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 85 Newer Notes

Trump Time Capsule #85: The Immigration Pivot

Donald Trump in Jackson, Mississippi this evening, with Nigel Farage. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The previous 84 items in this series cover developments that might concern Donald Trump’s opponents. Tonight we have one that might concern his most fervent supporters.

In an interview aired Wednesday evening with his supporter Sean Hannity, Trump showed that he understood the logic behind immigration-reform proposals like that of Marco Rubio’s “Gang of 8.” The starting point for such proposals has been the reality that millions of people are already in the United States without legal permission. Some are ordinary criminals, who if they’re caught are usually jailed or deported. But many others are parents, students, workers, or others who lead regular law-abiding lives except for their illegal immigration status.

What do you do with them? From George W. Bush to Barack Obama to the bipartisan members of the Gang of 8, the answer was: you don’t pretend you’re going to round them up and expel them. It can’t and won’t happen, and shouldn’t. But Donald Trump’s answer since the start of his campaign has been: Yes it can! And will and should! Find these illegals and send them home. That was the basis of his attack on softies like Rubio (who ended up renouncing the Gang of 8) and Jeb Bush. It was the logical complement to his talk about the wall. It has been to his campaign what standing up to the Soviets was to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

But in the interview tonight Trump said, in effect, Never mind! You can read the whole extraordinary transcript of his talk with Hannity in this Twitter post by Sopan Deb of CBS News. Here is a crucial passage:

Transcript via Sopan Deb of CBS.

“It’s a very, very hard thing.” It’s so tough to think of throwing a family out. These are exactly the real-world concerns behind decades’ worth of reform efforts. They’re the same concerns Trump has until now mocked as weak and loser-like. His hard line on deportation is what has attracted his most devoted supporters. One of those, Ann Coulter, had a pro-Trump book published this very day, in which she says: “There is nothing Trump can do that won’t be forgiven. Except change his immigration policies.”

Will his supporters still forgive him? Has his policy changed? Is it a policy at all? We’ll see. One way or another, this is a moment to note.


Three more details about the pivot:

The video below is not by Donald Trump or from the Trump campaign. That’s why I put an asterisk in the title line. To be clear, he has no known official involvement with it whatsoever.

But in a chronicle of what America is like, 75 days before the electorate decides whether Trump will be president, this is worth noting as an artifact. In previous campaigns—Obama-Romney, all the way back to, say, Carter-Reagan—I’m not aware of anything this blunt coming as close to “mainstream” respectability as the “alt-right” has done in informal alliance with the Trump campaign.


Some readers have complained or wondered about the title of yesterday’s installment #83, “Rent Is Too Damn High.” I guess I should have spelled out that it was an allusion to a colorful figure named Jimmy McMillan, who ran for mayor of New York in the Bloomberg era on a platform of “The Rent Is Too Damn High.” It wasn’t that long ago, but evidently some people didn’t know about it.

In the same err-on-the-side-of-clarity spirit, let me point out that this new video is meant as a take-off of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which after all came out nearly 30 years ago and is about the milestones of his (and my) much-deplored Baby Boomer generation.

Bonus surprise explanation: a main figure in the new video and in the movement behind it is a man named Jared Taylor. You see him briefly, with a red necktie, at time 0:40 of the video and again at time 1:00. I am pretty sure it is him in the shades, straw hat, and blue Hawaiian shirt that you see in the static shot above and playing the saxophone from time 3:00 onward.

Jared Taylor and I were good friends in the 1980s and 1990s, based on shared interest in Japan. He grew up there as the child of missionaries; went to Japanese public school and had native-speaker command of the language; and wrote an outstanding book about the strengths and weaknesses of Japan called Shadows of the Rising Sun.

We stayed in touch in the U.S. in the 1990s and I still think of him in friendly terms. But our views have diverged.

Taylor has become an organizational and intellectual leader of the “American Renaissance” movement, progenitor of what is now called the alt-right. The Washington Post’s David Weigel, from whom I learned about the video, wrote about Taylor and his movement last week. That will give you background on the ideas and people behind a video like this.

