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.”)
In an interview with the Miami Herald today, a man who could become the next president said that if it were up to him, U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist involvement could be sent to Guantanamo and handled by military tribunals, rather than tried in normal courts.
Here is what the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says on the topic:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Of course you could make a case that unusual circumstances require unusual measures: Abraham Lincoln imposed martial law during the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson suppressed free speech during World War I. Franklin Roosevelt notoriously authorized the internment of ethnically Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II. The entirety of the post-9/11 era has involved tensions along the frontier between liberty and security, and elaborations of the differences between the rights of people in general and the additional rights (under U.S. law) of U.S. citizens.
You could make a case—but Trump didn’t even pretend to try. Here is the extent of his “thinking” on an issue involving first principles of liberty, constitutional balance, and how a democracy maintains its values while defending itself:
Asked about Guantánamo in the past, Trump has said he would like to “load it up with bad dudes.”…
“Would you try to get the military commissions — the trial court there — to try U.S. citizens?” a reporter asked.
“Well, I know that they want to try them in our regular court systems, and I don’t like that at all. I don’t like that at all,” he said. “I would say they could be tried there, that would be fine.”
“I don’t like that at all”—such is his case against today’s understanding of constitutional protections. “That would be fine.” Actually, no.
And still, as the clock ticks down to 87 days until the election, we have: no tax returns; no plausible medical report (for the North Korean News Service version of a report, see this); no flinching by the likes of Ryan, McConnell, McCain, Portman, Rubio, Toomey, Ayotte, et al on what it would mean to have this man in command.
Yesterday Donald Trump said that Barack Obama is “the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS.”
This is not true.
Context point #1: If you would like to know the real background of ISIS—where it came from, who its actual founders were, what it does and why, etc.—you can make no better start than to follow the works of Graeme Wood. Here is his March 2015 Atlantic cover story “What ISIS Wants.”
Context point #2: You can imagine some non-lunatic context for what a comment like Trump’s could conceivably be meant to say. That would require assuming that “founder” meant “person who created the conditions that gave rise to.” For instance:
David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, and Georges Clemenceau “were the founders of Nazism,” since the harsh terms they set at the Treaty of Versailles were part of the reason for the economic and political problems within Germany from which Hitler’s Nazis arose. Or
Ronald Reagan “was the founder of al-Qaeda,” since he supported the Afghan resistance fighters (including Osama bin Laden) who opposed the Soviet occupation and later turned their fury on the United States. Or
Abraham Lincoln “was the founder of the Ku Klux Klan,” because if he had never bothered to fight the Confederacy or sign the Emancipation Proclamation the conditions that led to the Klan’s formation would not have occurred. Or
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney “were the founders of ISIS,” because by invading Iraq ...
You get the idea. But if you wanted to make this kind of historical chain-of-causation argument, you would actually say something of that sort. For instance about Obama: “The irony of President Obama’s determination to get us out of Iraq is that, in his very haste to flee, he ensured that we’d be involved for years. That’s because …” and you would go on to say something about conditions in Iraq, and the continuation of the drone war, and the nightmare of Syria, and so on.
I wouldn’t buy the case—for me, if there are any American “founders” of ISIS, they’re more likely to be the people who began the U.S. military involvement in Iraq than the ones who tried to end it—but at least it would be a case. It would not be one more fantasy.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump has not made this kind of chain-of-reasoning argument about anything. People have stagnant incomes? Boom! It’s NAFTA and the Chinese. Crime in the cities? Boom! Let’s build that wall. ISIS is “chopping off heads,” as Trump most typically phrases it? Boom! Obama’s the founder. And as David Graham has pointed out, this morning on the radio Trump made clear that he intended the statement in its baldest, stupidest, and most obviously untrue sense: that Obama had literally founded ISIS.
Trump doesn’t care that this statement, like so many others, is flat-out false. Nor, to judge by their actions, do Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, John McCain, Pat Toomey, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, or the other “responsible” Republicans who stand with Trump. It’s 88 days until the election; we have no tax returns or plausible medical report from Trump; and there is a chance that he could become commander in chief.
