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 103 Newer Notes

Trump Time Capsule #67: 'Unfit'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump on Twitter

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

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

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


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

There are two possibilities:

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

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

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

Either way, something is wrong with him.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Salter concludes (emphasis added):

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emphasis added, as it was in her delivery:

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

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

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

Trump on Twitter

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

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


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

From Carl Bildt, on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Donald Trump is really looking forward to the big VP debate between Mike Pence and this man, Tom Kean.  Oh, wait …  (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

With the (justified) flap over Donald Trump’s invitation to Vladimir Putin to intervene in U.S. politics, and with his continued stonewalling on tax returns, another aspect of Trump’s performance at the press conference just now has been under-appreciated. It involves a point of apparent ignorance that deserves note for the long-term record.

After nearly a week awash in news about Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate Tim Kaine — current Senator from Virginia, former governor of that state, Democrat — Trump apparently confuses him with Tom Kean, former governor of New Jersey and a Republican. (Both names are both pronounced “kane.”) When someone corrects him on the state name, Trump switches that but goes on talking about events drawn from New Jersey politics (with which he’d naturally be more familiar) rather than Virginia’s.

Here’s the relevant passage:

The oddity is an apparent double confusion: first Kaine with Kean; and then Kean with his successor Jim Florio, a Democrat who actually proposed tax increases more like what Trump is talking about. Overall everything Trump said made better sense if applied to New Jersey than to Virginia, including about the governor’s falling popularity, since Kaine remained popular.

More from NJ Patch here, Politico here, and RedState here. (Update I’ve received mail from some readers saying that Trump has referred to Kaine and his record in Virginia, not New Jersey, in the past week. So conceivably this could have been a smaller-scale glitch.)

Recall how much trouble Rick Perry got in simply for forgetting, in the pressure of a debate, the name of one of the three federal departments he wanted to close.


In this same press conference, Trump referred more than once to the man who shot Ronald Reagan as “David” Hinckley, rather than John. Everyone makes transient mistakes of this sort — I do them all the time, everyone does. But I can think of no precedent, whatsoever, for a national nominee who clearly does not know who the vice-presidential nominee on the other side is. [Sorry, not “George” Hinckley as I thought I originally heard.]

This was the same press conference in which Trump said that Barack Obama was “the most ignorant president in history” and added that Vladimir Putin had called him (Trump) “a genius.”

Something is wrong with this man.

Without elaboration, I will note for the record something, yet another thing, that to the best of my knowledge has never happened before:

The Republican presidential nominee repeatedly said just now, at a live press conference, that he “hopes” Vladimir Putin and his Russian government have control of emails from Hillary Clinton’s server — emails that, as Clinton’s critics have taken the lead in pointing out, include her time as Secretary of State and contain classified information.

You can see a clip of one of the times he actually said it here:

Here is a quick response from Jonathan Chait at New York Mag. Certainly there will be more to come.

To say it clearly: Nothing remotely like this has happened before. A “hope” that a foreign government, with which the United States is at serious and increasing odds, can penetrate American electronic networks so as to affect the outcome of a U.S. election? How exactly would we distinguish this from treason? (Update: In Twitter comments beginning here, an attorney named Christopher J. Regan explains where you would draw the line between comments like Trump’s and outright treason.)

This is the man the Speaker of the House, the Majority of the Leader of the Senate, and other Constitutional officers and “responsible” Republicans are standing behind.

Evan Vucci / AP

In a press conference right now, Donald Trump says that he’d be happy to release his tax returns but can’t “while the audit is continuing.” So he can’t put them out before the election.

The IRS has maintained all along that the audit status has nothing to do with whether the returns can be released. As The Hill and many other outlets noted early this year:

“Nothing prevents individuals from sharing their own tax information,” the IRS said in a statement.

As a reminder:

  • It’s 103 days until the election;
  • Major party nominees in modern (post-Nixon) times have understood release of tax returns and believable medical reports to be part of the basic price-of-entry for the general election campaign. Trump has done neither. (If you’ve forgotten about his ludicrous “medical” report, check it out here.)
  • Four years ago, Trump was even scolding Mitt Romney for taking so long to release his returns:
  • This is entirely apart from any question of where Trump gets his money, what Russian operators are or are not doing, or anything else of the sort. Entirely apart from those issues, this is part of the basic bargain with the public of national-level campaigning. Candidates are asking the public to grant them control of the enormous powers of national government.  In return the public properly asks to know as much as possible about the candidates.