Roger Stone at the Republican National Convention last month. Now he says that Donald Trump should release his tax returns "immediately." Alex Jones, of Infowars, is half-visible in profile on the left. What appears to be a "Hillary 2016" blue t-shirt on the man holding a cameraphone in the background actually says "Hillary for Prison 2016" James Fallows / The Atlantic

I am pivoting toward a sanity-protecting, time-preserving policy of simply noting “norm-changing” activities from the Trump campaign. That is, words or actions for which there is no known precedent from other nominees. Two from today:

1) S.V. Date’s story in Huffington Post on how the Trump campaign raised the rent (for space in Trump’s own buildings) once donors started picking up the tab. Sample:

Trump nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign, according to a Huffington Post review of Federal Election Commission filings. The rent jumped even though he was paying fewer staff in July than he did in March.

When “profiteering” or “self-dealing” complaints have arisen in past campaigns, they’ve usually involved consultants or pollsters who might, say, coordinate big TV-ad buys and then take a commission on all the purchases. I’m not aware of any that have involved the candidate’s own businesses before.

2) Roger Stone, one of Trump’s most ferocious advocates, says that Trump should release his tax returns “immediately.” The norm-changing aspect here is Trump’s ongoing refusal to release his tax information, an obligation that even Stone recognizes. Fred Goldberg, who served as commissioner of the IRS under the first President Bush, writes to underscore the fatuousness of Trump’s “they’re under audit” excuse for not releasing his returns.

Both noted for the record, with 76 days to go.

Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump in North Carolina last week Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Reminder: The original idea behind this Time Capsule series was to record, in real time, what the American public knows and learns about Donald Trump while it is deciding whether he should become president. Mainly I’ve tried to stick with norm-changing events, those for which there is no obvious precedent. Here are four recent items that, to the best of my knowledge, differ from what we’ve ever seen from major-party nominees or their campaigns.

1) “Hillary Clinton is sick.” In stump speeches Donald Trump has been saying that Hillary Clinton looks bad and has to sleep a lot. His campaign representatives Rudy Giuliani and Katrina Pierson have been much more direct, implying that Clinton either has a serious disease or is suffering cognitive damage. You can read about it in David Graham’s new item here, and also here, here, here, and here. On CNN, Amy Kremer of Women Vote Trump likened the aftereffects of Clinton’s concussion several years ago to traumatic brain damage for NFL players.

On the merits of such claims, Clinton’s doctor, Lisa Bardack, has released a statement denying these reports and affirming her “excellent health.” (As a reminder, the only health information Trump has released is the Onion-style report from last year, which states “unequivocally he will be  the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”)

As for the norms of campaigning: Health questions obviously have a long history in presidential politics. Franklin Roosevelt was gravely ill when he ran for a fourth term in 1944 but did his best to conceal that—as he had (with press connivance) minimized awareness of his paralysis throughout his time as president. There were whispering campaigns about Ronald Reagan’s age and mental condition when he ran for re-election in 1984, about John Kennedy’s ailments including Addison’s disease in 1960, and of course about Thomas Eagleton’s history of mental illness, which drove him from the Democratic ticket in 1972. But I’m not aware of a previous case in which senior campaign representatives came right out with public suggestions of ill health, as Trump’s are doing now.


2. Deportation? Maybe not. Reports over the weekend suggest that Trump might be reconsidering his promise to find people without legal immigration papers and send them back home.

“Adaptability” has always been part of politics. FDR ran as a fiscal conservative in 1932 but then launched the New Deal. Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 as the president who “kept us out of war” and then took us into war. Mike Pence and Tim Kaine, both previously in favor of the TPP trade deal, now are both against it—the same is of course true of Hillary Clinton. There are examples from almost every president or nominee.

But again I’m not aware of another case of a nominee suggesting a change on so fundamental a premise of his campaign. It is as if Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, had indicated that he was open-minded about secession, or like George McGovern in 1972 saying that maybe the Vietnam War wasn’t so bad. (And to spell this out: Lincoln and McGovern were right in the views they had and stuck with. Trump’s deportation plan, in my view, is wrong, but it’s been the heart of his campaign.)


3. A new season of The Apprentice? A report by Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair indicates that Trump talked with NBC officials, before he ran, about possibly hosting new seasons of the show from the White House. Obviously nothing like this has occurred before. Closest imaginable counterpart: if Ronald Reagan, after becoming president, had revived General Electric Theater, a TV series that he hosted in the 1950s and early 1960s.


4. Insecure. An actual tweet this morning from Trump.

Trump on Twitter

Every president ends up resenting the press. While in office Harry Truman got so mad about a hostile Washington Post review of his daughter’s piano concert that he sent a personal letter to the reviewer, Paul Hume, threatening to beat him up. (The letter is here, and it is amazing. For instance: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”) But the Truman episode is famous because it’s so unusual.

