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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

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.”)

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Trump Time Capsule #105: Two Big Bold Lies

Donald Trump at his new hotel in Washington today, before a press conference at which he lied about the birther controversy. Mike Segar / Reuters

I think this day, 52 days before the election, is one that people will look back on. At his press conference /  hotel promo / endorsement spectacle just now in Washington, D.C., Donald Trump said this, and only this, about the long-running “birther” controversy that for years he led and whipped up:

Now, not to mention her in the same breath, but Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it.  I finished it.  You know what I mean. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period. Now we all want to get back to making America strong and great again.

In detail:

  1. Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy.” This is a flat lie. In an internal memo, people in the 2008 Clinton campaign considered applying an “othering” strategy against their rival Obama. It did not involve any challenge to Obama’s birth or citizenship, and in any case it was not put into effect. What Trump said is a flat lie. More here and here and here, with links to countless other sources.
                                                                                                                           
  2. I finished it. I finished it.” This is a flat lie. Trump started this phony and racist controversy [or: brought much more attention to what had been a fringe view] and kept it going. (Racist? Yes. As Bernie Sanders pointed out today, Sanders’s own father, like Obama’s, was born overseas. But Sanders said that no one has ever asked him to prove that he was a “real” American.) Even after Trump claimed to have “finished” it with the appearance of Obama’s birth certificate five years ago, Trump has continued to put out Birther tweets and innuendos. You can see a sample at the end of this Vox piece; also here and here. Below is one from December 2013, two years after Trump supposedly “finished” the issue. As of this moment this is still live in Trump’s Twitter feed:
    Trump on Twitter
  3. President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.” Unlike the other two, this is not a lie. It was read in exactly the tone of a negotiated hostage statement.
Jimmy Fallon "charmingly" mussing Donald Trump's hair. This will merely be amusing if Trump loses on November 8. It will be something worse if he wins. (NBC / Reuters)

Mainly because he’s talented, partly because of the similarity of our names, I’ve paid attention to Jimmy Fallon from the start.

Effective 53 days from now, he may have a lot to answer for. Performances like the one he put on this evening with Donald Trump, including a “charming” mussing of the candidate’s famous hair, are a crucial part of the “normalizing” process of a candidate who is outside all historical norms for this office.

In my current cover story I wrote:  

Trump’s rise through the primary debates, and his celebrations of successive victories at rallies in between, made it appear that one of his gifts was the ability to combine unvarying emphases and messages with a wide range of dramatic styles. One day he was egging on huge crowds by picking out scattered protesters and yelling, “Get ’em outta here!” The next day he was talking earnestly with sympathetic hosts on Fox News or conservative talk-radio shows—and then in the evening chatting urbanely, in a “we’re all New Yorkers here” style that was a less risqué version of his old radio exchanges with Howard Stern, to win over presumptively less sympathetic figures such as Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel on their shows.

Last November, Trump served as host (and danced in a parody rap video) on Saturday Night Live. In February, just after the New Hampshire primary, Stephen Colbert allowed Trump to phone in to his Late Show—and Colbert, for once overmatched, ended up making Trump seem as if he was in on all the jokes rather than the object of them.

One reason for Trump’s rise has been the effective merger of the entertainment and political-campaign industries. Jimmy Fallon accelerated that process tonight. He did so on the same day in which Trump put out a crazy economic plan and still refused to say that the incumbent (black) president was a “real” American.

Fallon’s humoring of Trump was a bad move, a destructive and self-indulgent mistake, which I hope Fallon becomes embarrassed about but the rest of us don’t have long-term reason to rue.

Donald Trump Jr., at right, with his brother Barron and stepmother Melania at the Republican convention. Today he weighs in about taxes. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

This one is just a note for the record. Please recall the sequence:

  • Four years ago, Donald Trump said that Mitt Romney should release his tax returns. That’s hardly a surprising position: Every major-party nominee since Richard Nixon has been expected to do so, and has.

  • Through the past year, Trump has said repeatedly that he’d be happy to release his tax returns but can’t because they are “under audit.”

  • That excuse is bullshit. No lesser authority than the IRS has said so repeatedly and unmistakably. Whether or not the returns are actually being audited (as discussed here), there is no legal reason whatsoever to keep Trump from releasing them.

  • While Trump has stuck with his utter-bullshit rationalization, and while establishment Republicans from Paul Ryan on down have averted their eyes, reasons have mounted up to think that a disclosure expected of all previous nominees is especially important for him. These include: the shady operations of his Trump Foundation; the unsubstantiated nature of most of his claimed donations; and, significantly for a president, the extent of his reliance on foreign creditors and customers.

