Reporter's Notebook

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 115 Newer Notes

The editorial page of the Washington Post, though chronically hawkish in foreign policy, usually ends up endorsing the Democratic candidate for president. But it doesn’t usually end up doing something like what it did today. To the best of my knowledge, it has not previously run an editorial like this:

Lead editorial in the Washington Post, July 24, 2016.

It didn’t say this about Richard Nixon in 1972, when the Post was beginning the Watergate investigations that would help lead to his resignation. As far as I can tell, it didn’t issue similar Red Alert warnings about Barry Goldwater in 1964.

But this year it has. Sample:

Donald J. Trump, until now a Republican problem, this week became a challenge the nation must confront and overcome. The real estate tycoon is uniquely unqualified to serve as president, in experience and temperament. He is mounting a campaign of snarl and sneer, not substance. To the extent he has views, they are wrong in their diagnosis of America’s problems and dangerous in their proposed solutions.

Mr. Trump’s politics of denigration and division could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together. His contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.

Any one of these characteristics would be disqualifying; together, they make Mr. Trump a peril.

And this conclusion:

We have criticized the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the past and will do so again when warranted. But we do not believe that she (or the Libertarian and Green party candidates, for that matter) represents a threat to the Constitution. Mr. Trump is a unique and present danger.

Good for the Post — and continued shame on the “responsible” Republicans who are acting as if this were a normal candidate in a normal year.


When I saw this online video last night, I assumed it was a parody, perhaps a less fantastical version of the sublime “Trump World President 2016” Japanese-ad knock-off that Mike Dahlquist, aka Mike Diva, released last month.  

But apparently this one is “real.”

If Donald Trump's stated aim had been increase doubts about his mental state and temperamental balance, he could hardly have done better than by putting this out. Especially by doing so a few hours after Tim Kaine’s debut as a normal-seeming person who was comfortable with himself.

Just to say it for the thousandth time: all this evidence about Donald Trump’s neediness and abnormality is in plain sight for everyone to see. And “responsible” Republican “leaders” are still trying to put him in command.

If you’d like to see a marvelous intentional-rather-than-inadvertent parody, please scroll down for “World President.”

Happy Warriors: The ticket, this afternoon in Florida. (Scott Audette / Reuters)

There’s a special “debut” category for vice-presidential selections who very suddenly find themselves in the world’s media glare.

VP picks who had mounted serious runs for president don’t quite fit this category. They already knew what it was like to handle big audiences and the press. For example: the elder George Bush became Ronald Reagan’s VP candidate in 1980, but only after running against Reagan in the primary campaign. The same was true of Joe Biden, who had run against Barack Obama (and Hillary Clinton) for the nomination in 2008 before becoming Obama’s running mate, and had run 20 years earlier too. In electoral politics, Dick Cheney had gotten only as far as Wyoming’s seat in Congress when George W. Bush picked him in 2000. But Cheney was already internationally known as Gerald Ford’s White House chief of staff and George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense during the Gulf War.

Then there is the gray zone. Lloyd Bentsen, who ran with Michael Dukakis in 1988, was not well known outside Texas before his famous “You’re no Jack Kennedy!” encounter with Dan Quayle in the VP debate. But he had actually run for president in 1976. (I did my very first Atlantic article about that run.)  Al Gore was a relatively fresh face when Bill Clinton chose him in 1992, but Gore had staged a precocious presidential effort four years earlier. Jack Kemp, who ran with Bob Dole against Clinton-Gore in 1996, had run briefly on his own in 1988, and had a national Republican-party and sports-star reputation to draw on. John Edwards had run against John Kerry in 2004 before becoming his (very unfortunate in retrospect) VP pick.

The list of modern-era true-surprise debuts includes:

  • Spiro Agnew, with Richard Nixon in 1968;
  • Thomas Eagleton, with George McGovern in 1972. (His replacement when he left the ticket, Sargent Shriver, was already relatively well known.)
  • Geraldine Ferraro, with Walter Mondale in 1984;
  • Dan Quayle, with George H.W. Bush in 1988;
  • Joe Lieberman, with Al Gore in 2000;
  • Sarah Palin, with John McCain in 2008;
  • Paul Ryan, with Mitt Romney in 2012; and now
  • Both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in 2016.