Noted for the record: Today, August 9, 2016, was the day the Republican standard-bearer made a joke in public about his Democratic rival possibly being shot to death:
To the best of my knowledge, this has not happened before in modern times. I am in transit today and pass the baton to TheAtlantic’s David Graham for a full rundown of the episode. For instance:
The suggestion that the assassination of a presidential candidate—or the killing of Supreme Court justices, or an armed insurrection, depending on interpretation—could solve a policy dispute is a shocking new low for a campaign that has continually reset expectations. Trump’s defenders often scold the media for being humorless, or taking Trump’s comments too seriously. So let’s preemptively dismiss that counterargument: This aside was clearly intended to be a joke. It is also entirely shocking and appalling, even in that context.
At no point in recent American history has the nominee of one of the two major parties even jested about the murder of a rival.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but still I will say:
People don’t do this. If an ordinary citizen made a similar joke at a town meeting, or if someone in the media like me were to say something similar on a TV or radio show, the Secret Service would probably want to know more. Through modern times, which is to say since the assassination of John F. Kennedy (and of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the attempted assassinations of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace, and so on), “jokes” about shooting a president or presidential candidate are categorically not funny. Make a joke about blowing up a plane while at an airport, and you’ll be in trouble. Make a joke about guns as the solution to an election outcome you don’t like, and at the very least you are not showing commander-in-chief temperament.
Have you no sense of decency? Any Republican “leader” who stands with Trump after this will forever share the stain Trump is bringing to public life. This is like standing with Joe McCarthy after the Joseph Welch “Have you no sense of decency?” episode. It is like standing with Bull Connor. “Responsible” Republicans, the reputation of your party’s nominee can’t be changed at this point. Yours, and the party’s, are being set now.
Again for the time capsule: With 90 days until the election, one nominee has joked about the other being shot to death, and as of this moment his party elders stand with him.
Noted as part of the ongoing record, the extraordinary statement signed yesterday by 50 veterans of national-security policy in Republican administrations, arguing that Donald Trump would be “a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well being.” You can read the original document here, and a NYT story about it here.
Why this is extraordinary:
That it exists at all. Election-year rhetoric usually brings statements about candidates who are “wrong” or “unprepared” or “weak” or “bad choices for America” or what have you. And usually these are from people in the trenches of political warfare, not from the career policy-expert class.
This statement is not part of political-debate-as-usual. It’s one more, and in its way the most dramatic, in the recent series of unusual, “this time it’s different” statements of flat disqualification. Recent examples include: the comment by the incumbent president (Obama) that a nominee (Trump) is “unfit” to serve; the observation by a former CIA head that a foreign government had flattered and conned a nominee and turned him into an “unwitting agent of the Russian Federation”; and the warning from a former allied Prime Minister that a candidate presents “a serious threat to the security of the west.”
Who signed it. If you have followed the ins and outs of foreign policy over the years, you will instantly recognize most of these names, and you will also understand that they are bona fide Republicans and conservatives. Some mainly had military, diplomatic, or intelligence careers before rising to senior posts in (mainly) Republican administrations: for instance, John Negroponte, a longtime diplomat who became Director of National Intelligence under GW Bush. Some have had multiple policy positions in GOP administrations: for instance, Robert Zoellick, who became U.S. Trade Representative, Deputy Secretary of State, and then president of the World Bank under GW Bush. Others have been in and out of academia and government. Philip Zelikow, a scholar who was lead author of the 9/11 Commission Report and was State Department counselor under Condoleezza Rice (and whom I’ve come to know as a friend) has signed on. So has Tom Ridge, former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and first Secretary of Homeland Security under GW Bush. So has his successor at DHS, Michael Chertoff.
I could add a note about almost every person on the list, but I’ll just say: in most Republican administrations, you’d expect to see lots of these same names in serious foreign-policy jobs, and many others as part of the informal brains-trust. Why does this matter? First, it means that they have some standing to speak. Second, it means that they have something to lose.
