’s wife, give her debut speech before a national audience, with passages that are trivially easy to match to a preceding speech? Here’s a way to answer. No one has ever studied the political organizations I worked for, candidate Jimmy Carter’s campaign team in 1976 or his White House team after that, as examples of airtight management. But even we were smart enough never to let anything remotely like this happen to us, let alone with the most important speech of the potential-first-lady’s career.

***

We haven’t yet heard from the co-author of Trump’s latest book. But the man behind The Art of the Deal has just weighed in, to memorable effect. (Jonathan Bachman / Reuters)

I said that these Time Capsules would be on hold through the conventions. But that was before I read Jane Mayer’s “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All,” in The New Yorker. (As John Boyd and many others have taught us, adaptability is all — Boyd being on my mind just now because I spent yesterday in his original home of Erie, Pa. For reinforcement on this theme we could turn to the Atlantic’s own R.W. Emerson with his cautions against “a foolish consistency” etc. But mainly we should turn back to Jane Mayer’s piece.)

Do not let the sun set on you today — or, depending where you are, let the sun rise tomorrow— before you read this article.

Short version: Tony Schwartz, the person who actually wrote Trump’s famous The Art of the Deal, and who probably knows him better than anyone not in his immediate family or currently in his employ, considers him a sociopath. Which is the title Schwartz said he would give The Art of the Deal, if he could rename it. And that’s far from the most noteworthy part of the article.

Here is a sample, which sheds light on the deranged-seeming discourses by Trump discussed in dispatches #40 (“Back to Mike Pence”) and #34 (“I Don’t Like Mosquitos!”) The premise of those items is that Trump’s inability to sustain a thought or argument for more than a few seconds might indicate that something is wrong with him. Schwartz says that in fact this is who Trump is:

“Trump has been written about a thousand ways from Sunday, but this fundamental aspect of who he is doesn’t seem to be fully understood,” Schwartz told me. “It’s implicit in a lot of what people write, but it’s never explicit—or, at least, I haven’t seen it. And that is that it’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then . . . ” Schwartz trailed off, shaking his head in amazement. He regards Trump’s inability to concentrate as alarming in a Presidential candidate. “If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time,” he said.

Read the whole thing. Thanks to Tony Schwartz and Jane Mayer.

This is the person one of our major parties is about to choose as its nominee, and whom the Vichy Republican establishment has decided to accept.

Now back to our regular coverage.

An American who has lived and worked in Asia for several decades writes:

You might cast a future net in a future note to capture commentary from overseas business people (like me) who despise U.S. tax policy and, like the generals in the NYT story, generally lean conservative but who are horrified at the prospect of even the Trump candidacy.

I've lived overseas 23 years and I've never seen such universal concern over the daily damage he's doing to the national brand, which we all leverage consciously or not.  When the diplomats, bankers, manufacturers, sales execs, and tech guys are all on the same side of an argument, something is seriously out of balance.

Here we go!

I’m about to arrive in Cleveland (via the Kent State University airport, which is close to Team Atlantic’s hotel and is one of the Cleveland-area airports that is still operating under the convention-era Temporary Flight Restriction security rules). There I’ll mainly be reporting for an upcoming print-magazine story but also weighing in online as appropriate. I will plan to resume the Time Capsules when the conventions are over, and in the meantime making capsule-like observations passim in convention coverage. We are into new territory.

***

What Patrick Healy and Helene Cooper of the NYT report today is highly unusual and deserves attention. The unusual aspect is active-duty general officers (a) speaking about party politics this directly, if anonymously, during the heat of an election campaign, and (b) doing so to criticize a Republican rather than a Democratic candidate. (In my experience senior flag officers are not as politically conservative as the military as a whole, but overall they are conservatives.)

Yes, of course, senior military officials have been politically aware and involved since the days of Gen. George Washington. But as with so many things touched by Donald Trump, what is happening here is outside the normal range.