As you look up and down this list, you can think of better and worse first appearances in the spotlight. Poor Senator Eagleton’s was the most unfortunate, as you can read about here. Agnew’s worked fine at the time; eventually he became on the only VP ever to resign because of criminal charges. Sarah Palin — well, you remember. Both Dan Quayle and Geraldine Ferraro had rough starts, for reasons I’ll let you go look up. Joe Lieberman let Dick Cheney roll right over him in their VP debate.


Tim Kaine’s debut was the best of these I’m aware of, or can remember. (Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech obviously put him on the map, but that was a one-time standalone performance rather than the extended attention that comes with running day after day on a national ticket.) You’ll get the idea about Kaine if you watch the first few minutes below. Points about why I thought it worked, after the jump


Why this worked:

Donald Trump sent out the second tweet, saying people should never be mocked for their heritage, thirteen minutes after the first, in which he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.”

@realDonaldTrump stream, here and here.

Reality eclipses the ability to comment on it.

Think of the degree of self-knowledge required to be able to do these back to back. Or impulse control. Or ability to deal with complexity.

Last night Stephen Hayes, of the Weekly Standard, wrote about that morning’s press conference, in which Trump revived the idea that Ted Cruz’s father was involved with Lee Harvey Oswald:

The Republican nominee for president made comments Friday that one might expect from a patient in a mental institution, the kind of stuff you might read on blog with really small print and pictures of UFOs. And yet his remarks barely register as news. There are no condemnations from fellow Republicans. His supporters shrug them off as Trump being Trump.

What we are hearing from a major party’s nominee is not the behavior of a mature, stable, lucid, fully functioning person. All the evidence is on the table, as Trump for now continues his rise in the polls.


Richard Nixon (shown resigning from the presidency) didn’t release his tax returns until after the 1972 election. Since then nearly all major-party nominees have recognized an obligation to make their returns public before an election. Donald Trump begs to differ. (STR News / Reuters)

For three days now, Donald Trump has been the official nominee of the Republican party.

For many decades now, almost all major party nominees have released their federal income tax returns, as part of the implied bargain of running for president. The bargain is this: candidates are asking the public to grant them the enormous discretionary powers of the presidency. (Yes, presidents get frustrated by what they can’t do. What they can do is still vast.) In exchange, the public asks to know as much as it can about the person assuming this role.

So major-party nominees in modern times have released some version of their medical records, and their federal tax returns. You can see the returns for presidents going back to FDR here. (FDR’s records, which were released after his death, start in 1913 — which was when the Sixteenth Amendment first authorized the income tax!). Nominees began routinely releasing records before the elections in the 1970s. You can see the history of modern-era Republican returns here.

Donald Trump has flat-out refused to accept this obligation. “Flat-out” in the sense of telling George Stephanopoulos in May that the returns were “none of your business,” your meaning the press’s and public’s; and less directly in saying that the ongoing-audit status of the returns means he can’t disclose them. (No actual tax expert agrees.)

Is there something embarrassing or explosive in Trump’s tax returns? Who knows. Geoff Colvin, of Fortune, suggests that there might be. Many people have speculated that the real embarrassment might be evidence that Trump is nowhere near as rich as he has claimed. Another hypothesis is that returns would show that he has given very little to charities, or has managed to pay no taxes at all. The real point is that all of these remain hypotheses, as long as Trump shirks an obligation that modern-era candidates have recognized. As Colvin says:

Until he releases his returns or offers a plausible reason not to, voters must speculate on why he’s withholding them. None of the potential reasons will be good. Hillary Clinton is in a strong position to pound him on the issue, since she and her husband have routinely released their returns for years (though she may not want to remind voters of her speaking fees from Goldman

Now that he is officially the nominee, the press, his opponents, and for that matter his supporters as well should ramp up insistence that he do what nominees over the past half century have done.


“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” (Shanghai Poster Art Centre)

No one will ever be able to say, looking back, that Donald Trump was concealing the kind of leader he wanted to be.

His convention speech last night, as discussed in a range of Atlantic coverage, was especially notable for the trait Yoni Appelbaum identifies here: what would be called in any other system a cult-of-the-personality Messianic tone. As Yoni says at the end of his piece:

The most striking aspect of his speech wasn’t his delivery, even though his tone often strayed over the line, from emphatic to strident. It wasn’t the specific policies he outlined, long fixtures of his stump speech. It was the extraordinary spectacle of a man standing on a podium, elevated above the surrounding crowd, telling the millions of Americans who were watching that he, alone, could solve their problems.

