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.”)
An uncatchable-up-with amount of news has happened in the three days since installment #99. So I’ll start the regrouping process with something simple: a single incredible interview.
Early this morning, Donald Trump did a long phone-in session with CNBC, which you can see in full below. The questioners made Matt Lauer look like the Grand Inquisitor, as you will see if you take a look.
For instance, one of the early questions, from Joe Kernan, starts with the premise that businesses and business leaders are unfairly maligned in America today. What does a successful business leader like Trump think about that?
Through the rest of the interview, Trump reeled off several dozen surprising, unsubstantiated, completely wrong, and otherwise weird statements, none of which the interviewers challenged him on. Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star provided a convenient summary of a few:
And that’s just the start. Beyond the ones Dale mentions were Trump’s (fantastical) claim that “China could solve the problem with North Korea in one day, if they wanted” (actually they couldn’t). Or that Matt Lauer had been much tougher in questioning him than he had with Hillary (unt-uh).
In a normal election cycle, a candidate making an offhand racist remark about a sitting US senator would be a big news story.
In a normal election cycle, a candidate making an offhanded lie about the state of his personal finances would be a big news story.
To be totally honest, even in a normal election cycle a candidate exhibiting total confusion about the mechanics and merits of monetary policy probably wouldn’t be that big of a news story but it would at least get some attention.
It’s 56 days and a few hours until the election; one of the candidates is still stonewalling about his tax returns; both of them, who will be 69 (HRC) and 70 (Trump) on election day should be offering full health information, but at least what Hillary Clinton has offered so far is not a self-evident joke; and the race tightens up. Just noting for now an interview that in any other year for any other candidate would itself be the stuff of campaign-altering news. I am trying not to remain numb.
Through any campaign, candidates have ups and downs in their editorial-page treatment. The concentration of these four editorials in the past 24 hours seems unusual and is worth noting as a possible press recalibration.
1. Tampa Bay Tribune, “Feds should investigate Bondi-Trump connection.” This is of course about the apparent pay-to-play connection of Donald Trump’s donations to the Florida Attorney General’s campaign, and her then deciding against an investigation of Trump university. The editorial begins:
Federal prosecutors should investigate whether there is any connection between the decision by Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office not to pursue fraud allegations against Trump University and a $25,000 campaign contribution he gave her. Since Florida prosecutors will not touch this mess, the Justice Department is the only option. The appearance of something more than a coincidence is too serious and the unresolved questions are too numerous to accept blanket denials by Bondi and Trump without more digging and an independent review.
The Washington Post also has an editorial on this theme, “The Pam Bondi case shows that Trump is more hustler than businessman.” What is already known in this case—flow of money, favorable government treatment, exact cause-effect not yet proven—is so much starker than what is suspected in the many Clinton Foundation episodes that it is overdue for extra attention.
Imagine how history would judge today’s Americans if, looking back at this election, the record showed that voters empowered a dangerous man because of . . . a minor email scandal. There is no equivalence between Ms. Clinton’s wrongs and Mr. Trump’s manifest unfitness for office.
If the moderators of the coming debates do not figure out a better way to get the candidates to speak accurately about their records and policies — especially Mr. Trump, who seems to feel he can skate by unchallenged with his own version of reality while Mrs. Clinton is grilled and entangled in the fine points of domestic and foreign policy — then they will have done the country a grave disservice.
Whether or not one agrees with her positions, Mrs. Clinton, formerly secretary of state and once a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, showed a firm understanding of the complex issues facing the country. Mr. Trump reveled in his ignorance about global affairs and his belief that leading the world’s most powerful nation is no harder than running his business empire, which has included at least fourbankruptcies.
“Grave disservice.” “Reveled in his ignorance.” This is an editorial rather than a news item, but it marks a different tone from most campaign-year coverage of debates.
It’s refreshing, at least, to hear a national candidate [Johnson] acknowledge error and vow to do better.
Contrast that with Donald Trump, who in a televised national security forum Wednesday offered a staggering array of ignorant and mendacious assertions—and acknowledged no regrets about any of them.
One by one, sentiments like some of these have appeared in some outlets over the the weeks. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that they all appear at the same time. But perhaps it indicates how the unprecedented nature of the campaign has been provoking and requiring a different approach by the press. One way or another, it is worth noting with 59 days to go.
Last night, at the “Commander-in-Chief” forum, Donald Trump characterized what he had heard from intelligence officials in a classified briefing, and said why he believed the briefers agreed with his political perspective and shared his disdain for the current administration.
I am not aware of any previous nominee ever having done anything of this sort.
(In the modern era, nominees have gotten classified briefings to keep them up to date on crucial issues. Some have deliberately delayed or declined the briefings, precisely so they wouldn’t need to constantly remember what information was classified and thus shouldn’t be mentioned in public, and what was safe to discuss.)
According to a story by NBC, two former heads of the CIA share the view that Trump has crossed yet another line. As Ken Dilanian and Robert Windrem report:
Former CIA and NSA director Mike Hayden, who opposes Trump, told NBC News that in almost four decades in intelligence “I have never seen anything like this before.” [JF note: Hayden, a retired four-star Air Force general, is no one’s idea of a political lefty, and is in the camp of national-security conservatives who oppose Trump.]
“A political candidate has used professional intelligence officers briefing him in a totally non-political setting as props to buttress an argument for his political campaign,” said Hayden. … “The ‘I can read body language’ line was quite remarkable. … I am confident Director Clapper sent senior professionals to this meeting and so I am equally confident that no such body language ever existed. It’s simply not what we do.”
Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director who was President George W. Bush's briefer and is now a Hillary Clinton supporter, said Trump's comments about his briefing were extraordinary.
“This is the first time that I can remember a candidate for president doing a readout from an intelligence briefing, and it’s the first time a candidate has politicized their intelligence briefing. Both of those are highly inappropriate and crossed a long standing red line respected by both parties,” he said.