The main other illustration: During the 2000 campaign, then-nominee George W. Bush stood at a podium with running mate Dick Cheney and, not realizing the microphone was on, referred to a certain New York Times reporter as “a major league asshole.” Cheney replied, “Yeah, big time.” This is like what Trump keeps doing with his tweets, except that Bush and Cheney didn’t think they were doing it in public, whereas Trump is deliberately sending the message to millions of followers.

It’s now 77 days until the election: no tax returns or plausible health report forthcoming; official GOP leadership still standing firm with the nominee.

Donald Trump makes his appeal to black voters before a crowd in Dimondale, Michigan. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Donald Trump’s comments last night in Dimondale, Michigan, have already received a lot of attention. They’re worth noting as part of his campaign’s evolution, and worth watching in the video below, for these reasons:

  • They come after, not before, the latest “pivot” to a more compassionate, more general-election-minded tone in the campaign. This is the nice Trump.
  • They resemble appeals with a long and sometimes honorable history. Some black conservatives, and more whites, have argued over the decades that the taken-for-granted status of black support for Democratic candidates leaves the African-American vote, well, taken for granted. The most heartfelt and appealing version of the argument that black voters should consider voting Republican came from the late Jack Kemp, due to his sunny bearing and his own bona fides from a career in the integrated world of sports. It was different from the version Trump presented here.
  • Trump ostensibly made his argument to black voters, asking “what do you have to lose?” But if you watch the clip you’ll see that in context he is talking about black people, to an audience that was mainly white. (Audience composition is something you can largely control if you’re running a national campaign. Where you hold the event, where you drum up attendance, whom you seat in the prominent on-camera places behind the candidate and in the front of the crowd—these all have an effect and can be tuned.)
  • Most remarkable was a tone that amounted to treating black America as a problem, rather than as a group that has some problems. The tension between statement and insinuation was similar to Trump’s inaugural statement last year about Mexicans: “they’re sending rapists.” He wasn’t explicitly saying, “Mexicans are rapists.” But the tone and insinuation were those you would never use about a group you cared about, or respected. Also, the repeated you when talking to or about black Americans was not matched by a we, emphasizing that blacks, Mexicans, etc were all part of our America.
    Listen to the passage starting at time 1:05 of the clip below. To me the unavoidable tone is the same: What is wrong with “you people”?

  • Trump rounds out this appeal by saying that if he’s elected, he’ll get 95% black support for his re-election. “I guarantee it!” This will probably end up being classified in the “sarcastic” bin, given that not even Barack Obama got that large a share of the black vote in his re-election run. He got about 93% in 2012; Trump right now is running between 1% and 3% black support, depending on the polls.

Update Trump has said similar things, more clearly, on Fox News. It’s worth reading the report on  Think Progress. “Total catastrophe” is one of the terms he uses to describe the achievements and situation of black Americans.


Two days ago, they were a team: Kellyanne Conway and Paul Manafort. Today, he is gone. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

No larger point for now (still on the road, out all days on interviews in Erie), but here we note for the record the second major change in Trump campaign leadership within roughly two months.

In June, Corey Lewandowski was out, soon to join CNN, and Paul Manafort was in. Today, Manafort is out, and Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon are in.

To say something you might have seen before in this space: This level of churn and chaos very rarely occurs in a major-party presidential campaign. To the best of my knowledge, it has never occurred in a winning campaign.

Now perhaps we’ll never know who was telling the truth about the change in the GOP platform, made at the convention, that favored Russia and Manafort’s pro-Russian former client, Viktor Yanukovych (as noted here two weeks ago). Members of the platform committee say that the Manafort-led Trump campaign asked for this change, and only this change, in the party’s platform. Manafort flatly and categorically denied that Team Trump had anything whatsoever to do with the change. “It absolutely did not come from the campaign,” he told George Stephanopoulos. “No one, zero” from the campaign was involved.

The members of the platform committee had no reason to misrepresent what happened. Manafort did, and had a long record of Baghdad Bob-like flat denials of reality when speaking for the campaign. Thus I’ve assumed that he was the one dissembling. But presumably the press spotlight will for now move away from him and resolving this issue. Legal proceedings could be another matter.