And the crowd cheered.

How different is this? Let’s choose two examples from presidents who otherwise usually stand as complete contrasts.


The running mates, last night on stage. (Mike Segar / Reuters)

Months ago I published a note from a reader whose work, in the TV industry, involved exposure to virtually all of Donald Trump’s recorded interviews of the past few years. The reader said that the experience left a deep impression. Sample:

I have now been through dozens of interviews with Trump with a variety of interviewers, and I have never once—not once—heard him discuss anything, any subject of any kind, with any evidence of knowledge, never mind thought. None. Zero. He’s like a skipping stone over a pond. He doesn’t even come close to the level of dilettante.

You’d think at some point, something, anything would have engaged his interest enough to read up on it and think about it, but as far as I can tell, nothing has. Much more so even than George W., he appears to lack anything resembling intellectual curiosity. Maybe he’s faking it, but while understanding can sometimes be faked, you can’t fake ignorance convincingly.

I suggest bearing that assessment in mind as you read the bombshell interview Trump has (inexplicably, by any normal logic) given to David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the NYT. This is the interview in which he:

  • says he’d make a judgment call on whether it was economically worthwhile for the U.S. to fulfill its treaty obligations to other NATO countries, if Russia were to invade. These treaty guarantees, by the way, have been the bedrock of security in Europe since the end of World War II.
  • describes the majority of U.S. alliances and relationships as if they were real-estate negotiations, in which “you always have to be prepared to walk.”
  • when pressed for details on how he would resolve any complex issue, falls back on variations of “we’d make terrific deals” and then treads water when asked to elaborate.

I’m tempted to quote the whole, long, transcript, but here are two illustrations of significant recurring leitmotifs. The first is Trump’s “Yes, but what about ...” problem. He is prepared with a first-round talking point on a range of topics, like “we never win any more” or “we’ll make terrific deals.” But when asked “But what about,” he’s in trouble. For instance:

TRUMP: Well, I thought the approach of fighting Assad and ISIS simultaneously was madness, and idiocy. They’re fighting each other and yet we’re fighting both of them. You know, we were fighting both of them. I think that our far bigger problem than Assad is ISIS, I’ve always felt that. Assad is, you know I’m not saying Assad is a good man, ’cause he’s not, but our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.

SANGER: I think President Obama would agree with that. [Translation: Duh!]

TRUMP: O.K., well, that’s good. But at the same time – yeah, he would agree with that, I think to an extent. But I think, you can’t be fighting two people that are fighting each other, and fighting them together. You have to pick one or the other. And you have to go at –

SANGER: So how would your strategy differ from what he’s doing right now? [“But  what about …?”]

TRUMP: Well I can only tell you – I can’t tell you, because his strategy, it’s open and it would seem to be fighting ISIS but he’s fighting it in such a limited capacity. I’ve been saying, take the oil. I’ve been saying it for years. Take the oil. They still haven’t taken the oil. They still haven’t taken it. And they hardly hit the oil. They hardly make a dent in the oil.


From Jon Passantino on Twitter

The first convention I remember watching, on television at home as a kid, was the 1964 Republican convention, featuring Barry Goldwater’s fiery “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” speech.

Four years later, in 1968, the Democrats were tearing themselves apart at their Chicago convention, as the country was self-rending as well.

The 1980 Democratic convention was a nightmare, with Teddy Kennedy barely deigning to greet incumbent president Jimmy Carter on the platform after Kennedy’s unsuccessful (but gravely wounding to Carter) campaign against him.

But even 1968 was no match for the personal rancor of this evening in Cleveland, with Ted Cruz’s cold dissing of Donald Trump in front of the delegates who had just chosen Trump.

Again the theme of recent posts has been: conventions and national campaigns don’t “matter” in any profound sense (although they can make a difference in whether you get elected). But if you can’t manage a four-day convention, let alone a four-month national campaign, you’re facing steep odds in managing a very complex national government for four or eight years.