The sympathetic view of the failures by Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, and others to separate themselves from Trump is that they can’t “take the risk.” The people signing this latest letter are taking a quite definite personal and career risk. For the ones still interested in appointive office, the next Republican administration is their next realistic chance for a job. But they’re saying: that’s not worth tolerating Trump. As someone with comparable experience, but mainly with Democratic politicians, wrote me about the letter: “Their bravery in warning about Trump—at personal risk and sacrifice—deserves to be remembered and honored.”
What they said. This is a very tough statement. Again, if you have followed the ins and outs of foreign policy over the years, you will understand that they are bona fide Republicans and conservatives. It’s worth reading the argument, not just the signatory list, because of the clarity with which they make their case. Sample:
“He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior. All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”
I don’t know whether this will change anyone’s mind, but it is one more sign that Trump, as candidate, really is different from the array of nominees the electorate has chosen from before.
So it is offered for the record, with 90 days to go until the election, and also with: no tax returns or plausible health report yet in prospect from the Trump campaign; no response from the campaign on the origins of the pro-Russian change in the GOP platform; no response to David Fahrenthold’s ongoing efforts for the Washington Post to see whether Donald Trump has ever actually made any of the charitable contributions he has publicized and promised; and on down the list.
Let’s take this in sequence, because each step matters.
1. Two weeks ago at the GOP convention in Cleveland, the Republican platform was altered to remove any reference to arming Ukraine in its struggles against Russia (which seized Crimea from Ukraine two years ago).
2. This was notable in its own right, as a departure from a bipartisan support for Ukraine. It also attracted attention because of Donald Trump’s general admiration for Vladimir Putin, and because of the specifically Ukrainian business dealings of Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort. His past clients in his PR work had notably included the pro-Russian former Prime Minister of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. In early 2014 Yanukovych fled his country amid protests and is now in Russia.
3. Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, who was fully aware of this background, asked Manafort whether his campaign had been involved in the pro-Russian platform change. Manafort flat-out and categorically denied it. As reported in TPM (emphasis added):
“Where did it come from then?” Todd pressed. “Because everyone on the platform committee had said it came from the Trump campaign. If not you, who?”
“It absolutely did not come from the campaign. I don’t know who everybody is, but I guarantee you it was nobody that was on the platform committee,” Manafort replied.
When asked once more if anyone on the campaign was involved, Manafort said, “No one, zero.”
I was watching the exchange that Sunday morning and immediately noted the baldness of Manafort’s statements. Shortly afterward, in installment #66 of this Trump series, I said that a claim by Reince Priebus (that he had only recently learned the schedule for Clinton-Trump debates) “cannot be true,” and that Manafort’s claim “is very unlikely to prove true.”
4. A story today in the Washington Post appears to move us from “unlikely to prove true” to plain old untrue. Reporters Steve Mufson and Tom Hamburger quote platform committee members who say that the change did in fact come at the Trump staff’s behest. For instance:
The Republican platform committee at the party’s convention was one place Trump campaign aides have promoted that view, according to national security experts who were there. They said Trump campaign staffers weakened language that would have called for military support of Ukraine.
“It was troubling to me that they would want to water down language that supports a country that has been invaded by an aggressive neighbor,” said Rachel Hoff, a member of the platform committee. “I think the U.S. should properly come to Ukraine’s aid in that struggle. In the past that would not be considered a controversial Republican position.”
I wrote to Hamburger to confirm that the source of the quote, Rachel Hoff, was also saying explicitly that Trump’s staffers were involved in the change. Hamburger said that indeed she was, and that several other people, unnamed in the story, said the same thing. (He also said that he’d asked the Trump campaign to comment but had not heard back.)
Let’s step back and consider what this amounts to. On the same day that a former head of the CIA said that Putin had shrewdly played to Trump’s vanities and made him an “unwitting agent,” members of the Republican party’s platform committee are saying that his campaign manager is flat-out lying about having engineered a pro-Russian policy change that would help his former clients.
