Notes

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 #108: Bush, Fahrenthold, Kagan

George H.W. Bush in his prime, in a famous statue at the George Bush International Airport in Houston (PresidentsUSA)

Without elaboration, here is a for-the-record note of some publicized news of the past few days:

1. George H.W. Bush. For the first time in modern history, a former president of one party has said he will vote for a nominee from the other party.  

The president who is taking this step is of course the senior George Bush, who this week reportedly told a crowd of 40 people that he plans to vote for Hillary Clinton. Set aside the ensuing flap over whether Bush “intended” something he said in front of several dozen people to become “public.” (If you want to keep something confidential, you don’t say it in a crowd. You especially understand this point if you are yourself a former U.S. president and vice president plus CIA director, with two sons who ran for the White House and one who made it. And once the news got out, Bush’s spokesmen didn’t even deny it. He just said that Bush’s vote would be “private,” which is code for “the report is true.”)

Ill will between the Bush and Trump empires is no surprise. Just think back to the days of Trump mocking “Low-Energy Jeb,” or of Barbara Bush saying early this year that she was “sick of Trump.” But to the best of my knowledge, this is the first-ever case of a former president from one party saying that he would vote for a nominee from the other party.*

     — Even in 1964, the esteemed former Republican president Dwight Eisenhower officially “supported” the highly controversial Republican nominee Barry Goldwater.

     — Even in 1972, the beleaguered former Democratic president Lyndon Johnson technically endorsed the controversial Democratic nominee George McGovern, who had built his campaign on opposition to Johnson’s own Vietnam war.

But in 2016, with 47 days and a few hours until the election, we take another step into the unknown.

Orly Taitz (in red), leader of the "birther" movement until Donald Trump took on that role, at a Tea Party convention in 2010 Josh Anderson / Reuters

For the past few days Donald Trump has been saying that Hillary Clinton and her campaign launched the racist “birther” smear against Barack Obama.

Birtherism was a lie, as Trump now sort-of admits. But his claim that birtherism started with Hillary Clinton, in her losing campaign against Barack Obama in 2008, is a follow-on lie. For details, check back on installment #105 or an admirably direct story yesterday in the New York Times with the admirably blunt headline: “Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic.”

Today Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who generally has been playing the Good Cop in presenting a nicer version of Bad Cop Trump’s own arguments, went on Meet the Press and pinned specific blame for the supposed Clinton-world birther campaign on Sidney Blumenthal—author, former Bill Clinton staffer, and long-time Hillary Clinton ally.

Based on everything I know, which includes some first-hand experience, I view this as almost certainly yet another lie. It’s disappointing, to put it mildly, to hear Kellyanne Conway retailing it and so far being allowed to get away with doing so.

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Here is the real sequence of birtherism, as I’m aware of it:

This was the subtitle of my book 25 years ago! Trump in Miami tonight. Mike Segar / Reuters

This evening, in Miami, the Republican nominee for president referred to his opponent and said (emphasis added):

“I think that her bodyguards should drop all weapons,” Mr. Trump said at a rally in Miami. “I think they should disarm. Immediately. What do you think. Yes? Take their guns away. She doesn’t want guns. Take them. Let’s see what happens to her. Take their guns away, O.K. It will be very dangerous.”

I am aware of only one other case in which a major-party nominee has “joked” about bodily harm against his opponent. As it happens, that was from this same Donald Trump, five weeks ago saying (in installment #73) that “the Second Amendment people” might be able to do something about Hillary Clinton’s ability to appoint Supreme Court justices.

I’ll say it again: Nothing like this has ever happened before. It’s 52+ days until the election; the tax returns (and non-Dr. Bornstein health reports) still not forthcoming; and Republican leaders still saying: Sure, he’s fine!  

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.

***

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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