And — except for the effective Mike Pence speech, which began near the end of the 10pm-11pm EDT prime time bloc — this was another chaotically managed convention night. The Skyped-in-looking 90-second video by Marco Rubio was the minor indication. The cold, outright subversion by Ted Cruz — the man whose wife’s looks Trump had mocked, the man whose father Trump had accused of involvement in the JFK killing — was unlike anything on a national campaign stage in modern times. You can read about it in the papers tomorrow. To put it Donald Trump’s terms, the great deal-maker was publicly snookered and humiliated by his beaten opponent, “Lyin’ Ted.”


Tonight’s entry in the cavalcade of Trump family speakers: Eric Trump, doing a run-through at the podium this afternoon. There has never before been a convention in which so many relatives spoke about a candidate. On the other hand, there’s never before been a convention at which the nominee appeared and spoke every single night. (Aaron Bernstein / Reuters)

On the morning after Donald Trump officially became the Republican party’s nominee, we learned these two things about his approach to the doing that goes with the presidency, as opposed to the being of ultimate-winner status.

I’m not claiming that signs like these will dissuade Trump’s supporters or necessarily change any votes. But they further raise the stakes, and the warning signs, about what to expect if he actually took office.


1) Division of labor. According to Robert Draper’s inside-look piece in the NYT Magazine, which has so far gone unchallenged by the ace Trump communications team, Donald Trump Jr. made the following offer to Gov. John Kasich before Trump Sr. settled on Gov. Mike Pence as the VP pick:

But according to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?

When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.

Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?

“Making America great again” was the casual reply.

Perhaps I speak for many in saying that I’d be more comfortable with an administration in which John Kasich was in charge of “domestic and foreign policy” that one in which Donald Trump had any role in either. But this is yet another reminder that a major party has chosen a nominee who views the presidency essentially as a beauty pageant or an Oscar contest, which matters only as a prize to win.

Of course every successful politician thinks this way to some degree. But most of them think about other things as well. Illustration: think of a president whose policies you generally disagree with. For me, it might be George W. Bush. For someone else, it might be my one-time employer Jimmy Carter, or perhaps the current president. But whoever you choose and however much you disagree, you will still recognize that the person had policies, and cared about them, and took the job seriously.

Three and a half months before election day, here is another piece of for-the-record data that a person who might become president doesn’t have policies and doesn’t really care about the job.


2) You’re not fired. A Trump aide has taken the fall for the plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech on Monday night, as discussed in installments #44, #45, and #46. Rather, she has taken the fall without taking a fall. Here is the heart of the statement from Meredeith McIver, an “in-house staff writer for the Trump organization,” which you can read in full here:

Donald J. Trump Jr. after a successful speech this evening in Cleveland (Jim Young / Reuters)

Even as I type, Donald J. Trump Jr’s speech on his father’s behalf at the Republican convention is receiving lots of praise on the cable shows.

Unfortunately it appears that for a second night in a row, a member of Donald J. Trump Sr.’s nuclear family may have recycled material in a prime-time speech.

Here is the original catch from The Daily Show:

The Daily Show on Twitter.

And here is the preceding story from the American Conservative, which matches Donald Trump Jr.’s speech in some distinctive phrases.

From The American Conservative three months ago.

The highlighted passages match phrases Trump Jr. used in his speech tonight (I don’t yet see an online version of the full text).


It appears from still-ongoing late-night Twitter traffic that the author of the American Conservative article, Frank Buckley, might have been involved in Trump Jr.’s speech and recycled his own words. In any case, he has said cryptically that the situation “wasn’t stealing.” That would make it different from the Melania Trump / Michelle Obama situation, and more in Jonah Lehrer-type territory.

But if you were giving a major prime-time speech, 24 hours after your stepmother ran into a buzzsaw for misappropriated material, wouldn’t you be a little bit careful about this? Wouldn’t you say, “What one writer has called” or “It has been said” or something of that sort? Wouldn’t you think: OK, before anything else, I can’t keep the plagiarism story going?

And for what it’s worth, as someone who has written both magazine articles and political/presidential speeches, I’ll say that this is something you don’t do this way. You don’t recycle, without attribution, things you’ve written and let someone else present them as his or her own words. At least I haven’t done it myself or previously known of people doing this.

Is this incompetent? Entitled? I don’t know. More details to come. But on a night in which we had one featured prime-time speech about Lucifer, and another about the plight of the avocado industry, this is one of the hardest-to-believe aspects of all. Why even risk controversy of this sort, when it would be so easy to avoid?

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.