There are two other possibilities, of course. One is that members of the platform committee have for some reason decided to lie about the Trump campaign’s role; the other, that all this happened without Manafort’s being aware, so that he was telling Chuck Todd the truth as he understood it. Take your pick. For me, the odds overwhelmingly favor Manafort being involved and then imagining he could bluff his way through a denial, Baghdad Bob-style.
By now, on this 71st step down the long Time Capsule trail of tears, you might think that I would be growing blasé. Not about this one. For any other candidate in any other campaign, what we’ve learned today would be a genuine shock. Even in this campaign, with 94 days to go and “responsible” Republicans still aboard, it should count as news.
I first met Michael Morell more than 25 years ago, when he was a young economic analyst for the CIA and I had returned from several years in Japan. It was at an unclassified meeting about economic trends in Asia. (As a reporter working overseas, you routinely meet or interview analysts from various countries’ intelligence services. Usually you can figure out who some of the actual spies in the embassies are, but my kind of work didn’t normally put me in contact with them.)
I met him occasionally since then and watched and admired his progress through the years, which led to his twice becoming acting director of the agency. I liked him and respected his coolly analytical dispassion, in comparison with which Barack Obama would seem a hothead. If Morell had partisan views of any sort, I never heard them. His book The Great War of Our Time is respectful (and respectfully critical) of the two presidents with whom he worked most directly, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Thus for Morell to write, as he does in the New York Times this morning, that he will vote for Hillary Clinton and “do everything I can to ensure that she is elected as our 45th president,” is more notable than you might think. Career CIA analysts have their preferences, like anyone else. They don’t routinely make this sort of public endorsement. This is a very unusual step for someone like him to feel compelled to take.
The details of Morell’s case for Clinton, and against Trump, are also more interesting than you might expect. This part of Morell’s description of Donald Trump’s liabilities sounds familiar, though again it’s unusual considering its source:
These [harmful] traits include his obvious need for self-aggrandizement, his overreaction to perceived slights, his tendency to make decisions based on intuition, his refusal to change his views based on new information, his routine carelessness with the facts, his unwillingness to listen to others and his lack of respect for the rule of law.
But it builds toward this, which again from a CIA veteran has a particular edge:
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated….
Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.
In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.
That is: Trump, the self-proclaimed best negotiator of all time, has been flattered and conned by a genuine pro.
This is where things stand with 94 days to go until the election and with Donald Trump, the “unwitting agent,” still refusing to release the tax forms or the medical report routinely expected from nominees in the modern era. And still Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and other “responsible” Republicans say: this man should be Commander in Chief.
Too much, too fast. To jot some of it down, for the long-term record:
1. There is no there there. For some reason, Donald Trump agreed to another long on-the-record interview with a major newspaper. The three previous times he has done so—two sessions with David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the NYT in March and July, and one in March with the full editorial board of the Washington Post—the result was a long run of negative coverage about the knowledge gaps his comments revealed and the risky claims he had made. For instance, the second NYT interview was the source of his observation that under a President Trump the U.S. might honor NATO obligations to defend European allies, or might not, depending on whether the country under attack had paid up.
He’s done it again, and this newest one, yesterday with Philip Rucker of the Post, made news for Trump’s studied refusal to endorse either Rep. Paul Ryan or Sen. John McCain in their hard-fought GOP primaries. These are two people who, especially Ryan, have piled their personal dignity up in a pyre and set it alight, through their stance of “rebuking” Trump but still saying he should be Commander in Chief. And Trump says, Meh.
But the real news of the transcript is the utter void of knowledge or ability to maintain consecutive thought it reveals, on any topic other than Trump’s own greatness. Time and again, Rucker shows Trump’s attention flitting away to whatever has caught his eye on a TV running in the background. E.g., when Trump is talking about how his daughter Ivanka would not have put up with sexual harassment like that at Fox News:
RUCKER: Would you want her to follow the path that Gretchen Carlson did?
