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.”)
Today’s harvest of things that haven’t happened in presidential campaigns before:
1. Diplomats. As the Washington Postreported yesterday, some 75 former prominent former ambassadors and other diplomats, from Republican and Democratic administrations alike, signed an open letter opposing Donald Trump and, more strikingly, going on outright to endorse Hillary Clinton.
The full text of the letter and list of names is here. Sample of their argument:
We have served Republican and Democratic Presidents with pride and enthusiasm.
None of us will vote for Donald J. Trump.
Each of us endorses Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. Because the stakes in this election are so high, this is the first time many of us have publicly endorsed a candidate for President.Very simply, this election is different from any election we can recall. One of the candidates—Donald J. Trump—is entirely unqualified to serve as President and Commander-in-Chief. …
We fear the damage that such ineptitude could cause in our closest relationships as well as the succor it might offer our enemies.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s handling of foreign affairs has consistently sought to advance fundamental U.S. interests with a deep grounding in the work of the many tens of thousands of career officers on whom our national security depends. Not every one of us has agreed with every decision she made (and the same would be true of every one of her predecessors), but we have profound respect for her skills, dedication, intelligence, and diplomacy.
If you’ve followed international affairs, you’ll recognize a lot of names on this list, including a number who were prominent under Republican presidents Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes.
This statement follows similar anti-Trump and/or pro-Clinton statements by former intelligence officers, foreign-policy officials and scholars, military figures, and others, as summarized in dispatch #109. Some veterans of the foreign-policy world express their preferences during each election. I am aware of nothing comparable to this, from usually above-the-fray career diplomats. It’s a bookend to the also-remarkable statement from 50 Republican former cabinet members and other senior officials, who said Trump would be “the most reckless president in American history.”
2. The Boss. In some different political world, you might imagine Donald Trump being so authentic a vessel for the interests of left-behind America that Bruce Springsteen would want to tour with and support him. (This 2014 Politico article by Marc Dolan about Springsteen’s political evolution, from apolitical rock star to someone conscious of being a voice of the working class, is fascinating.)
Instead, in a new interview with Brian Hitt of Rolling Stone, Springsteen leads off by saying:
The republic is under siege by a moron, basically. The whole thing is tragic. Without overstating it, it's a tragedy for our democracy.
In the context of “under siege by a moron,” the brilliant teaser for Frontline’s The Choice is worth watching very closely. The final minute of this video has become famous in the past 24 hours, for Omarosa Manigault’s soliloquy: “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who ever disagreed, who ever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.”
But the five-minute clip as a whole suggests that rage at being disrespected is a very important part of Trump’s drive right now. The clip focuses on Barack Obama’s relentless public mockery of Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner five years ago. I was there at the time, in easy eyeshot of Trump, and I recall him looking even more steamingly bitter than you can see in this clip. Frontline suggests that those few minutes of public ridicule played more than a small part in the “siege by a moron” predicament the U.S. confronts today.
Whether or not that stands up, it’s obvious that the quest to dominate, to be seen as dominant, to humiliate, to get revenge, plays an even larger part in Trump’s mixture of motivation than for politicians as a whole. The theme of “I’ll show them!” is of course familiar in our politics. Lyndon Johnson was going to show the Ivy-League boys who looked down on him. Richard Nixon was going to show everybody. Jimmy Carter was hyper-conscious of anti-Southern snobbery. And on down a long list.
But what we’re seeing with this man is something new.
3. Enquirer. In installment #97 I noted that the Dallas Morning News, whose editorial page is as reliably conservative as any in the country, came out and endorsed Hillary Clinton. The also-very-conservative Richmond Times Dispatch took the halfway-house step of endorsing Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
Today the Cincinnati Enquirer, a rival to the DMN for most-conservative title, joined it in an editorial titled “It has to be Hillary.” Sample of the argument:
The Enquirer has supported Republicans for president for almost a century—a tradition this editorial board doesn’t take lightly. But this is not a traditional race, and these are not traditional times. Our country needs calm, thoughtful leadership to deal with the challenges we face at home and abroad. We need a leader who will bring out the best in all Americans, not the worst.