Eighty days to go until the election; still no tax returns or plausible medical report on offer from the Trump campaign; but it’s a new team with a new start. On to new reports tomorrow.

Steve Bannon, new head of the Trump campaign Carlo Allegri / Reuters

I’ve innocently spent a few days offline, in the same city (Erie, Pa.) where Donald Trump spoke this weekend but seeing a completely different prospect from the one he described. And I log back to on to see—whoa!

In order, and for the record:

  1. Medical records. While Trump’s refusal to release his tax records has gotten more attention, his failure to provide a plausible medical report is in a way more shocking (as I’ve noted over the months).

    The only report he has put out is a preposterous North Korean News Service-style farce last year, from a doctor who certified him as “unequivocally the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Also, the very oldest. Ronald Reagan was not quite 70 when he began his first term. Donald Trump would be 70 ½.

    In an item called “I’m a doctor. These are the things I find most concerning about Trump’s medical letter” Dr. Jen Gunter explains why this aspect of Trump’s stonewalling deserves much more attention.
  2. Meanwhile, tax returns. This past weekend in the NYT, Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina wrote an op-ed called “I Support You, Donald Trump. Now, Release Your Tax Returns.” Sanford, a former governor, is no one’s idea of a liberal. He makes a powerful case, from a stance of supporting Trump, that Trump should respect the expectation of all nominees since Richard Nixon and release his taxes. Sample:

    I ran twice for governor of South Carolina, and I released my tax returns both times. To be frank, it felt a bit like a colonoscopy: I didn’t like it, but it was our tradition in South Carolina. The power of staying true to the precedent that had been set prevailed. If presidential candidates won’t release their tax returns, you can expect the same in the states. If a presidential nominee doesn’t do it, why should a candidate for governor?

  3. Paul Manafort, we hardly knew ye. On the day that Manafort gets competition for his leadership of the Trump campaign, yet another story about the complications of his involvement in Ukraine.  Sample, from the AP:

    Donald Trump’s campaign chairman helped a pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine secretly route at least $2.2 million in payments to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012, and did so in a way that effectively obscured the foreign political party's efforts to influence U.S. policy.

    The revelation, provided to The Associated Press by people directly knowledgeable about the effort, comes at a time when Trump has faced criticism for his friendly overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It also casts new light on the business practices of campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

    It’s worth noting that Manafort still has not addressed what appears to be an important and very public flat-out lie: his claim that no one from the Trump campaign had anything whatsoever to do with a change in the GOP platform to favor Russia and weaken support for Ukraine.

  4. Team Breitbart. Oh lord. Please read this wonderful story by my former Atlantic colleague Joshua Green, in Bloomberg Businessweek, about the new talent Trump has brought onto his team. A clue comes from the headline: “This Man is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America.” And that was before he took charge of the GOP campaign!

  5. These intel people, what do they know? As he gets his first classified briefing, Donald Trump says he “doesn’t trust” the official U.S. government intel agencies. Good! Maybe they won’t have to give him subsequent briefings.

On the cusp of 81 days until the election, with neither tax returns nor a plausible medical report released, I’ll stop with this for the moment, and get back to the things actually going in a positive direction in the country. Despite the “to infinity” billing in this item’s headline, there are sure to be more installments to come.

Paul Manafort's client is now Donald Trump. It used to be Victor Yanukovich, shown in a poster in Kiev in 2014. Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

This is a breaking-news placeholder, for “what we knew, when” purposes:

  • One month ago, the Republican platform was altered to soften any commitment to supporting Ukraine in its struggles against Russia (which seized Crimea from Ukraine two years ago). This was the only significant change in the foreign-policy aspects of the platform at the convention.
  • Two weeks ago, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, whose former PR clients included Victor Yanukovich, the now-deposed, pro-Russian President of Ukraine, categorically denied that he or anyone from the Trump campaign had anything whatsoever to do with this change.
  • One week ago, several members of the platform committee began emerging to say: No, that’s not true, the only reason for the change was pressure from the Trump campaign. That is, that Paul Manafort’s categorical denials had to be false. The Trump campaign has not addressed the contradictions.
  • This evening, the New York Times has a big investigative piece by Andrew Kramer, Mike McIntire, and Barry Meier on Paul Manafort’s involvement in Ukraine. It says, among other things, that secret ledgers “show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.” A delicious note is that Corey Lewandowski, the ousted pre-Manafort Trump campaign manager, tweeted out a link to the NYT story.