TRUMP: I’d want her to do what makes her happy. I’d want her to do, Phil, what makes her happy. [Trump looks at a nearby television, which was tuned to Fox News.] Oh, did they have another one of these things go down? It’s terrible that crash. Never liked that plane, structurally. I never thought that plane could—
RUCKER: Why should she have to change careers or jobs?...
RUCKER: Well, half the people in your rallies are veterans.
TRUMP: [Looks at the television again] Look at this. It’s all Trump all day long. That’s why their ratings are through the roof. I’d hate to say, Philip, if I wasn’t running, the television networks would be doing less than half the business.
I’ve transcribed interviews with presidents and presidential-aspirants over the years. This is not the way the rest of them talk. When listening to Trump I often think of Danny DeVito’s “Cows!” moment from Throw Momma From the Train, which you see 40 seconds into the clip below.
2. “You can get that baby out of here.” At a rally in Virginia, Donald Trump grew annoyed at a baby that was crying and asked to have it removed from the hall.
Write your own punch line.
3. I feel your pain here in—wherever you are. That rally with the baby was in Ashburn, Virginia, a DC suburb that is one of the richest tech-and-defense-areas not just in the state but in the whole country. In his speech Trump went on a litany of how Ashburn had been devastated by factory closures—mentioning factories hours away at the other end of the state or in other states altogether. This is more or less like giving a speech in Palo Alto and imagining that you are addressing drought-stricken farmers and migrant laborers in Merced. Betsy Woodruff has the delicious details here.
Obvious-but-worth-making point: if you have any experience in politics, the incompetence behind such a performance is almost impossible to comprehend. I could write six more paragraphs but I’ll just say: it’s like a junior high-school drama club appearing on Broadway. (Or, to use an Ashburn-specific reference: it's like Coach Jim Zorn’s famous “swinging gate” play.)
4. Yeah, we’re on the same ticket, but we keep our endorsements separate. After Trump studiously declined to endorse Paul Ryan, his VP pick Mike Pence made clear that he “strongly supported” Ryan, thus disagreeing with his running mate.
In the known political universe, this kind of thing does not happen. Yes, VP Joe Biden signaled his support for same-sex marriage long before President Obama did, but that was years into the administration rather than in the heat of the campaign.
5. Republicans abroad. The worldwide vice president of Republicans Overseas, Jan Halper-Hayes, told the BBC that Trump was “out of control” and therefore she could no long support him.
6. A narcissist with nuclear weapons. John Noonan, a nuclear expert who had advised Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, unleashed a long Tweet-storm arguing that Trump’s ignorant cavalierness about nuclear weapons threatened to upset the decades-long balance-of-terror that had kept nuclear weapons from being used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can read the whole thing here; sample below.
To put this in perspective: Howard Dean’s campaign for president in 2004 was dealt a serious blow by a single five-second “screaming” episode. Rick Perry was hurt badly in 2012 by one 10-second brain freeze on a debate stage. Dan Quayle never fully recovered from spelling out potatoe in 1992.
Those were single episodes, with outsized consequences. Yet in 2016 Donald Trump does something like this practically every hour.
This is part of what he did on just another average day, 96 days before the election, with tax returns and a plausible physical-exam report nowhere in sight.
Noting it for the long-term record: August 1, 2016 — four days after the end of the Democratic convention, three days into the Captain Khan disaster (for Trump), on the same day as the post-convention polls shifted strongly in Hillary Clinton’s favor — Donald Trump began emphasizing that the election this fall could well be “rigged.”
From around time 17:00 onward in the clip below, showing a discussion with the nonpareil Sean Hannity, Trump warns that something fishy is going on. The clearest statement is around time 18:05: “Starting on November 8, we better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged.”
Why this is worth noting, beyond its departure from norms:
A powerful element of the emerging Picture Of Trump is that nothing is ever his fault. For instance: When it seemed that the final-night ratings for the DNC, featuring Hillary Clinton, might have drawn a bigger audience than his own convention-acceptance speech, Trump stressed to reporters that he had not really had much to do with the convention — he had just showed up. But when the ratings came in and showed that he had actually “won” that final night (although the Democrats got larger audiences for the other three nights), he began promoting that fact in multiple tweets. Success is his; screw-ups are by losers.