That’s why there is only one choice when we elect a president in November: Hillary Clinton.
I am a Democrat by voting history and small-l liberal in most policy preferences. My esteem for small-c conservatives and capital-R Republicans who are willing to recognize the reality of Trump steadily rises. If Trump had remained a Democrat and somehow became that party’s nominee, I would swallow hard and vote for any sane-world Republican who ran against him. Thus I respect the conservatives and Republicans who are taking the counterpart step.
So it stands with 45 days until the election, three days until the first debate, and still no tax data forthcoming from Trump—a point the Enquirer addressed this way:
His refusal to release his tax returns draws into question both Trump’s true income and whether he is paying his fair share of taxes. Even if you consider Trump a successful businessman, running a government is not the same as being the CEO of a company. The United States cannot file bankruptcy to avoid paying its debts.
Robert Gates is as experienced a national-security figure as America now has. He joined the Air Force when Lyndon Johnson was president and has served under every president, Republican and Democratic, since then. He was deputy CIA director under Ronald Reagan, CIA director under the first George Bush, and Secretary of Defense under both the second George Bush and the only Barack Obama. He is also very sure-footed in bureaucratic, domestic, and international politics, as his long record of appointments might suggest and as his surprisingly score-settling memoirDuty makes clear. In foreign policy he is more “realist” than neocon.
In an essay for the the Wall Street Journal this week, Gates takes a little time getting to his conclusion, including laying out the reasons he’s lukewarm to (his onetime Cabinet colleague) Hillary Clinton. But conclude he does, in forthright terms:
At least on national security, I believe Mr. Trump is beyond repair. He is stubbornly uninformed about the world and how to lead our country and government, and temperamentally unsuited to lead our men and women in uniform. He is unqualified and unfit to be commander-in-chief.
If you’re keeping score at home, here are some of the senior figures who have declared Donald Trump “unfit,” “dangerous,” “reckless,” or in other ways unsuitable for service as President:
Apart from Gates, two other former CIA heads, including one who said Trump had become “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation,” in #70;
A former Prime Minister of Sweden, calling Trump “a serious threat to the security of the West,” #61;
Some 50 former military, intelligence, and foreign-policy appointees from Republican administrations, “most reckless president in American history,” #72;
Another 160-plus foreign policy experts—“Mr. Trump’s foreign policy vision has inspired alarm … in allied capitals throughout the world”—also #61;
A former Republican president, by implication in saying that he would take the unprecedented step of voting for the Democratic rival, #107.
So it stands with 47 days to go, no tax records or non-Dr. Bornstein medical information forthcoming, and the Republican establishment saying: He’s fine.
To say it once more: nothing like this has happened before.
Colin Powell? Condi Rice? George Tenet? Your G.W. Bush-era Cabinet colleagues Robert Gates, and before him Henry Paulson, Michael Hayden, Michael Chertoff, John Negroponte, Tom Ridge, and others have set the precedent of doing the right thing. Dick Cheney will never do so, but you have the opportunity, and not just in leaked emails.
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.
(*The Bull Moose / Republican tussle between Teddy Roosevelt and W.H. Taft in 1912 was a special case that doesn’t apply. The counterpart to today’s Bush-Trump news would be if Teddy Roosevelt, as a former Republican president, had endorsed Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, rather than endorsing himself for another run at the White House.)
2. Fahrenthold and the Trump Foundation. This campaign has revealed a lot about our country, much of it unsettling. It is also revealing things both good and bad about our news media, in ways that are changing and unfolding every day, and that I’ll try to say more about sometime soon.
For now I’ll say: it’s impressive to see the NYT’srecent embrace of the “let’s call a lie a ‘lie’” philosophy; it is alarming that CNN has kept right on with Corey Lewandowski as a paid “analyst” while he is still on Donald Trump’s payroll, and it is encouraging for journalism in general and the WashingtonPost in particular that David Fahrenthold continues his extraordinary work on the Trump Foundation.