What does this add up to? At the moment I don’t know. I will say one more time: nothing quite like this has happened before. And with 84 days until the election, there is all the more reason to expect Donald Trump to do what all other post-Nixon nominees have done, and release his tax returns.

This morning, from Donald Trump:

Donald Trump on Twitter (as part of a longer tirade today against media coverage of the election)

Actually, that’s a pretty good working definition of what freedom of the press is, and by extension freedom of speech as well.

If a statement is “completely false,” and personally damaging and malicious, there is the remedy of libel law. But if a statement is “complete false” in that it runs against your own beliefs or evident facts—for instance, a claim that the current president is a “founder of ISIS” or was born in Kenya—free societies place long-term faith in the concept of the marketplace of ideas. They are built as well on the belief that in diverse democracies people will have to put up with views contrary to their own. (Yes, I do realize that there are different, more permissive legal standards for false statements about public figures.)

All politicians end up resenting the press, while also courting and relying on it. I am not aware of any other president or major-party nominee who has used air-quotes around “freedom of the press” or publicly made arguments about its limits similar to this latest one from Trump, with 85 days to go until the election.

I am aware, though, of some other thoughts on this theme:

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in United States v. Schwimmer, 1929:

If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought-not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

Justice Louis Brandeis, in Whitney v. California, 1927:

If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.


This quote from Oscar Wilde, unlike those from Holmes and Brandeis, could well be apocryphal, or in Trump’s terms “completely false.” But it has a certain truthy aptness right now:

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.

Betsy McCaughey (Cmte to Reduce Infant Deaths)

Donald Trump embraces his status as an outsider to the world of politics and policy. He says that once in office, he would attract “all the best people.” He could make the great deals, and then they could work out all the little details.

This week he announced a group of these best people, including a former lieutenant governor of New York named Elizabeth “Betsy” McCaughey.

For those who have followed national policy debates over the past generation, this is not an encouraging sign. McCaughey has been a central, causal factor in two of the major failures of public information and decision-making since the early 1990s. Thus selecting her sends a signal roughly comparable to announcing a famous anti-climate-science figure as an environmental advisor or an anti-vaccine activist for counsel on public health.

Tierney Sneed of TPM has more of the background here. The two big points:

  • Nearly 25 years ago, when Bill and Hillary Clinton were trying to pass their health care reform plan. Betsy McCaughey made her name with a completely inaccurate, but politically damaging, misrepresentation of the plan. You can go back to an Atlantic article I wrote about this in 1995 for the details. In essence: in her “No Exit” essay for The New Republic, McCaughey invented and propagated the myth that the health care bill would criminalize buying any health care outside the government program. That was flat-out false, but proving that it was false took time—and by then the damage had been done. (More after the jump.)
  • During the Obamacare debates seven years ago, McCaughey more or less single-handedly created the myth that the bill would set up “death panels” to determine whether ailing patients were worth keeping alive. Also false. Also damaging.

More on McCaughey’s background from me here, and in a series of posts from 2009, during the “death panel” controversy, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Unlike some of the other Trump words or deeds recorded in these chronicles, the decision to involve McCaughey in a campaign is not unprecedented. After her burst of prominence in the Clinton-era health-care wars, McCaughey was recruited to be George Pataki’s running mate in his campaign for governor of New York in 1994. The two soon fell out, and by the time Pataki ran for re-election in 1998, McCaughey ran against him—first in the primary for the Democratic nomination, and after she lost there, as a Liberal party candidate for governor. But Trump’s selection of her now shows something about his up-to-dateness on these issues and his ability to judge and attract talent.


Update: Similarly on Trump’s instinct for talent, consider his spokesperson, Katrina Pierson, saying today on CNN that the U.S. “was not in Afghanistan” until Barack Obama took office and decided that the U.S. should wage war  there.


So far, the people held at Guantanamo and tried by military tribunals have not included U.S. citizens. Vote for change! Vote Trump! US Navy photo via Reuters

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.

This is part of the same document that Khizr Khan wondered whether Donald Trump had ever read.

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.

Some say that the man on the left is the founder of ISIS. Donald Trump says it’s the man on the right. Who can really know? (DOD photo of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, via Wikimedia; Reuters photo of the other guy, yesterday on Martha’s Vineyard, by Jonathan Ernst.)

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.