The officers who spoke with Healy and Cooper were responding to Donald Trump’s speeches about finally getting serious in the war against terror. His recommended steps include bringing back waterboarding (“I love it! I think it’s great!”) and intentionally killing the family members of suspected terrorists (rather than doing so as “collateral damage” from targeted strikes):

At the Pentagon, interviews with more than a dozen top generals revealed alarm over many of Mr. Trump’s proposals for the use of American power, even among officers who said privately that they lean Republican…. A number of top-ranking admirals and generals said the military is governed by laws and rules of engagement that are far stricter than politicians may realize.

And justifications that troops would be “following orders” are unlikely to sway war-crimes courts, they said.

“We remember the Nuremberg trials,” said Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, now retired, who was in charge of training the Iraqi Army in 2003. “Just following orders is not going to cut it.”

To be clear about this: senior active-duty military officers are warning that a man who could become president might give orders that would expose them to war-crime prosecution later on. For time-capsule purposes, this is part of the public record just days before the Republican party officially makes this man its nominee, and three-and-a-half months before the country decides whether to make him Commander in Chief.

***

(I’m not using a picture with this installment, because the obvious ones on the “just following orders” theme would be too heavy-handed.)

I am aware that the pace of these entries is picking up unsustainably, but that’s because the news is too. Also, we’re about to launch some new convention-coverage threads, about which I’ll say more soon.

Tweet from @realDonaldTrump after the ticket’s debut today.

I am again impressed by and grateful to the crew at C-Span, which has promptly put up a full, high-rez version of the Trump-Pence announcement ceremony that ended not long ago. You can see the whole thing via C-Span here.

You would probably need to see the whole thing, from Trump’s entry 10 seconds into the clip to his baton-pass to Pence 28 minutes later, to assess the claim I’m about to make. But here it goes: I think this event rivals and even surpasses his “I hate mosquitos!” speech, described here, in raising concerns about Trump’s basic fitness to govern, at the temperamental and emotional level.

How can I say this? Watch and see what you think. In brief:

  • The speech is a series of feints, in which Trump will briefly mention Pence’s name, or say “Now back to Mike Pence,” and then within seconds surge off on another riff about how great Trump’s own businesses are, how ahead-of-schedule and under-budget his new hotel in Washington is going to be, how big and beautiful The Wall will be, how crooked Hillary is, how terrible NAFTA and the Iraq War were. These last points are notable because Mike Pence, standing just off-stage, was a strong supporter of both NAFTA (plus the TPP) and the Iraq War.
                                                                                                                     
    For better and worse, I am not aware of any other free-flow performance like this at a major general-election event since Ronald Reagan’s painfully rambling “I remember driving down the California coast one day” closing statement during his second debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. (More about this after the jump.)
                                                        
  • It’s another series of feints or riffs, involving the Telepromptered script. Trump will dutifully read for a few seconds, in schoolboy-under-duress mode  — and then look up, brighten, and give a gloss or improvisation about what he has just said. These departures are clearly more enjoyable for him, but are usually off-message and sometimes even anti-message involving Pence. (For instance, that Crooked Hillary’s bad judgment about Iraq should disqualify her from office. Which means about Pence … ? )
                                                                         
  • Trump offers a number of “principal” reasons for choosing Pence. One of them is that he “looks good.” Another, explained at greater length, is that Indiana’s economy under Pence has been so great, while the national economy under Obama has been so terrible. In fact, Indiana’s recovery has exactly paced that of the economy as a whole, and the state’s manufacturers have been a particular object of the Obama administration’s support rather than indifference or hostility. (Eg Obama’s recent visit to Elkhart, to check out the progress of the RV industry.)
                       
  • The morning after an attempted coup in Turkey — a country that is a NATO ally, where U.S. nuclear weapons are based, which is at the center of international tensions over refugees and the struggles within Islam and dealing with ISIS and dealing with Syria — Trump’s comments, as potential commander in chief, were, in toto: “So many friends in Turkey. Great people, amazing people. We wish them well. A lot of anguish last night, but hopefully it will all work out.”

Beyond these and other detailed points is the fact that the First Joint Appearance With the Veep is one of a small number of established message-sending moments in a national campaign. The next big ones will come at the convention, with Pence’s speech and then Trump’s. More will come during the debates, and then with a handful of requisite Big Policy Speeches in the fall.