The story posted last night, about the foundation’s role in paying off legal claims against Trump’s for-profit businesses, is roughly ten times more dramatic—in evidentiary support, and in clarity of offense—than even the worst allegations about the Clinton Foundation. You can read the details yourself, but here’s a sample from the story:
“I represent 700 nonprofits a year, and I’ve never encountered anything so brazen,” said Jeffrey Tenenbaum, who advises charities at the Venable law firm in Washington. After The Washington Post described the details of these Trump Foundation gifts, Tenenbaum described them as “really shocking.”
“If he’s using other people’s money — run through his foundation — to satisfy his personal obligations, then that’s about as blatant an example of self-dealing [as] I’ve seen in awhile,” Tenenbaum said.
For Time Capsule purposes: through the centuries of U.S. history, various nominees have of course had their swirls of financial controversy. Lyndon Johnson’s rise to wealth was complex enough to occupy hundreds of pages of Robert Caro’s oeuvre. George W. Bush, of course born to a rich and prominent family, benefited greatly from a favorable deal involving the Texas Rangers. Spiro Agnew had to resign as vice president for taking cash bribes while in office. Suspicions that “something” must be awry with the Clinton family’s Whitewater dealings occupied the press and special investigators through much of the 1990s. And so on.
But to the best of my knowledge, nothing ever known or suspected about any previous national-level nominee comes close to what is now on the record about Donald Trump and his foundation.
And still he remains the only modern candidate to refuse to release his tax returns. And still the solons of his party say, He’s fine.
3. Kagan. Something must have happened yesterday to bring a four-month-old article to broader attention. I received several notes from readers wanting to be sure I’d seen an old WaPo essay by Robert Kagan.
I disagree with Robert Kagan on just about everything. But in the months since he originally published his essay, called “This Is How Fascism Comes to America,” I think his arguments have come to seem more rather than less relevant. Especially this, with emphasis added:
We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily.
What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.
His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.
All this is part of what the country knows about this candidate, as it considers whether to make him president; and what the likes of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell know as well, as they stand beside him.
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.
Here is the real sequence of birtherism, as I’m aware of it:
Twelve years ago, Barack Obama first drew national attention as a “he could go all the way!” candidate with his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Very soon after that, conspiracy-minded bloggers and broadcasters from the right wing only—not anyone associated with Hillary Clinton or any other Democrat—began ginning up rumors that there was something “off” or “other” about Obama, apart from the obvious fact that he was black. Muslim? Indonesian? Communist? Kenyan? Saul Alinsky protege? Who knows. Back in 2007, Chris Hayes, then a Nation writer, chronicled the anti-Obama efforts along with other right-wing efforts of the time. This was the dawn of the birther age.
As Obama rose to beat Hillary Clinton for the nomination and then John McCain for the presidency, birther activity again on the right intensified. Through Obama’s first year in office, the most prominent birther was a right-wing lawyer-dentist from California named Orly Taitz. By the summer of 2009, Taitz’s role was so evident that the Daily Beast did a feature on her called “Queen of the Birthers.” The author of that piece was Beast writer Max Blumenthal; please take note of his name. The Beast’s intro to the piece set up the state of birtherism, and its GOP affiliation, as of that time:
“A new poll finds 58 percent of Republicans doubt Obama is American. Orly Taitz, the mastermind behind the Obama birth-certificate controversy, tells The Daily Beast’s Max Blumenthal why the president should be jailed.”
In 2011, Donald Trump took up the mantle from Orly Taitz, and from then until very recently became the most prominent birther theorist.
Now, where do Hillary Clinton and Sid Blumenthal fit into this narrative? As far as I can tell, and to the best of my first-hand experience, they fit in only in an entirely fictitious way.