Mike Lofgren, the longtime Senate staffer and defense expert turned writer (The Party Is Over, The Deep State) expands on an implication of Hayden’s and Morell’s comments. That is, Trump’s comments are not merely indiscreet; they are also almost certainly untrue. Lofgren writes:
1. Employees of the intelligence community who give briefings to high-level officials do not, repeat, do not advocate for their pet policies. These people would not be presidential appointees but almost certainly career civil servants (or the foreign or intelligence equivalent of a civil servant) If they were asked, “what do we do about X?” they would demur on the basis of it not being their department. They know they are not there to advocate for policies. This applies doubly for personnel briefing presidential candidates because of the extreme political sensitivity. As for criticizing the policies of their bosses to a human megaphone like Donald Trump, it is inconceivable they are that stupid.
Of course the briefers didn’t actually advocate anything, as Trump first implied, so he fell back on what philosopher Karl Popper would have called a statement devoid of factual content, because it cannot be falsified: the briefers’ body language told him they disagreed with Obama’s policies. Sure, it did …
What he’s managed to do is put those briefers in an extremely embarrassing situation. In a Trump presidency, we could expect a lot more of that: generals and civil servants being nonchalantly thrown under the bus as if they were contractors or tradesmen being stiffed on the bill for their services at Mar a Lago.
2. So what if Putin has an 82 percent approval rating? We can argue about the validity of that figure, but let’s assume it’s true. It is completely irrelevant with respect to which policies are ultimately in the U.S. national interest. I dare say Xi Jin-ping is similarly popular in China, particularly with regard to his aggressive assertion of sovereignty over virtually all of the South China Sea. But that popularity has no bearing on what US policy towards the matter ought to be, particularly when an international tribunal has rejected China’s claim. The point Trump is making is a pretty ominous one when you deconstruct it: authoritarian populist leaders ought to get their way because of their alleged popularity.
Here we are, 60 days until the election, with the nominee discussing the classified information he’s heard, and the GOP establishment from Ryan and McConnell on down still saying: He’s fine!
A for-the-record note of developments in the past few days that, again, make this GOP nominee different from his predecessors:
1. Dallas. The Dallas Morning News is as reliably conservative and Republican an editorial-page operation as you will find anywhere in America. Never once in my entire lifetime, and long before that, has the paper ever endorsed a Democrat for president. The closest it came was in 1964, when it declined to pick a favorite between incumbent Lyndon Johnson, obviously a Texan himself, and Sen. Barry Goldwater, who was headed toward a crushing defeat.
Never once in my lifetime—until yesterday, when it came out with an editorial saying “We recommend Hillary Clinton for president.” That was the followup to the preceding editorial, “Donald Trump is no Republican.” If you don’t know Texas or the Morning News, it may be difficult to grasp what a huge step this is for the paper’s editors to take. But they took it, to their credit. I say “to their credit” because of the ongoing theme in this space, that people will look back to see who knew what about Donald Trump, at which stage of the campaign, and which stands they took in response.
How the DMN endorsement begins:
There is only one serious candidate on the presidential ballot in November. We recommend Hillary Clinton.
We don’t come to this decision easily. This newspaper has not recommended a Democrat for the nation’s highest office since before World War II—if you’re counting, that’s more than 75 years and nearly 20 elections. …
But unlike Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton has experience in actual governance, a record of service and a willingness to delve into real policy.
Resume vs. resume, judgment vs. judgment, this election is no contest.
2. Richmond. The Richmond Times-Dispatch is nearly as reliable and Republican as the DMN. At least since Ronald Reagan’s first run in 1980 it has always endorsed a Republican for president.
Until this past weekend, when it officially endorsed the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. Its editorial was not as reality-based as the DMN’s, in pretending that Johnson might win the election and ignoring the simple fact that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next president. But as a marker of unusual developments it again deserves note.
Bonus item on Trump-era politics: This morning Gary Johnson made a grievous error when he asked “What’s Aleppo?” on a TV show. This will probably hurt him quite a bit. Errors like this have hurt previous candidates from Sarah Palin to Rick Perry, and now presumably Johnson as well. Consider, then, how Trump racks up similar misstatements practically every day and just keep going.
3. D.C. The third item was published in the New York Times but has the D.C. dateline because its author, James K. Glassman, has long lived and worked here. I’ve been friends with Glassman since our time together on the college newspaper decades ago. I’ve known that since at least the Ronald Reagan era he also has been a dependable Republican voter. He was a senior State Department official under George W. Bush and then was founding director of the George W. Bush Institute, at the Bush center within SMU in Dallas.
In his op-ed for the NYT, Glassman extended the logic and real-worldism of the Dallas Morning News editorial by saying that Republicans who find Trump unacceptable should recognize the importance of actually supporting Hillary Clinton:
I have voted for every Republican nominee for president since 1980, but I will not this time. Mr. Trump’s appalling temperament renders him unfit to be president, and his grotesque policy formulations mock the principles of liberty and respect for the individual that have been the foundation of the Republican Party since Abraham Lincoln. …
This is, whether we like it or not, an election between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, period. And that means that if you want to stop Mr. Trump, you have no choice but to vote for Mrs. Clinton. There’s no sitting this one out.
Glassman mentions the many Republicans who have said “never Trump” without taking the next step of saying “therefore, Clinton”:
I have some sympathy with this position, but it is a cop-out. If you think Mr. Trump is so lacking in experience and judgment that he shouldn’t have his finger on the nuclear trigger, then you are saying he is not just a bad candidate; you are saying he is a threat to the nation. You have an obligation to defeat him, no matter what you think of Mrs. Clinton.
These developments are noted for the record, with 60 days and some hours until the election, with the polls tightening, and with ever-clearer evidence of the kind of man the GOP believes should become president. Congratulations on their intellectual honesty and civic courage to Republicans like Glassman and those at the DMN.
I’ve just now watched the hour-long “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on NBC, moderated by Matt Lauer. Three points that deserve note for the record:
1. Iraq. Donald Trump led off by claiming, falsely, that he opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and that this is an important sign of his good judgment:
TRUMP: Well, I think the main thing is I have great judgment. I have good judgment. I know what’s going on. I’ve called so many of the shots. And I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say that I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. From a — you can look at Esquire magazine from ’04. You can look at before that.
This claim is false. It is not true. It is a fantasy or a lie. Donald Trump keeps saying it. It keeps being false.