Since nothing is ever his fault, then if polls seem headed the wrong way, the only explanation can be cheating. “A lot of people are talking about something going on.”
Assuming that current results hold up and Trump loses in November, it does not bode well for the country to have a rigged-election / stab-in-the-back narrative seeded so far in advance. Compare, for instance, both Richard Nixon after the 1960 results came in and Al Gore in 2000, each of whom had much stronger grounds (especially Gore) to challenge the legitimacy of the outcome, but both of whom said: let’s move on.
Thus we note one more bit of damage Trump is inflicting on the body politic, with 97 days to go until the election —and still no tax returns or medical report.
After the jump, reader comments on Trump’s “rigged” narrative.
Given the right’s multi-year/multi-pronged attacks on voting rights, I’ll be quite surprised if voting this fall is allowed to proceed smoothly. I’ve worried for some time that some of Trump’s supporters might show up at the polls on election day to ensure that the right people (and fewer of the wrong people) actually vote.
Thus, when DJT suggests that the election might be rigged, he’s (a) accusing opponents of cheating, (b) laying groundwork for possible challenges, and possibly (c) dog-whistling followers who might show up for a bit of thuggery, if needed. Earlier this summer, DJT wink-wink encouraged physical violence at several of his rallies. We also have the recent attacks on police to consider.
From an American academic in China:
I think the “rigged election” meme is worth watching. It gives him an ego-saving (for him not just paramount, but all that matters) way to escape from actually having to behave like an adult, whether as head of a serious campaign or (perish the thought) our next president.
It also has the feature—which he doesn't care about in the slightest but which appeals to me as poet’s justice—of further sundering the Republican Party, along a fault line of its own creation. Trump is the spawn of two decades of Fox and the AM radio bully boys, and Trump’s supporters will be “confirmed” in their suspicion that the national elephant leadership have conspired to keep “their” candidate out.
It just struck me that since the polls have turned against Trump, he’s stopped talking about the polls and instead is talking about his (now seen by him as possibly inevitable) loss as proof that the election is “rigged.” (If he thought he was going to win, he would be at pains to say the election is honest, not rigged at all.)
I think the moment came when he said on national television that he would keep Russia from coming into Crimea, and being told the Russians have been there for two years. Trump at that moment suddenly realized that he was going to have to actually *know* things, that he could not just make it up as he goes along, and in that moment he realized he was doomed.
Even if he has the capacity to learn (which is not evident), he certainly has no inclination to do the hard work required. He’s lived on blather so long it’s the only thing he knows and is comfortable with. Actually sitting down to study, to learn, to think things through before taking action: that must look like Death Valley in a summer noon to him. He doesn’t do that, he can’t possibly win unless he does—and OMG, the debates! The debates will be worlds more difficult than an interview by George Stephanopoulos. He’ll be a laughingstock! Everybody will see him getting things wrong, not knowing things, while Hillary Clinton knows the turf like the back of her hand.
Thus the pressing immediate priority: Get out of the debates. Save as much face as possible, but GET OUT OF THE DEBATES.
It must feel overwhelming right now. And just as a car seems to gain speed if you step on a totally nonresponding brake, the calendar also must seem to be speeding up as he approaches the debates.
I think he’s probably not very happy right now. Not even considering the whole tax returns thing. And dammit! he DID make sacrifices. It’s just hard to remember them because he’s been such an amazing success for all his adult life, everything working out for him. Sacrifices… sacrifices… they were here a minute ago. I know I saw them.
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.
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 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 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.
Update: several more installments ahead, on debates, the Khans, reader response, and other themes. Also, I’ve just seen this new post by my Atlantic colleague (and friend) Ron Fournier, “Why Can’t Hillary Clinton Stop Lying.”