So one of these handful of formal-event moments has just passed, but turned into another Trump rally-to-the-base performance rather than anything else. The reason this matters more than the mosquitos! speech is that the circumstances of this event were so different, as was the opportunity to be seized or missed. When this campaign is over and we know the results, we can judge which of these interpretations of Trump’s performance is more plausible:

  • That the rules of general-election campaigning (and not just victory in a multi-candidate scrum within one party’s primaries) have so fundamentally changed that Trump’s riff-and-ramble approach is the effective one for these times; or
  • That we’re seeing, in these early days of Trump’s general election mode, the reasons why his message and appeal could not extend beyond the base.

For more, please watch the speech. And on the bright side, it took them only a day to get rid of the old logo.

Trump-Pence logo as of yesterday.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence in Indiana this past week (John Sommers / Reuters)

Until this week, three episodes of choosing a vice presidential nominee stood out in post-World War II history as the clumsy ones:

  • 1972, when Democratic nominee Senator George McGovern chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, but had to swap him out for Sargent Shriver after news of Eagleton’s treatment for mental illness emerged;
  • 1988, when George H.W. Bush, then finishing eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, chose young Sen. Dan Quayle—only to see Quayle immediately engulfed by hostile press questioning about his Vietnam-era record and other problems, followed by a very weak debate performance against his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen.
  • 2008, when Sen. John McCain, who was looking to shake things up and pull off a “game change,” chose Gov. Sarah Palin as his VP candidate. That led to a short-term polling boost but many longer-term problems.

In Bush’s case, the Quayle choice ended up as part of a winning ticket. In McGovern’s and McCain’s, the slate would probably have lost no matter who was the VP. And there’s a whole poli-sci argument about whether VP picks make any difference at all in the November outcome, which I won’t get into.

The range of other choices include some that clearly did no good electorally — Al Gore’s selection of Joe Lieberman in 2000, for instance — and others that look worse as the years go by, given the VP-candidate’s subsequent life arc. John Edwards, as John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, leads this list, followed by Palin. Dick Cheney, GW Bush’s choice in 2000 and 2004, probably was one of the many factors that allowed Bush to squeak into the White House, because of Cheney’s  then-reputation for foreign-policy experience and his dominance of Joe Lieberman in the VP debate. But from my perspective he was one of the worst-ever VP choices, because of what he actually did in office (and afterwards).

***

When matched against the run of past nominees, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana seems less impressive than most in electoral terms, and average-to-better on the experience front.

Electorally, a very conservative white man from a very conservative Midwestern state does Trump no obvious good with the Latino, African-American, female, young, college-educated, or environmentalist blocs of voters with whom he trails badly. Beyond that, Pence actively hurts with LGBT groups because of his involvement in Indiana’s  Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. He may hearten some Republican conservatives, but the need to do that is itself a trouble sign for a Republican nominee.

On the other hand, in terms of experience, Pence has incalculably more than Trump himself and as, as a long-time Congressman and now a governor, he has as much or more formal experience as many other recent VP candidates.

As for his instantly highlighted stark differences with three of Trump’s main campaign themes — Trump claims (falsely) that he was against the Iraq war, while Pence was strongly for it; Trump is against NAFTA and the TPP, while Pence is for them; Trump has renewed his calls for limits on Muslim immigration, while Pence has resisted  — this kind of Pres/VP tension has happened before. Any experienced politician knows how to present it as a sign of healthy creative tension etc.  Famous example: Candidate George H.W. Bush had strongly denounced candidate Ronald Reagan’s tax-cut plans as “voodoo economics,” when Bush was fighting Reagan for the 1980 GOP nomination. But after Reagan won, Bush loyally and effectively signed on as advocate for those tax cuts on the campaign trail as as Vice President.

***

Here we go!

So the result of this stage of Trump’s general-election campaign seems more positive than most of his other steps in the past two months. What may distinguish it in a bad way is the process — which in turn matters if it reflects on Trump’s ability to cope with complexities of national-level operations. In specific:

Ultimate Fighting Championship CEO Dana White with then-Bantamweight UFC Champion Ronda Rousey, in 2014. Next week White will appear on behalf of another champion, Donald Trump, at the GOP convention. (USA Today Sports photo.)