  • Even without any of these complications, tax returns are part of the “transparency” expected of a potential president. Michael Dukakis had no complicated wealth to speak of, nor Joe Biden or Barack Obama as nominees, but still all of them had to turn over the records. Donald Trump’s finances are more complex than those of any prior nominee and thus of greater potential public significance. But he has stonewalled, and his enablers in the party have allowed him to get away with it.

Finally today two campaign representatives shifted the rationale, as if the previous one had not existed, to one that is more completely indefensible.

Pastor Faith Green Timmons speaking with the candidate yesterday in Flint. When he was no longer in the pastor's presence, Trump said that at the moment depicted here she was a "nervous mess." Evan Vucci / AP

We could be entering the Era of Hourly Time Capsules, in part because I need to make up for the past few days away from The Internet.

To note this for-the-moment highly publicized episode before it gets sandblasted from public memory by whatever is about to happen next: Yesterday, in Flint, Michigan, Donald Trump revealed a trait that is strikingly recurrent in his own behavior, and strikingly different from what I can recall from any other presidential nominee.

That trait is the combination of his bombast about women when they are not present, and his reluctance or inability to confront them face-to-face.

The man is a bully, and like most bullies he is a coward.

I don’t know of any other nominee in modern times of whom that was so clearly true. (Richard Nixon gave all the signs of not being physically courageous, but he rhetorically he did not show the stark contrast between being nasty-behind-their-back / polite-to-their-face that Trump does with women who challenge him.)

This is something I discuss in my current cover story, involving the three distinct moments in the primary season when Trump looked worst in live exchanges:

Mock 'The Deplorables' poster. From left: Roger Stone, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Eric Trump, Mike Pence, The Man, Pepe the Frog, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr., Alex Jones, and Milo Yiannopoulos. Trump Jr. said he was "honored" by the grouping. Donald J. Trump Jr. on Instagram, via Tina Nguyen in Vanity Fair

Remember the episode of “the Star,” reported back in installment #33? It was only two months ago, but it seems forever.

Remember this?

Way back in July, Donald Trump retweeted an item showing Hillary Clinton awash in a sea of cash, with the message “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” emblazoned on a six-sided star. Criticism quickly arose about the overlap with classic money-hungry anti-Semitic imagery, much as if Trump had used an image of blacks eating watermelon or Mexicans dozing under their sombreros. Fairly quickly Trump took the rare-for-him step of actually deleting his tweet. But even then his campaign’s reaction was outraged innocence. Anti-Semitic? What are you talking about?? Why would you think it’s a Star of David? It’s so obviously a sheriff’s badge! The real racists are the ones who think anything else!

That’s what this weekend’s “Pepe” episode reminds me of.

As a reminder: Hillary Clinton set the stage with her tin-eared comment about the “basket of deplorables.” Then the stylish and unembarrassable Trump ally Roger Stone responded with the Expendables-knock-off movie poster you see above, which Donald Trump Jr. then shared on Instagram, as shown below:

Donald J. Trump Jr’s comment on the poster, via Tina Nguyen.

Why is this like “the Star”? Because of Pepe the Frog.

Donald Trump in Baltimore, after his CNBC interview Mike Segar / Reuters

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:

Via Daniel Dale on Twitter

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).

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, at a Trump rally. Scott Audette / Reuters

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.

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Now-retired Army general Michael Flynn, testifying as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency two years ago. He accompanied Donald Trump to the recent classified briefing. Flynn has kept quiet about what he heard there. Donald Trump has not. Gary Cameron / Reuters

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.

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Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, at a rally last month in Boston. A newspaper that almost always endorses Republicans has chosen him over Donald Trump. Brian Snyder / Reuters

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.

Both installments are worth reading in full.

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Donald Trump saying (falsely) "I was against the Iraq war," and Matt Lauer listening respectfully, in tonight's "Forum" Mike Segar / Reuters

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?  

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Protestors in Washington this May, demanding that Donald Trump release his tax returns. James Lawler Duggan / Reuters
  1. Donald Trump has taken heat, and will take more, for refusing to release his tax information.
  1. 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 release their 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.
                                                                                                                                                        
  • Nominees who have refused: Donald Trump.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, at the center of a "pay-to-play" controversy involving Donald Trump, speaking at the Republican National Convention in July. Mike Segar / Reuters

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.

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