There is absolutely no public evidence, whatsoever, of Donald Trump having given any caution about invading Iraq before the war began. By contrast, there is evidence of his saying before the war that the invasion might be a good idea. For reference, a piece I did back in February. And this damning one from BuzzFeed about the same time, with audio of Trump talking with Howard Stern about the war. See this from Vox too. Even NBC’s own fact-checking department called Trump out on the lie just after the forum.
First depressing aspect: that Trump is still just proudly blasting out a lie.
Second, more depressing aspect: that NBC’s Matt Lauer did not even pretend to challenge him—not even by saying, “Wait a minute, why should a 2004 Esquire article matter, when that was a year after the war began?” Lauer, what were you thinking? If you knew this and didn’t say anything, why on Earth not? And if you didn’t know it, what were you doing in this role?
2. Russia. The exchange between Lauer and Trump about Vladimir Putin seemed even more jaw-dropping when seen on TV than it reads in print. Emphasis added:
LAUER: Let me ask you about some of the things you’ve said about Vladimir Putin. You said, I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, our president is not doing so well. And when referring to a comment that Putin made about you, I think he called you a brilliant leader, you said it’s always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his country and beyond.
TRUMP: Well, he does have an 82 percent approval rating, according to the different pollsters, who, by the way, some of them are based right here. Look, look…
LAUER: He’s also a guy who annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran, is trying to undermine our influence in key regions of the world, and according to our intelligence community, probably is the main suspect for the hacking of the DNC computers…
TRUMP: Well, nobody knows that for a fact. But do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?
LAUER: But do you want to be complimented by that former KGB officer?
TRUMP: Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK? The fact is, look, it’s not going to get him anywhere. I’m a negotiator.
We’re going to take back our country. You look at what’s happening to our country, you look at the depleted military. You look at the fact that we’ve lost our jobs. We’re losing our jobs like we’re a bunch of babies. We’re going to take back our country, Matt. The fact that he calls me brilliant or whatever he calls me is going to have zero impact.
What is unprecedented here: a presidential nominee favorably comparing the autocratic leader of an increasingly aggressive and problematic power to the current commander in chief of the United States. Here’s why I’m acutely aware that this sort of thing just is not done:
Forty years ago right now, when I was working for candidate Jimmy Carter in his run against incumbent President Gerald Ford, I was grinding out one of the day’s 10 speeches, this one about the failures of the Nixon-Ford foreign policy. A newsmagazine photo had recently appeared of Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev sitting chummily together at an informal session at a summit meeting. By this time Nixon was the resigned-in-disgrace former president, whose legacy was dragging down his successor, Ford. Brezhnev was in his final years at the top of the USSR.
As the impetuous young speechwriter, I had thrown in some line about how neither one of them, Nixon or Brezhnev, was that big a fan of real democracy, nor attuned to the real hopes of their people [etc etc]. What I threw in was about one percent as disrespectful as what Trump said tonight about Obama and Putin. But it was immediately cut out, and I was immediately brushed back, by everyone who had a chance, from Carter himself to Jody Powell to anyone else within earshot. Carter said words to the effect of, “We don’t talk about a president that way.” We could say Nixon had betrayed the public, yes. Liken him to, or place him below, a Soviet or Russian leader, no.
Other amazing fact from seeing tonight’s session: It obviously matters to Trump that Putin calls him “brilliant”! This is exactly what one-time CIA head Mike Morell meant when saying that Putin, an experienced intelligence operative, had very skillfully played to Trump’s vanities, and made him (in Morell’s words) “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”
On the other hand, good followup by Lauer on this one.
3. Intelligence briefings. Remember the concern, when Donald Trump began getting classified briefings, that he would blurt out or misuse information he heard there?
How do his briefers feel after hearing this?
LAUER: Did you learn new things in that briefing?
TRUMP: First of all, I have great respect for the people that gave us the briefings. We — they were terrific people. They were experts on Iraq and Iran and different parts of — and Russia. But, yes, there was one thing that shocked me. And it just seems to me that what they said President Obama and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who is another total disaster, did exactly the opposite.
LAUER: Did you learn anything in that briefing—again, not going into specifics—that makes you reconsider some of the things you say you can accomplish, like defeating ISIS quickly?
TRUMP: No, I didn’t learn anything from that standpoint. What I did learn is that our leadership, Barack Obama, did not follow what our experts and our truly — when they call it intelligence, it’s there for a reason — what our experts said to do….
And I was very, very surprised. In almost every instance. And I could tell you. I have pretty good with the body language. I could tell they were not happy. Our leaders did not follow what they were recommending.
Forget the body-language part. If this is true, it’s an outright betrayal of the people who briefed him and the terms of confidentiality he accepted. If it’s not true, it’s just another lie. In either case, it is yet again something we haven’t seen from past nominees.
That’s all I can stand to note about this session, with 61 days to go.
Donald Trump has taken heat, and will take more, for refusing to release his tax information.
It logically follows that whatever is in the tax returns would make him look worse than his stonewalling does.
No other conclusion is possible, unless you assume that neither Trump nor any of his advisors has any sense of what looks good and bad in a campaign. That’s a possibility, but it doesn’t ring true as the explanation in this case. And the “they’re under audit” excuse is bullshit, according to none other than the I.R.S.
This simple one-two logic has been underestimated in press discussion of the issue so far.
The premise of this series is to record, in real time, things about the Trump era that are outside previous norms. Here’s why the tax-return issue qualifies:
Post-Nixon presidential and vice-presidential major-party nominees who have agreed to releasetheir tax returns before the election: Gerald Ford (summary statement), Bob Dole, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Geraldine Ferraro, Dan Quayle, Mike Dukakis, Lloyd Bensten, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence.
Over the weekend I mentioned signs of the press beginning to “normalize” Donald Trump. This was especially so in equating “doubts,” “questions,” “clouds,” and the “atmosphere of entitlement” that surrounded Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, with the actual offenses, lawsuits, bankruptcies, unpaid contractors, anti-trust settlements, bogus-visa issues, and other legal problems surrounding Donald Trump and his enterprises. Paul Waldman of the WaPo has an eye-opening catalog of them here.