Noted for the record, just before action begins in Cleveland for the Republican convention: groups of people lining up for and against presumptive nominee Donald Trump.

For: The NY Times has this list of the planned speaker lineup for the convention.

Night 1: A Benghazi focus, followed by border patrol agents and Jamiel Shaw, whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant. Senator Tom Cotton, Rudy Giuliani, Melania Trump, Senator Jodi Ernst and others.

Night 2: A focus on the economy: Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship; Asa Hutchinson, the governor of Arkansas; Michael Mukasey, the former United States attorney general; Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a vice-presidential possibility; Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader; Tiffany Trump; Donald Trump Jr. and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Night 3: Pam Bondi, Florida attorney general; astronaut Eileen Collins; Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker; Senator Ted Cruz of Texas; Eric Trump; golfer Natalie Gulbis; and the nominee for vice president. [Indiana Gov. Mike Pence??]

Night 4: former quarterback Tim Tebow; Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee; Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma; Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman; Gov. Rick Scott of Florida; Peter Thiel of PayPal and other ventures; Thomas Barrack, a real-estate investor; Ivanka Trump; Donald J. Trump.

***

Senator Theodore Bilbo, a dominant figure in Mississippi politics through the first half of the 20th century, is deplored in history’s eyes as a Klan member and racist bitter-ender. After Bilbo’s time, racist arguments in national-level campaigns had generally become coded (“Southern Strategy,” “Willie Horton”) rather than overt and explicit. Now the press is dealing with the reality that Donald Trump (“they’re sending rapists”) is making them explicit once again.  (Library of Congress, Public Domain)

Among the challenges the Trump campaign has raised is one for the press. Reporters are most comfortable sticking to the “I’m just reporting” mode: This candidate says X, that candidate says Y, and it’s up to you, the voter, to decide which you prefer. What’s up to me, the reporter, is just to let each side have its say.

Even in the best of circumstances, this pose of willed neutrality has its limits and distortions (as chronicled here over the years). The 2016 campaign offers nothing like the best of circumstances, in that one of the two remaining major candidates simply invents, fantasizes, re-writes, distorts, omits, and generally lies about great portions of his utterances each day.

(How can I say that? Two quick illustrations from last night’s speech in Ohio. Donald Trump baldly asserted that after the murders of police officers in Dallas, political-correctness-minded people were “calling for a moment of silence” for the killer. That did not happen. To be more precise, there’s no evidence that it occurred. Trump also repeated his claim that he had opposed the Iraq war even before it began. He did not. He keeps saying it, but it is not true. Each day brings its own fresh supply of flat-out falsehoods.)

The natural tendency for the mainstream press — and believe me, this is by far the most comfortable place to be when doing a newspaper story or TV or radio report — is to avoid saying, “One of these people is lying.” Instead you want to lay out both sides and hope the contrast doesn’t need to be spelled out. But in a campaign like this, the result of this structural even-handedness can be to “normalize” the side that is lying. “Mr. Trump says there is no drought in California and that it’s all a fiction by environmentalists. Scientists in California disagree. We’ll leave it there.”

***

Thus the occasion for today’s time-capsule entry is a series of three items showing the press resisting “normalization.”

1) A long, thoroughly reported piece by Nicholas Confessore in the NYT, on how Trump has deliberately courted white racial resentment against blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and others. The story doesn’t pussy-foot around by saying, “Critics wonder whether ….” It comes right out about what he is doing:

In countless collisions of color and creed, Donald J. Trump’s name evokes an easily understood message of racial hostility. Defying modern conventions of political civility and language, Mr. Trump has breached the boundaries that have long constrained Americans’ public discussion of race.

Mr. Trump has attacked Mexicans as criminals. He has called for a ban on Muslim immigrants. He has wondered aloud why the United States is not “letting people in from Europe.”...

In a country where the wealthiest and most influential citizens are still mostly white, Mr. Trump is voicing the bewilderment and anger of whites who do not feel at all powerful or privileged.