As discussed before in this space, I have known Sid Blumenthal for a very long time, since we were starting-out magazine writers in DC in the 1980s. We’ve agreed on many things and disagreed on others. The disagreements notably involved the 2008 Democratic primaries, in which he was a strong Hillary Clinton partisan and I favored Barack Obama (mainly because of their respective stands on the Iraq war). I think Sid Blumenthal’s magazine and book journalism of the 1980s and 1990s stands up very well. I think A Self-Made Man, the first installment of his multi-volume saga on Abraham Lincoln, is a magnificent look at 19th century American political, economic, and cultural history, with understated but impressive resonance for our current day.
During the intensity of the 2007-2008 primary campaign cycle, even though I was living in China, I was on Sid Blumenthal’s email list for frequent (several times daily) updates on the state of the campaign. Mostly these updates involved why Hillary Clinton would be a stronger Democratic nominee, and Barack Obama would be weaker. They talked about foreign-policy experience. They talked about possible Republican lines of attack. They talked about the way the smear machine that had maligned John Kerry on the fraudulent “Swift Boat” attack might be arrayed against Obama.
But not once, to the best of my first-hand knowledge, did they ever mention citizenship, birtherism, or Kenya.
Just now I’ve gone back through my email archives again. The words “Kenya,” “citizenship,” “birth certificate,” and related terms do not appear in any of the very large corpus of mail I received from Sid Blumenthal in 2007 and 2008. Sid has his critics and his flaws, like any of us. But the idea that he either originated or propagated the birther view of Obama, to the best of my knowledge, is phony.
Remember Max Blumenthal, author of the takedown of Orly Taitz and her fantasies in 2009? He is Sid and Jackie Blumenthal’s son.
The article on which Kellyanne Conway based today’s attack is here. See if you find it credible; I do not. A very thorough deconstruction of it, by a conservative writer, is here. Sample:
Here’s what we’re lacking from [the author of the accusatory article] (that could be reasonably asked of him):
detailed notes of his meeting with Blumenthal
multiple, unbiased reporters confirming that he met with Blumenthal in 2008, and that the subject of the meeting was birtherism
evidence that he sent an investigator to Kenya to pursue these claims
the investigator who traveled to Kenya confirming the investigation, the reason for the investigation, and the source
Asher has provided none of this, nor has he hinted at being able to provide any of this. Instead, the only thing he has offered is Blumenthal’s business card.
Further deconstruction from The Washington Monthlyis here. The author of TWM’s piece, D.R. Tucker, makes a point similar to my own:
It’s profoundly unlikely that Blumenthal would encourage journalists to pursue a path of inquiry that a) was ridiculous on its face, b) would obviously lead nowhere and c) would make both himself and Clinton look like colossal fools.
Why does this qualify for Time Capsule notice? Because I’m not aware of a previous case in which a nominee has trafficked in claims that a sitting president was illegitimately in office (because, by birther logic, he was not legally eligible)—nor tried, via psychological projection, to blame these false claims on someone else once forced to admit they were lies.
It’s 50 days and a few hours until the election; one nominee has refused to release his tax information; and the Republican leadership continues to say, “He’s fine!”
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!
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.
“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.
“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:
“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.
An ongoing theme of these time capsules, and a major focus of the Primary Concerns podcast I did with Brian Beutler this week, is the difficulty the “normal” press has had in coming to terms with a man who simply and continually lies, without the normal internal checks that hold most people back.
In particular we discussed the differing arcs of the New York Times and the Washington Post in grappling with this issue. Over the past decade, the NYT has become more and more obviously the dominant American news organization, and the Post has coped with many constraints and cutbacks. But in the past few months the news page of the Posthas seemed much more direct in calling out what is happening.
Beutler and I go into details of this in our discussion. But here is an example, the contrasting breaking-news notifications the two papers put out, with the Times at the top and the Post at the bottom.
And the polls continue to draw closer, and the Republican leadership continues to say: Sure, this guy is fine.
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.
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.