As Ron would know, because we’ve discussed these things frequently, I think the headline (while attention-getting) is unfortunate if readers take it to mean that Hillary Clinton’s worst, crabbed, letter-of-the-law evasions are remotely comparable to Donald Trump’s wholesale re-invention of reality. (The closer parallel would be if Clinton’s most notable pure-invention, “we landed under sniper fire” in Bosnia, were one of a thousand such instances, as is the case with Trump.)
As Ron’s piece makes clear, he is exasperated with Clinton for the unforced errors that give the grossly unqualified Trump an opening at all. So, read his piece; put pressure on Clinton to stop trimming; and meanwhile recognize that Trump is operating in a wholly different sphere.
This is what the we know about Donald Trump, with 98 days to go until the election, and while Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, and even John McCain still say: make this man Commander in Chief.
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.)
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.
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.
For the record and in case you missed it, it is worth seeing the Lawrence O’Donnell interview last night with the extraordinary parents of Capt. Khan, a Muslim immigrant who was killed in Iraq. They also speak to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. For me, the Khans have offered as close as we have come to a Joseph Welch moment in this campaign. The link to the show is here; an embed is below.
Sometime this week, you might walk outside in broad daylight, look up at the sky, and see a luminous orb as bright as a full moon. Only it wouldn’t be the moon. It would be something far more explosive: the dazzling aftermath of a cataclysm hundreds of light-years away.
You’d be seeing the light from a supernova—the final, powerful flash of a dying star.
Or … you might see the regular old sky. Supernovas are nearly impossible to predict. But astronomers have recently started discussing the rare possibility with a bit more enthusiasm than usual, thanks to some odd behavior elsewhere in the Milky Way. If the supernova did show up tomorrow, it would be the celestial event of the year, perhaps even the century, leaving a cosmic imprint in the sky for all to see.
A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.
Christopher Hitchens and I weren’t close friends—I was a lesser planet in his orbit. Every so often I felt the rhetorical lash of his published words on my back, and then I tried to make him feel mine, and you can guess who got the better of those exchanges. They usually had to do with Iraq. We both supported the war, but I supported it in an ambivalent, liberal way, while Christopher supported it in a heroic, revolutionary way. The more I saw of the war, the deeper my despair became. Christopher made it a point of honor never to call retreat.
I know of many friendships that ended in those years, including a few of mine. But something strange happened between Christopher and me. For every time he called me a split-the-difference bien-pensant, and for every time I called him a pseudo–Lord Byron, we seemed to become better friends. We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher.
The “crazy worms” remaking forests aren’t your friendly neighborhood garden worms. Then again, those aren’t so great either.
On a sweltering July day, I follow Annise Dobson down an overgrown path into the heart of Seton Falls Park. It’s a splotch of unruly forest, surrounded by the clamoring streets and cramped rowhouses of the Bronx. Broken glass, food wrappers, and condoms litter the ground. But Dobson, bounding ahead in khaki hiking pants with her blond ponytail swinging, appears unfazed. As I quickly learn, neither trash nor oppressive humidity nor ecological catastrophe can dampen her ample enthusiasm.
At the bottom of the hill, Dobson veers off the trail and stops in a shady clearing. This seems like a promising spot. She kicks away the dead oak leaves and tosses a square frame made of PVC pipe onto the damp earth. Then she unscrews a milk jug. It holds a pale yellow slurry of mustard powder and water that’s completely benign—unless you’re a worm.
False statements and West Wing disorder are not only inseparably linked; they’re mutually reinforcing.
Donald Trump faces the diciest moment of his presidency, a Senate impeachment trial, with a pair of distinct handicaps: shattered credibility and a West Wing that is broken into fiefdoms and often clueless about his intentions. Both were years in the making; neither seems easily fixed.
From the outside, these can seem like two different problems. But in many ways, they’re one and the same. False statements and West Wing disorder are not only inseparably linked; they’re mutually reinforcing.
Start with a president who is a solitary decision maker and who has swept aside early staff efforts to vet the material he sees. Trump now absorbs information, innuendo, gossip, and calumny wherever he finds it. He’s getting it from random Twitter feeds and old friends, from overseas autocrats and pro-Trump talking heads. He’ll repeat rumor as fact without naming the source.