But in doing so, Mr. Trump has also opened the door to assertions of white identity and resentment in a way not seen so broadly in American culture in over half a century, according to those who track patterns of racial tension and antagonism in American life.

2) An item by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post, under the headline “One of the candidates is actively trying to divide the country.” This is presented as an opinion item rather than a news-analysis piece like Confessore’s, but it urges readers to move past hand-wringing about “extremists on both sides” to concentrate on Trump’s flat-out appeals to racial/tribal divisions, which are unlike anything the other side is doing. Sargent writes that:

Speakers at Donald Trump’s Republican convention will cover the entire range from athletes …  to coaches! We see Trump with one of the latter, Bobby Knight. (Jim Young / Reuters)

Here’s something that doesn’t “matter” but still is delightful. Ivanka Trump gives a preview of what the attending delegates and accompanying press horde (complete with an Atlantic team including me) will see in person next week in Cleveland, and what the rest of the world can see on TV. Emphasis added:

“It's not going to be a ho-hum lineup of the typical politicians,” daughter Ivanka Trump said more than a week ago. “It's going to be a great combination of our great politicians, but also great American businessmen and women and leaders across industry and leaders across really all the sectors, from athletes to coaches and everything in between.”

All the way from athletes to coaches! (H/t Ari Ofsevit.)

Or, this could be a knowing homage to the Dorothy Parker line about a “striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.”

***

Here is something that does matter. I don’t have the time or fortitude to re-watch the Trump performance this evening in Westfield, Iowa. You can find the whole tape here (the Man himself comes on around time 1:48.00). But on real-time viewing it was notable.

Less than four months before the general election, a near-nominee is riffing as if the only audience that matters is the GOP base. Highlights:

  • Starting around time 2:10:00, “who’s going to pay for that wall?” “I can’t hear you, who’s going to pay??” You can sense him feeling for something that will rev the audience up. And let the record show: past and present leaders of Mexico have made clear that of course they are not going to pay for any such wall. But for Trump it’s a go-to routine to get a cheer.
                                                                                                                 
  • Around time 2:13:00, a solution to the knotty and tragic Syria problem. “In Syria, we’ll build safe zones, and we’ll get other people to put up the money.” How? How the hell? Never mind. Literally the next sentence was, “Because soon we are going to owe $20 trillion, with a T …”
                                                                                            
  • Starting at time 2:14:00, Trump repeats his claim that he was against the Iraq war from the start. This is not true, and every time he says it he needs to be called out on its falsity. To Trump’s credit, he turned against the war faster than some others, once it started going bad. Before it started, he was not among those — those like Barack Obama, like Al Gore, like a handful of Republicans in Congress, like Brent Scowcroft and other conservatives and realists — who warned that it would be a grievous mistake.
                                                                               
    Just in case there is any doubt here: Donald Trump was not against the Iraq War when the debate was being held and the decision was being made.
                                                                                                             
  • At time 2:15:50, Trump makes his claim that America has grown so dysfunctional that people were asking for “a moment of silence” for the man who murdered five police officers in Dallas. Maybe I’ve missed it, but I am not aware of any real-world evidence for that claim. Translation: I believe he is yet again making this up.
                                                                                                  
  • Right after that, Trump goes into his “we never win any more” riff, about how the United States is an all-fronts failure.
                                                                
    Lord knows that the United States has more than its share of grave economic, social, racial, public-safety, civic-culture, educational, infrastructure, and other problems, as both the 43rd and the 44th Presidents discussed very soberly this afternoon in Dallas. But if you’re talking in crude “we win” / “we lose” terms, you have to ask: OK, which major nation is “winning” more often, in more ways, than the U.S. now?