First Donald Trump Jr., then campaign ally Jack Kingston said that that Trump Sr. couldn’t release the returns because people might find things in them. As Trump Jr., who tends to make his father’s points with less finesse, said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
When asked why his father has not released his tax returns as presidential candidates have traditionally done, Trump Jr. said, “Because he’s got a 12,000-page tax return that would create … financial auditors out of every person in the country asking questions that would distract from [his father’s] main message.”
Kingston, a former congressman who now works for one of D.C.’s biggest lobbying firms but is part of Trump’s “anti-insider” team, made a similar point today on CNN:
“If you put it on the table, you’re going to have 300 million Americans second-guessing what is this, what is that?”
Of course, asking what is that?, aka “second-guessing,” is why public officials have to make financial disclosures. It’s why both Kingston and Donald Trump Sr., and presumably Donald Trump Jr. as well, were hammering Hillary Clinton to release her emails. If all the information in medical records, financial reports, or official emails were flattering, no one would be required to release it. It’s only because it can lead to “second-guessing” that it’s expected of public officials.
I’m noting this in real time, at a moment when like so many other flaps it’s prominent on talk shows and news feeds. But like so many other “never before!” episodes in the Trump campaign, it’s likely soon to become “normalized,” and fade.
I note that with 53 days until the election, and with polls tightening, a nominee continues to defy a norm that his modern predecessors have all respected—and that his campaign has stepped away from his previous rationalized excuse and, out of nothing, invented a new alibi. And his party’s leaders say: That’s fine. People will look back on this time.
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.
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:
Donald Trump was made to look bad by one interviewer with the time, preparation, and guts to pursue a line of questioning, and by two women who discussed right in front of him the ugly things he has said.
If he shows up for this fall’s debates, he’ll encounter moderators with a lot of time to explore issues, and a woman with decades of onstage toughness behind her.
And it’s what you saw in this now-famous showdown in Flint, in which Trump meekly accepted correction in person from Pastor Faith Green Timmons, when she told him he was not supposed to be making a political speech—and then, once safely out of her gaze, flat-out lied about what had happened and had been captured on tape.
Here is what Trump told the never-disappointing Fox and Friends this morning:
“Something was up,” Trump told Fox and Friends on Thursday morning, calling the Rev. Faith Green Timmons a “nervous mess.”
“I noticed she was so nervous when she introduced me,” he said. “When she got up to introduce me she was so nervous, she was shaking. I said, wow, this is kind of strange. Then she came up. So she had that in mind, there’s no question.”
And here is what actually occurred:
Bonus travails-of-the-press point: NPR’s Scott Detrow did a very strong and pointed post contrasting the way Trump described the Flint episode and what actually occurred there.
But here is the way NPR headlined his post:
“Misstates Key Facts”? What, exactly, would be wrong with the word “lies”?
Remember the episode of “the Star,” reported back in installment #33? It was only two months ago, but it seems forever.
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:
Why is this like “the Star”? Because of Pepe the Frog.
For some people, what I’m about to say is old news and obvious. But for many, perhaps most, it’s important to have the whole context laid out.
If you’ve spent any time in the thickets of “alt-right” activism in recent years, you know perfectly well who Pepe is and what he stands for. In the “Deplorables” poster he is of course the figure with green skin and Trump-style hair standing alongside The Man. But to people who would actually fit “the deplorables” standard of racial animus, Pepe is also the wink-wink insiders’ symbol not just of racism but even of outright exterminationism.
You can read an account of Pepe’s recent history via the Daily Beast a few months ago here. He also has a pre-racist internet meme history, which you can see here. I’m not going to share the Pepe variants I keep getting in the mail, but they include:
Pepe as a sly smiling gas-chamber operator, inviting Jews to take a “shower”; Pepe working the crematoria, after the gas chambers have done their job; Pepe at the glorious new southern Wall, grinning at the plight of Mexicans trapped on the other side; Pepe as an Orthodox Jew, smirking (because of the “inside job”) as the World Trade Centers come down 15 years ago; Pepe with a lynch mob.