While public attention is focused on the Senate, the president is making controversial policy moves.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, said days after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Emanuel’s point was that a moment of cataclysm meant a chance for big structural reforms that wouldn’t be possible in moments of calm.
But there are other ways to take advantage of a crisis, as the Trump administration is demonstrating right now. Even as the president’s impeachment trial moves forward, the White House is acting aggressively on a range of policy proposals that are politically, legally, or morally suspect, wagering—probably correctly—that the press and the people will mostly overlook them amid the drama in the Senate.
It isn’t, as has sometimes been claimed, that Trump wanted to be impeached, or that the impeachment is somehow a brilliant Machiavellian distraction he has orchestrated. The president has made clear that he wants the trial over as quickly as possible. But as long as it’s going on, the White House is using the crisis as best as it can.
And a resulting acquittal verdict would present Americans with something far worse than a constitutional crisis.
On the opening day of the impeachment trial, the Senate, in a party-line vote of 53–47, approved an organizing resolution establishing the ground rules for the trial and rejecting efforts by Democrats to compel the testimony of witnesses and the production of documents not included by the House in its impeachment inquiry. However, the resolution allows Democrats to renew their motions to subpoena witnesses and documents after House managers and the president’s defense lawyers have completed their opening statements. The fateful battle over witnesses will thus begin in earnest next week.
In December, Donald Trump became only the third U.S. president to be impeached. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell succeeds in his intention to prevent any witnesses from testifying, Trump will become the first president to be acquitted by an unconstitutional impeachment process.
The New York Times’ 1619 Project launched with the best of intentions, but has been undermined by some of its claims.
With much fanfare, The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue in August to what it called the 1619 Project. The project’s aim, the magazine announced, was to reinterpret the entirety of American history. “Our democracy’s founding ideals,” its lead essay proclaimed, “were false when they were written.” Our history as a nation rests on slavery and white supremacy, whose existence made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal. Accordingly, the nation’s birth came not in 1776 but in 1619, the year, the project stated, when slavery arrived in Britain’s North American colonies. From then on, America’s politics, economics, and culture have stemmed from efforts to subjugate African Americans—first under slavery, then under Jim Crow, and then under the abiding racial injustices that mark our own time—as well as from the struggles, undertaken for the most part by black people alone, to end that subjugation and redeem American democracy.
In the past half century, the number of bathrooms per American has doubled.
American exceptionalism takes on many forms, both flattering (our immigrant-founded start-ups) and unfortunate (our health-care prices). But perhaps no part of life in the United States is more unambiguously exceptional than this: We have so many damn bathrooms.
With the recent victory, the association has shown signs that it cannot defend its amateurism model for much longer.
College-sports fans have generally become desensitized to the cognitive dissonances of the NCAA’s amateurism policies. The rules, which prevent the payment of cash or other “extra benefits” to student athletes or their families, are necessary to retain the purity of amateur competition, according to the association. Without such restrictions, supporters argue, NCAA sports would devolve into just another minor league of professional sports, with capitalism becoming the athletes’ sole driving source of loyalty to their university. These guidelines usually operate in the public consciousness as a low hum—background noise that doesn’t distract from the compelling sporting events that audiences allow themselves to enjoy. But every now and then, the humming erupts into a roar. And in those moments, viewers are forced to confront the system they have embraced. Odell Beckham Jr. delivered one of those moments last week.
Political hobbyism is to public affairs what watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
Many college-educated people think they are deeply engaged in politics. They follow the news—reading articles like this one—and debate the latest developments on social media. They might sign an online petition or throw a $5 online donation at a presidential candidate. Mostly, they consume political information as a way of satisfying their own emotional and intellectual needs. These people are political hobbyists. What they are doing is no closer to engaging in politics than watching SportsCenter is to playing football.
For Querys Matias, politics isn’t just a hobby. Matias is a 63-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a small city on the New Hampshire border. In her day job, Matias is a bus monitor for a special-needs school. In her evenings, she amasses power.