    It’s preposterous to suggest that the U.S. military is not incomparably the strongest in the world. The U.S. recovery has been unfair, and slow — but it’s been faster and stronger than just about anywhere else. The U.S. range of alliances in most regions of the world is stronger than it has been in decades. (Countries from India to Vietnam to Indonesia to Japan and South Korea are more tightly knit to U.S. strategic interests than in a very long time.)
                                                                                
    If “we lose, lose, lose” is Trump’s argument today, what language would be left if, for instance, today’s international-court ruling had been a sweeping rebuke of U.S. policy — rather than of China’s, as it actually was? If he’s talking this way on a day when the U.S. stock markets reached a historic peak, and the U.S. dollar is at recent-record highs against most other currencies, imagine what he’d say during a stock market and currency crash? (Before you point it out: a stock-market rise does not mean a healthy economy. But you know how a stock-market crash would be interpreted.)

Why bother to point this out? Because it does bother me, and should be noted for the record, that we’ve reached a point where we barely notice that a likely nominee is simply making things up, about his own past and about the realities of the world around him.

***

Talk about winning! Even before moving into the White House, Donald Trump has added more articles to the Constitution! He leaves the Capitol building this morning after performing this feat. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters.)

Charles Stevenson, long-time Congressional staffer and author of many books about the politics and policy of national security, writes about Donald Trump’s meeting this morning with Republicans on Capitol Hill:

You may have seen this TPM report about Trump’s meeting with House GOP. I think this part is especially significant:

Another Republican in the meeting who declined to go on the record so he could speak candidly told TPM that Trump was asked pointedly if he would defend Article I of the Constitution.

“Not only will I stand up for Article One,” Trump enthusiastically stated, according to the member in the room. “I'll stand up for Article Two, Article 12, you name it of the Constitution.”

The Republican member said that Trump’s lack of knowledge about how many articles exist, gave him “a little pause.” (The Constitution has seven articles and 27 amendments.)

Besides indicating Trump has little real knowledge of the Constitution, it also shows an insensitivity to the purpose of the question. Article I lists the powers of the Congress, which many Republicans say has been undermined by an overreaching Obama. Trump doesn’t seem to understand that he was being asked about legislative-executive relations and the proper balance between those branches. He didn't know, and probably doesn’t care. Lawmakers should.

***

It’s been nearly 13 months since Donald Trump came down the escalator and announced that he was running for president.

This evening, in Ohio, he gave what was even for him the most off-message, most (literally) deranged-seeming performance of his candidacy, and what would have been in any previous campaign a sign of very serious trouble.

A sample:

Why this was off-message:

  • It followed a slightly good, mainly very bad day for Hillary Clinton, in which James Comey, the director of the FBI, scolded her for being “extremely careless” with classified emails. (The slightly good part was Comey’s announcement that Clinton’s carelessness didn’t warrant prosecution.) Rather than focusing relentlessly on what this said about Clinton, Trump broadened the attack to include Comey and his “rigged” investigation — and thus drove the email story from lead position in the news because of all the other things he said and did.
                                                                                                      
  • The “Corrupt Hillary and the Star” controversy (see Time Capsule #33) could have been a one-day story, if Trump or his representatives (if they existed) had simply said: “Obviously we meant no offense, to anyone other than the corrupt Democratic candidate — and to make that meaning clear and avoid any misunderstanding, we’re happy to change the image. Because what matters to the American people... [etc etc].” Instead he re-raised the issue, said the only thing he was sorry for was that someone in his campaign had taken down the original six-pointed star image, and thereby made the affair into a multi-day story that cannot gain him any votes or do him any good.
                                                                                                 
  • Trump raised a lot of money, and announced that he had done so. But the “process” story from the day’s events became not that but rather the uncontrolled nature of his talk. The NYT headline of the day was, “In a Defiant, Angry Speech, Donald Trump Defends Image Seen as Anti-Semitic.” No matter what your party, you are never, never winning when that’s the main story from your speech.
                                                                                                      
  • The half-hour of Trump’s performance was objectively as alarming, in mental-balance terms, as anything we have seen from a major party candidate in modern history. I can’t find an online video of the whole 30 minutes that has acceptable audio quality. But imagine the mosquito clip extended at full length and you have the idea.

    I defy anyone to watch these 30 minutes and feel comfortable with the idea of Donald Trump making the countless judgment calls required of a president. This man is not well. But he is the man the GOP is about to nominate for the presidency.