This is a for-the-record placeholder note on the past few days’ developments in two related areas: what is known or alleged about Trump-enterprises, and how coverage increasingly equates them to “doubts” and “questions” about the Clintons.
1. Yesterday Paul Krugman did a NYT column called “Clinton Gets Gored” on this pattern of “normalizing” Donald Trump through press coverage. The column was notable because the unnamed/“sub-tweeted” object of much of his complaint was the news operation of the same paper in which it appeared.
The Times is the greatest and most admirable news operation in the United States, perhaps in the world. But in my view, and apparently Krugman’s as well, from the “Whitewater” era through today its political coverage has applied an unusual presumption of crookedness to the Clintons, out of proportion to their many real-world failings. You can read Krugman’s argument, and this fascinating online discussion between Norman Ornstein and Roger Cohen.
2. To illustrate possible disproportionality: David Farenthold of the Washington Post has been fearless and indefatigable in tracking the story of Trump’s failure to follow through on the vast majority of the charitable “commitments” he claims to have made, and his involvement in outright pay-to-play schemes involving his shady and lawsuit-plagued Trump University.
The most prominent recent example involves the Attorney General of Florida, Pam Bondi. As Farenthold describes it: Bondi was considering an investigation of Trump University; the Trump Foundation donated $25,000 to her campaign; she dropped the investigation. Bondi also spoke this summer at the GOP convention. You can argue about motivations on all sides, but there is no doubt that this sequence of events occurred—or that the IRS has fined Trump for a violation of tax laws in the case. The AP also had a very tough story on the Trump-Bondi case back in June. For the record, both Trump and Bondi deny that this was meant as a payoff or bribe.
This case differs from the “clouds” and “doubts” and “appearance of coziness” in most of the Clinton-scandal episodes, in that—whatever the motives—the transfer of money was followed by the desired result. In the Clinton cases, you’ll see phrases like “donors sought access” (rather than got access) or “while no hard evidence of favoritism exists...” That’s because the “play” part of pay-to-play generally did not occur.
The NYT, which has been all over the Clinton Foundation story, had noticeably failed to mention the Bondi case—until just now, when a story introduces it in the context of a criticism Bill Clinton has made of Trump. See for yourself, with my emphasis added:
Addressing an issue that has dogged the campaign, Mr. Clinton defended the Clinton Foundation. And he criticized Mr. Trump over his own foundation, referring to a Washington Post report that found that his charitable organization paid the Internal Revenue Service a $2,500 penalty this year after improperly giving a political contribution to a campaign group with ties to the attorney general of Florida, Pam Bondi.
Again: I admire, defend, respect, sometimes write for, and am a decades-long print subscriber of the NYT.But I don’t understand why its reporters can say on their own authority that a certain issue has “dogged the campaign” for one candidate, while couching hard legal evidence about the other as part of the charge-and-counter-charge “They all do it!” fray of the campaign. This paragraph is quite a remarkable distillation of what I was talking about in the previous post.
3. Over the weekend Trump’s running mate Mike Pence said he would release his tax returns very soon, and that Trump would release his when “the audit is completed.” Two facts about this posture of Trump’s have been known for a long time (as I laid out in #51, back in July).
First, that the IRS itself completely dismisses an audit as any barrier to releasing the returns. Fine with us for you to disclose them!the IRS has said. Second, if Trump stonewalls until the election, he will be the first nominee since Richard Nixon to do so—and Nixon’s own duplicity is much of the reason this has been an ironclad expectation since then.
A third possibility is one Matt Cooper of Newsweekraised last month: that the returns might not even be under audit. All we have to support that belief is Trump’s own word. But we also had his word that the NFL had sent him a letter complaining about scheduled dates for the debates, which the NFL immediately denied; and that the Koch brothers had sought a meeting to offer him support, which they also immediately denied. As Cooper points out, if there’s a real audit, there’d be a letter from the IRS saying so. That would not be a reason to stonewall on the returns, but it would be one step toward substantiating his excuse.
4. Bonus reading for the day: Josh Marshall on the Bondi case and differential scandal coverage; Daniel Drezner on the same theme Tom Levenson on the Clinton “scandals” and the heavy reliance on “while there is no evidence of special favors...”; David Roberts from early this summer, on the foreseeability of this kind of coverage; David Graham from earlier today on whether Trump was telling the truth earlier on when he bragged about donating to politicians to win favors, or now when he says there were no strings attached to his donation to Pam Bondi. Sixty-two days and a few hours until election day.
Offered without comment. This video is from several months ago, early in the campaign. But I hadn’t seen it before, and it is timeless. You will not regret investing 52 seconds in watching it.
The interviewer is David Brody, of Christian Broadcasting Network. I first learned about the video via Liam Donovan. Fitting the Time Capsule theme: I genuinely can’t imagine a previous nominee answering the question this way.
Back to things requiring some comment tomorrow, when it will be exactly nine weeks until the election and the “real” campaigning begins.
As a soothing break, here was the view from our back porch on Labor Day afternoon, in northwest D.C. three miles from the White House. America is returning to a state of nature, led by its politics.
This might not be clear from the picture, but these things were full-sized—the one standing, and the other one, also antlered, resting in the bamboo. They turned and glared at me as if I should be getting off their lawn rather than vice versa. That will change when we get a new administration.
The main argument was that habits of mind within the media were making citizens and voters even more fatalistic and jaded about public affairs than they would otherwise be—even more willing to assume that all public figures were fools and crooks, even less willing to be involved in public affairs, and unfortunately for the media even less interested in following news at all.
These mental habits of the media included an over-emphasis on strife and conflict, a fascination with the mechanics or “game” of politics rather than the real-world consequences, and a self-protective instinct to conceal limited knowledge of a particular subject (a new budget proposal, an international spat) by talking about the politics of these questions, and by presenting disagreements in a he-said/she-said, “plenty of blame on all sides” fashion now known as “false equivalence.”
I could explain it more, or I could suggest you go read the article. (It’s free, but it never hurts to subscribe!)
Through the rise of Donald Trump, I’ve been watching to see how these patterns of mind might reassert themselves, particularly in the form of normalizing Trump.