So: the reason Trump is giving for not releasing his taxes is flat-out false, according to the authority most likely to know: the IRS. Neither the press nor the public should accede to his attempt to normalize this stance.

Donald Trump yesterday in North Carolina. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.

But it is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.

  • “Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
  • The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
  • The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.

None of this is proof. But it is a vivid manifestation of a long-building reality: the chaos that can be unleashed in the new era in which everything is known and anything can be leaked. Concern about these effects goes beyond party. The very conservative defense figure Edward Timperlake wrote about it recently. In Slate, Franklin Foer says the DNC episode is “Watergate, but much worse.” Paul Waldman of the WaPo writes to similar effect. Thomas Rid, a security expert at King’s College, London, says that because “all signs” indicate Russian involvement the U.S. should respond:

American inaction now risks establishing a de facto norm that all election campaigns in the future, everywhere, are fair game for sabotage—sabotage that could potentially affect the outcome and tarnish the winner’s legitimacy.


These new developments underscore the importance of an old, familiar point: now, more than ever, Donald Trump must release his tax returns. To put it differently, the press should no longer “normalize” his stonewalling on this issue.

As another veteran figure in the defense world and political affairs wrote to me this morning:

In normal times, this [the Russian hacking] would be the lead on all network news. But these are not normal times.

I am having trouble getting through to some people that this is a real thing. The very people who always say “follow the money” with regard to the Pentagon [or other boondoggle bureaucracies] don’t see that (a) Trump has been kept afloat for about 15 years by Russian oligarchs; and (b) Russia has a powerful incentive to see a US president who will end economic sanctions.

So Donald Trump should release his tax returns because in modern times that is the basic price-of-entry in national politics. (Along with a plausible — rather than Pyongyang Daily News-style — medical report.) He should do it whether or not Vladimir Putin ever existed or there was any Russian hack. That would be true in any candidate’s case, but especially this one. George Will has come out and said that Trump should release his returns because of questions about his ties to “Russian oligarchs.”

With 100-plus days until the election, a nominee about whom there are graver-than-usual financial questions is saying that, unlike previous candidates, he won’t make his finances public.  

Strong man. (RIA Novosti / via Reuters)

Suspicions about foreign interference in U.S. politics have arisen before. In 1980, the Ayatollah’s Iranian government may have delayed the release of American hostages as a way of punishing Jimmy Carter in his race against Ronald Reagan. If you’d like a whole new field of inquiry, you can start digging into evidence on whether Richard Nixon’s campaign intentionally sabotaged the U.S.-Vietnam peace talks in 1968, thus prolonging the war and hurting (among others) Hubert Humphrey.

And of course the U.S. has both openly and covertly played a role in other countries’ politics for a very long time.

But (as is true so often this year) I don’t recall anything comparable to the current, open discussion about whether Vladimir Putin’s Russian government might be actively intervening to hurt Democrats and help elect Donald Trump. Josh Marshall of TPM makes this case today:  

Trump seems really, really focused on a series of issues of great concern to Putin: the level of US involvement in Ukraine, the robustness of our security commitment to the Baltic NATO member states, the continued existence of the EU, the continued existence of NATO.

For me, the notorious New York Times interview was a key thing. It showed a presidential candidate not only threatening to blow up a highly successful security framework which has served the United States, Europe and actually the world extremely well over almost 70 years. He showed the kind of swaggering, confusion and uncertainty generating talk which is probably the most likely path to a true super power confrontation in Eastern Europe which probably wouldn't lead to a nuclear exchange ... but, well, might.

Whenever we are looking for undue influence or malign alliances, we are always trying to unearth the quid quo pro. Quids are a dime a dozen. You seldom find the quos. With Trump and Russia we're overflowing with quos and as Trump might say the best quos. We definitely do not know if they're connected. But what Trump is giving is exactly what Putin would want for his help. This is really indisputable.

We don’t know what this really means or what it adds up to. For looking-back-on-2016 purposes, I’m adding it to the record of what was known, believed, and said about Donald Trump as he continued his rise.  


Update This item in Yahoo News by Michael Isikoff broadens the story, with (apparent) details of a Russian hack of a Democratic researcher’s personal email account. The researcher was looking into the Ukrainian-politics background of Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, while using an account separate from the DNC servers.