That is: The argument of the previous 90-odd entries in this series is that Donald Trump is something genuinely new in the long history of major party nominees. He has absolutely no experience in public office. Almost every day he says or does something that by itself would have disqualified previous nominees. He does not have policies so much as emotional stances. What he has done renders irrelevant the normal “Trump says, but critics answer” approach to journalism. Donald Trump says, “Mexico will pay for that wall!” All relevant figures in Mexico say, “Like hell we will.” And Trump says it again the next day.
For the most part, the political press has kept its nerve. It has “normalized” Trump much less than I expected. But this past week, as national polls predictably tightened, enough signs of a normalizing approach emerged to deserve mention. Maybe I’m noticing them because I’ve been out of touch and am seeing a week’s news all at once. Here are some examples:
1. The immigration pivot. Everyone in media-land is aware of the shift in the NYT’s coverage of Trump’s very busy final day of August. On August 31, in the daytime, he made his surprise trip to Mexico to meet Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto. That night, he was back in Arizona to give a very hard-edged speech on immigration.
In between those two events, the print edition of the NYT ran the lead story you see in the opening image, which it essentially rewrote for its online editions. This led to the oddity of the printed paper I held in my hand saying the exact opposite of what the online version of the “same” story said, “Dewey Defeats Truman”-style. That is: The print version says that Trump is “shelving” his deportation plans and making a dramatic shift toward a more favorable tone on Mexicans and immigrants. The online version says the reverse.
Timing and deadline problems are built-in challenges for journalism. What I found significant in this case was not the detailed mistake (saying Trump was shelving his plan, when he was not ) nor the larger conceptual error (that Trump was making “a spirited bid for undecided American voters to see him anew”). Rather it was the seeming demonstration of the journalistic instinct to be on the lookout for a “spirited bid” like this, since it is what reporters think “should” be taking place. After all, this is what a “normal” candidate would do; implicitly the story presents the Trump campaign as normal.
Political reporters love the details of a race. I love these details myself. They respect (if sometimes dislike) people who know the rules and play to win, much as sportswriters respect (if dislike) Bill Belichick. They know that the savvy move for the skillful professional would be a pivot to the center, so they’re looking for it to occur.
Again, deadline snafus happen to everyone in journalism. What’s interesting is that the quirk of timing seems to have revealed a readiness to start treating Trump as a “normal” candidate with a real campaign. It’s also interesting that the Times’s editorial page, which presumably labors under deadline pressures at least as great as those for Page One news, had a very tough lead editorial in that same print issue, which was not thrown off by any notion of a pivot.
2. “Racially Charged Accusations.”
On August 25, Hillary Clinton gave a very detailed speech on the network of white-nationalist, “alt-right,” and plain-old-racist organizations that Donald Trump had directly and indirectly encouraged and consorted with. Trump responded by saying in interviews, “she’s a bigot.”
To get a sense of how very un-equivalent these arguments and accusations were, you’d probably have to read Clinton’s speech, which you can do here. It was a carefully detailed indictment, which started with the Justice Department suit against Trump for racial bias in renting apartments; went through anti-black managerial practices at his casinos; discussed his leadership of the false “Birther” crusade against Barack Obama; and concluded with Trump’s recent “Mexican judge” comments and other claims. You might disagree with her conclusions, but you’d have to agree that she set out an actual case.
Trump’s response was just to use the word “bigot” and make his “What the hell do you have to lose?” appeal to black voters. There was no detailed case about Hillary Clinton’s supposed bigotry—literally, none. There was just the one word.
Again, you don’t have to agree with Hillary Clinton. But to imagine that she and Donald Trump were doing the same thing is something reporters would never do in any other realm. (“Harvard, Stanford disagree on which is older.” “Ledecky, rivals trade barbs over race results.” “O.J., ex-wife, have difference of views.”) Yet the Washington Post headline and story above were representative of the tactics-only way in which this latest “scrap” was played, and the reluctance to assess for readers the merits and fidelity-to-fact of the cases the candidates made. Sample from the Post:
The blisteringly direct accusations brought the subjects of race and bigotry, previously undercurrents, to the surface of this year’s presidential election. And the exchanges hinted at just how nasty the verbal battle between Clinton and Trump could become in the roughly 10 weeks until the general election.
Clinton’s aim is to diminish Trump in the eyes of Americans uncomfortable voting for someone who appeals to racists, perhaps even winning over some moderate Republicans. Trump is fighting that image by appealing to minority voters while questioning Clinton’s record on race issues, noting that Democrats have long controlled cities where many African Americans continue to live in poverty.
It was all about positioning and tactics, not about underlying truth of either side’s views. Here are similar examples from Politico:
To say it again: I’m directing attention less to the comments of the candidates, although they were significant, than to the reflexes reporters showed in response.
3. They’re all crooks. Last week the Associated Press put out a flatly untrue tweet about an investigation it had conducted into “pay for play” during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. You can see it below. As I type, this message is still part of the AP’s feed, despite having been widely disproven and even mocked. (Why it’s wrong: the AP came up with its claim that “more than half” the people Hillary Clinton met while Secretary were donors, only by deciding not to count the overwhelming majority of people she met.)
You can read more on the AP story and what was wrong with it here, here, here, here, here, and here. I mention it as an illustration of both the residual “presumption of shadiness” when it comes to the Clintons, from the Whitewater “scandal” onward, and the power of the “both sides do it” instinct in the press. If you’re going to cover some objectively unprecedented developments on Donald Trump’s side—from his refusal to release tax returns or a plausible medical report, to the apparent phoniness of his purported charitable contributions, to the IRS’s recent penalty for a genuine pay-to-play violation in Florida, to his wife Melania’s visa status—then it seems only “fair” to balance that with attention to scandals on the other side. That is so even if the latter scandals never quite identify a quid-pro-quo and instead are made of “clouds” and “doubts” and “questions.”
The larger question of how and why Bill and Hillary Clinton have attracted the “presumption of shadiness” is explicitly beyond my ambitions here. For putting her current email-and-foundation problems in perspective I found useful: this piece by Paul Waldman in the WaPo, this one by Matthew Yglesias in Vox, this one by Alex Kaplan in Media Matters, this one by Nancy LeTourneau in The Washington Monthly, this by Josh Marshall, and this by Charles Pierce in Esquire. Karen Tumulty argues today in the WaPo that Hillary Clinton’s suspicion of the press has only made the press more suspicious in return, and that a vicious cycle has set in, to the advantage of the people who are intentionally trying hard to discredit her.
Kevin Drum, of Mother Jones, who has read his way through the entire latest FBI report on emails itemizes its findings and concludes (emphasis in original):
If you read the entire report, you’ll find bits and pieces that might show poor judgment on Hillary’s part. …
That said, this report is pretty much an almost complete exoneration of Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t prohibited from using a personal device or a personal email account, and others at state did it routinely. She’s told the truth all along about why she did it. ... She and her staff all believed at the time that they were careful not to conduct sensitive conversations over unclassified email systems. And there’s no evidence that her server was ever hacked.
There’s remarkably little here. If you nonetheless believe that it’s enough to disqualify Hillary from the presidency, that’s fine. I have no quarrel with you. But if the FBI is to be believed, it’s all pretty small beer.
The point that most of these pieces emphasize is the disproportion between headline coverage of “clouds” and “questions,” versus evidence of actual wrong-doing. (For instance, this is the meat of one recent “scandal”: the former Bill Clinton aide Doug Band asked for Hillary Clinton’s help in getting a diplomatic passport to accompany Bill Clinton on a trip to release two young Americans held in North Korea. And, he didn’t get any special help.)
The point I am making involves the power of the press reflex toward “balance.” It is so much more comfortable for all of us—reporters, editors, headline-writers, everyone—to be saying, “See, we’re covering scandals on all sides” rather than having to argue, “There are questions here—and there is something different and more serious there, and it’s worth telling them apart.” This is one more dislocation of the era of Trump.
4. Weaponized disinformation. Last week Neil MacFarquhar of the NYT had a fascinating story about the strategic value Vladimir Putin’s Russia assigns to spreading false information. Please read the story for yourself, but here are a few samples, with emphasis added:
The fundamental purpose of dezinformatsiya, or Russian disinformation, experts said, is to undermine the official version of events — even the very idea that there is a true version of events — and foster a kind of policy paralysis. …
Although the topics may vary, the goal is the same, Mr. Lindberg and others suggested. “What the Russians are doing is building narratives; they are not building facts,” he said. “The underlying narrative is, ‘Don’t trust anyone.’”…
The central idea, he said, is that “liberal democracy is corrupt, inefficient, chaotic and, ultimately, not democratic.”
Another message, largely unstated, is that European governments lack the competence to deal with the crises they face, particularly immigration and terrorism, and that their officials are all American puppets. …
[Russian media] depict the West as grim, divided, brutal, decadent, overrun with violent immigrants and unstable. … RT often seems obsessed with the United States, portraying life there as hellish.
Life that’s hell. Leaders who are all crooks. Government that’s paralyzed and failing. No such thing as the truth, since everyone lies. The Russian media, according to the story, view promotion of these concepts as an actual weapon toward the destruction of adversary cultures. Meanwhile, in 2016, with 65 days until the election, the United States is creating its own supply.
A new story in the NYT says this about Donald Trump’s debate preparations:
He has been especially resistant to his advisers’ suggestions that he take part in mock debates with a Clinton stand-in….
Instead, Mr. Trump asked a battery of questions about debate topics, Mrs. Clinton’s skills and possible moderators, but people close to him said relatively little had been accomplished….
Mr. Trump, in the interview, said he saw little use in standing at lecterns and pretending to debate his opponent.
“I know who I am, and it got me here,” Mr. Trump said, boasting of success in his 11 primary debate appearances and in capturing the Republican nomination over veteran politicians and polished debaters… “I mean, it’s possible we’ll do a mock debate, but I don’t see a real need.”
This is either extremely clever or bottomlessly stupid. It’s clever if it lulls the Clinton camp into thinking (as it won’t) that they too should just coast into the debate. It will be all the more brilliant if it masks actual preparation on Trump’s side.
It is bottomlessly stupid in all other circumstances.
I have a big piece coming out in the magazine in a few weeks elaborating on who has what to gain and lose in the debates, and why. So I’ll save the full explication for then.
For now I’ll just say: No previous non-incumbent candidate has ever applied the “I know who I am: why prepare?” approach to the general-election debates, and there’s a reason. The reason is, these head-to-head showdowns are very different from the multi-player primary-debate scrums, and doing well at them is an acquired skill. Incumbent presidents have been tempted to apply this approach to their first debate with a challenger (for reasons explained here). This is what Barack Obama did before his first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012, and it is much of the reason he badly lost that debate to Romney, as incumbents who believe themselves to be above practice repeatedly have done.
So three-plus weeks from now either Trump will show us that once again all previous rules of politics are nullified via his existence; or, as with so many other missteps he has made in the past month, he’ll show once again that he is out of his depth in a general-election campaign.
Details to come in the magazine soon, and over the airwaves starting September 26.
The NYThas unveiled a nice time-capsule-like feature, which matches a timeline of Trump’s outlandish statements with a list of the Republicans who have announced that they can no longer support him. It’s elegantly done.
Meantime, as the clock nears 69 days to go until the election, Trump rumbles on: with stolid support from the party’s “leadership,” and no tax return or plausible medical report on hand.
When news broke about the horrific mass shooting in Orlando ten weeks ago, Donald Trump’s first reaction, as noted in Time Capsule #19, was to send out a Tweet saying “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
When news broke today about the horrific fatal shooting of yet another person in Chicago, 32-year old Nykea Aldridge, mother of four and cousin of basketball star Dwyane Wade, Donald Trump’s first reaction was via the Tweet shown above.
This time he didn’t say “appreciate the congrats” on being right in his argument that life for African-Americans is so terrible that “what the hell do you have to lose?” by voting Trump. But his reaction was just as it had been with Orlando: bad news for someone else was significant mainly in being good news for him.
As outraged reaction built to Trump’s callous response, he put out another Tweet about 80 minutes later. It read:
Here is the notable aspect of that follow-up message, apart from its expressing the thoughts most public figures would have begun with. The meta-info at the bottom of the message says “Twitter for iPad,” thus:
Virtually all of Trump’s countless previous messages have either been labelled “Twitter for Android,” for the more free-swinging ones he appears to write himself; or “Twitter for iPhone,” for the more policy-oriented ones that appear to come from his staff. I don’t recall seeing a “Twitter for iPad” label ever before. Some could have been there, but if so they’re rare. (The first message came via Twitter for iPhone, although its tone is more like that of Trump on Android.** See tech update below.)
Either Donald Trump has, in the course of this morning, suddenly turned to a new technology platform to express a more appropriate-sounding correction to his initial narcissistic reflex, or someone else has stepped in via iPad, to try to save him from himself. My money is on the latter.
Either way the point is, with 72 days until the election and the party leadership still standing firm behind its nominee, this is public behavior of a sort we have not previously seen from presidents or nominees.
** Tech update Thanks to several readers who pointed out that what I am calling the “first” message, the one shown at the top of this post and composed via iPhone, was actually not first. Trump’s original Tweet, now deleted, had the same contents but misspelled Wade’s first name as “Dwayne.” It’s impossible to know now, but I would bet that in fact it came via Trump’s own Android—with its misspelling, and with its instant “VOTE TRUMP!” reaction to tragic news. It’s the re-post, with the correct spelling of Dwyane, that was via the staff iPhone.
Message #2, with correct name spelling, via staff iPhone;
Message #3, “thoughts and prayers,” via someone on iPad who realizes that the previous ones could look bad on their own.
Of course I would never presume to offer advice to campaigners. But why not just buy a couple more Androids for the comms team, so that all the Tweets “from” Trump wouldn’t start out with such obviously different markers?
Every few entries in this series, I have mentioned that Donald Trump has departed from past norms by refusing to release either his tax returns, as all nominees since Richard Nixon have done, or a plausible medical report, an expectation that goes back even further than Nixon.
The tax return matters for Trump because it matters for everyone, let alone someone with his complex financial history. The medical report matters because, if elected, Trump would be the oldest person ever to assume the presidency; because his supporters have been recklessly suggesting that Hillary Clinton is ailing or impaired; and because Trump’s own bearing and behavior raise legitimate questions about whether he is perfectly well. And the health report matters because the only information Trump has put out so far on the subject has been an utter farce.
The “medical” report Trump offered late last year was a one-page letter, devoid of details, and written with Trump’s favored “win so much you’ll get tired of winning!” approach to nuance. Its memorable conclusion was: “Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”
Over the months I’ve speculated about who its real author might be. The North Korean News Agency? The Onion? The ghost of Mobutu Sese Seko? Trump himself? You get the idea. The asserted real author is a New York doctor named Harold Bornstein. Last week a doctor named Jen Gunter wrote about the many signs that made his letter simply impossible to believe.
Yesterday NBC News managed to interview Harold Bornstein in his office about the circumstances in which he wrote the letter. You will not do better in capturing the spirit of Campaign 2016 than to watch the brief NBC video below:
Bornstein tells NBC that he took his guidance on language from Trump himself, which comes as no surprise. My favorite part is the end of the clip, when Bornstein says “I got rushed, and I get anxious when I get rushed, so I tried to get four or five lines done as fast as possible.” More from NBC is here. Other angles here and here.
Every so often I think: later on, people will not believe that things actually happened this way—the way they are happening around us, in real time, in late August of 2016. But thus it stands, with 72 days until the election, and neither tax information nor a plausible medical report forthcoming from one of the two people who could become the 45th president.
There’s something strange about this coronavirus pandemic. Even after months of extensive research by the global scientific community, many questions remain open.
Why, for instance, was there such an enormous death toll in northern Italy, but not the rest of the country? Just three contiguous regions in northern Italy have 25,000 of the country’s nearly 36,000 total deaths; just one region, Lombardy, has about 17,000 deaths. Almost all of these were concentrated in the first few months of the outbreak. What happened in Quito, Ecuador, in April, when so many thousands died so quickly that bodies were abandoned in the sidewalks and streets? Why, in the spring of 2020, did so few cities account for a substantial portion of global deaths, while many others with similar density, weather, age distribution, and travel patterns were spared? What can we really learn from Sweden, hailed as a great success by some because of its low case counts and deaths as the rest of Europe experiences a second wave, and as a big failure by others because it did not lock down and suffered excessive death rates earlier in the pandemic? Why did widespread predictions of catastrophe in Japan not bear out? The baffling examples go on.
An Atlantic investigation reveals who they are and what they might do on Election Day.
Photographs by Philip Montgomery
Image above:Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers
Stewart Rhodes wasliving his vision of the future. On television, American cities were burning, while on the internet, rumors warned that antifa bands were coming to terrorize the suburbs. Rhodes was driving around South Texas, getting ready for them. He answered his phone. “Let’s not fuck around,” he said. “We’ve descended into civil war.”
It was a Friday evening in June. Rhodes, 55, is a stocky man with a gray buzz cut, a wardrobe of tactical-casual attire, and a black eye patch. With him in his pickup were a pistol and a dusty black hat with the gold logo of the Oath Keepers, a militant group that has drawn in thousands of people from the military and law-enforcement communities.
His verbal stumbles have voters worried about his mental fitness. Maybe they’d be more understanding if they knew he’s still fighting a stutter.
His eyes fall to the floor when I ask him to describe it. We’ve been tiptoeing toward it for 45 minutes, and so far, every time he seems close, he backs away, or leads us in a new direction. There are competing theories in the press, but Joe Biden has kept mum on the subject. I want to hear him explain it. I ask him to walk me through the night he appeared to lose control of his words onstage.
“I—um—I don’t remember,” Biden says. His voice has that familiar shake, the creak and the croak. “I’d have to see it. I-I-I don’t remember.”
We’re in Biden’s mostly vacant Washington, D.C., campaign office on an overcast Tuesday at the end of the summer. Since entering the Democratic presidential-primary race in April, Biden has largely avoided in-depth interviews. When I first reached out, in late June, his press person was polite but noncommittal: Was an interview really necessary for the story?
Former aides say that in private, the president has spoken with cynicism and contempt about believers.
One day in 2015, Donald Trump beckoned Michael Cohen, his longtime confidant and personal attorney, into his office. Trump was brandishing a printout of an article about an Atlanta-based megachurch pastor trying to raise $60 million from his flock to buy a private jet. Trump knew the preacher personally—Creflo Dollar had been among a group of evangelical figures who visited him in 2011 while he was first exploring a presidential bid. During the meeting, Trump had reverently bowed his head in prayer while the pastors laid hands on him. Now he was gleefully reciting the impious details of Dollar’s quest for a Gulfstream G650.
Trump seemed delighted by the “scam,” Cohen recalled to me, and eager to highlight that the pastor was “full of shit.”
In the 2010s, Hitler memes and “ironic” racism filled the internet. What if we had taken them seriously?
Remember when the internet used to be fun? Whitney Phillips does. The digital anthropologist was recently looking through a huge set of images from the late 2000s that had been posted to Reddit. The first comment described the era as “a more simple time,” and sure enough, the pictures were weird, silly, and creative. Talking cows. Cats playing video games. A bear on a golf course. A guy Photoshopped to have mouths for eyes.
Then she noticed something else. Something disturbing. The thread began, she wrote recently, “with a lighthearted meme about Hitler.” After that was “dehumanizing mockery of a child with disabilities. And more sneering mockery of an old man hooked up to an oxygen tank. And date rape. And violence against animals. And fat shaming. And homophobia. And racism. And pedophilia. And how hilarious 9/11 was.”
Donald Trump made it so, and Chris Wallace let him.
The 90-minute spectacle tonight calls into question the value of having any “debates” of this sort ever again. No one knows more about public life than he or she did before this disaster began; some people know less; and everyone feels and looks worse.
Start with the supposed moderator, Chris Wallace. It became obvious five minutes in that Donald Trump’s strategy was to interrupt, yell, insult, and disrupt as often as he could. This is a strategy that can work only if no one gets in the way of it, and Chris Wallace just let it go on. Maybe Wallace was caught by surprise by Trump’s bellicosity and primate-dominance. (But—c’mon.) Even so, two or three minutes of this should have been enough to adjust. He didn’t adjust. And he let Trump roll over him.
Instead of a dignified discussion of important issues, the country was subjected to what felt like a toxic, drawn-out family dispute gone off the rails.
Last night’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden started off placidly enough, with each candidate delivering a measured, coherent answer to a question about the current Supreme Court vacancy. That sense of coherence lasted about five minutes.
What followed was shambolic—a disorienting, exasperating medley of half-thoughts, interjections, raised voices, and simultaneous monologues broken up occasionally by brief periods of uninterrupted speech. Instead of a dignified discussion of matters of national import and an opportunity to get some reassurance about the future during a deeply destabilizing year, the country was subjected to what felt like a toxic, drawn-out family dispute gone off the rails.
If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?
Illustrations by Guillem Casasús / Renderings by Borja Alegre
There is a cohort of close observers of our presidential elections, scholars and lawyers and political strategists, who find themselves in the uneasy position of intelligence analysts in the months before 9/11. As November 3 approaches, their screens are blinking red, alight with warnings that the political system does not know how to absorb. They see the obvious signs that we all see, but they also know subtle things that most of us do not. Something dangerous has hove into view, and the nation is lurching into its path.
The danger is not merely that the 2020 election will bring discord. Those who fear something worse take turbulence and controversy for granted. The coronavirus pandemic, a reckless incumbent, a deluge of mail-in ballots, a vandalized Postal Service, a resurgent effort to suppress votes, and a trainload of lawsuits are bearing down on the nation’s creaky electoral machinery.
The president’s favorite debate tactic was a foundational form of disrespect—levied against his opponent as well as the nation.
There’s a story that Donald Trump tells, in The Art of the Deal, about playing with his brother Robert when they were kids. Each boy had his own set of blocks. Then Donald decided—in a whim that he suggests portended his future career—to turn the toys into a real-estate property. “I ended up using all of my blocks, and then all of his, and when I was done, I’d created a beautiful building,” Trump writes. “I liked it so much that I glued the whole thing together. And that was the end of Robert’s blocks.”
I thought of that story last night, as President Trump, having long since graduated to other forms of perfidy, met former Vice President Joe Biden in an event that was sold as a “debate” but was in practice one more parable about Trump’s great appetite for destruction. Over the course of the event, the president refused, once again, to condemn white supremacists. He told a far-right group known to engage in armed violence at protests to “stand back, and stand by.” He insulted Hunter Biden, before a national audience, to the father of Hunter Biden. As usual, Trump weaponized his words. But he also wreaked havoc through the words that were not said: Trump interrupted both Joe Biden and the event’s moderator, Chris Wallace, at nearly every turn. He used this rare moment of mass attention not to communicate with a weary public, but instead to sow empty chaos. He filibustered his own debate. The whole thing was a “shitshow,” CNN’s Dana Bash said, correctly. It was an insult to the memory of the more than 200,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19. It was an insult to the Americans who took time out of their hectic lives to listen to the men who seek to lead them. It was Donald Trump, taking the building blocks of a democracy and making them unusable for anyone else.
In Cleveland, the president yelled, threatened, interrupted—and changed nothing. He’s losing.
President Donald Trump arrived at the first debate with a theory and a plan. The theory was that American voters crave dominance, no matter how belligerent or offensive. The plan was to hector, interrupt, and insult in hopes of establishing that dominance.
His theory was wrong, and his plan was counterproductive.
Trump walked onto that stage in Cleveland seven or eight points behind, because the traditional Republican advantage among upper-income and educated voters has dwindled; because non-college-educated white women have turned against him; because he is losing older voters to his mishandling of COVID-19; because the groups he needs to be demobilized—African Americans, the young—are up-mobilized. On the present trajectory, nearly 150 million votes are likely to be cast in 2020. If Trump wins 43 percent of them and Joe Biden 50 percent, not even the Electoral College can convert that negative margin into a second Trump term.