Again, it’s old news, and that is the point. If you’re involved in politics, you know this. You know exactly what the image of Pepe signifies in political uses these days. So for the son and namesake of the Republican nominee to share with pride a poster including Pepe necessarily means either that he does not know about Pepe, which indicates incompetence—or that he does, which indicates something worse.
The episode should be more disturbing than the conceivably misunderstood six-sided star. In that case, an innocent if unlikely alternative explanation was at hand: No, really, it is just a sheriff’s star! What’s wrong with you, that you would think anything else?
But in this case, there is no “nice” version of contemporary political Pepe to fall back on. (Oh, you thought we meant the one from the death camps? Not at all! We meant the one from the lynchings! Sorry for the confusion.) With eight weeks to go until the election, this is what Donald Trump Jr. has been “honored” to send out.
I am not aware of anything like this having happened before.
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.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
Across the country, social distancing is morphing from a public-health to political act. The consequences could be disastrous.
Editor’s Note:The Atlantic is making vital coverage of the coronavirus available to all readers. Find the collection here.
For Geoff Frost, the first sign of the coronavirus culture war came last weekend on the golf course. His country club, located in an affluent suburb of Atlanta, had recently introduced a slew of new policies to encourage social distancing. The communal water jugs were gone, the restaurant was closed, and golfers had been asked to limit themselves to one person per cart. Frost, a 43-year-old Democrat, told me the club’s mix of younger liberals and older conservatives had always gotten along just fine—but the guidelines were proving divisive.
At the driving range, while Frost and his like-minded friends slathered on hand sanitizer and kept six feet apart, the white-haired Republicans seemed to delight in breaking the new rules. They made a show of shaking hands, and complained loudly about the “stupid hoax” being propagated by virus alarmists. When their tee times were up, they piled defiantly into golf carts, shoulder to shoulder, and sped off toward the first hole.
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at the UC Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored.
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
China warned Italy. Italy warned us. We didn’t listen. Now the onus is on the rest of America to listen to New York.
In the emergency-department waiting room, 150 people worry about a fever. Some just want a test, others badly need medical treatment. Those not at the brink of death have to wait six, eight, 10 hours before they can see a doctor. Those admitted to the hospital might wait a full day for a bed.
I am an emergency-medicine doctor who practices in both Manhattan and Queens; at the moment, I’m in Queens. Normally, I love coming to work here, even though in the best of times, my co-residents and I take care of one of New York City’s most vulnerable, underinsured patient populations. Many have underlying illnesses and a language barrier, and lack primary care.
How did we get to the point where ministers, the president, many Republican politicians, and a variety of media outlets are calling for people to risk death to save the economy?
The coronavirus pandemic in the United States has reignited long-standing debates about the relationship between freedom and economic and personal security. After barely a week of a partial lockdown in many parts of the country, Donald Trump and others are now complaining that overly risk-averse public-health officials are threatening to strangle the economy. Trump insists that excessive caution is counterproductive and dangerous: “THE CURE CANNOT BE WORSE (BY FAR) THAN THE PROBLEM,” he tweeted on March 22. During a briefing at the White House the next day he added: “Our country wasn’t built to be shut down. America will again, and soon, be open for business.”
Conservatives have supported and extended Trump’s position. Writing in TheWashington Post on March 25, the columnist Gary Abernathy claimed that both the stimulus plan passed by the Senate and the shelter-at-home proclamations had completed the nation’s march to socialism begun “incrementally decades ago.” “The delicate balance between freedom and risk was less than an afterthought as our economy was gutted in a matter of days,” Abernathy wrote:
The major dividing line in effective crisis response will not place autocracies on one side and democracies on the other.
When the coronavirus pandemic now sweeping the world was localized in China in January, many people argued that China’s authoritarian system was blocking the flow of information about the seriousness of the situation. The case of Li Wenliang, a physician punished for blowing the whistle early on and who subsequently died from the disease, was seen as emblematic of authoritarian dysfunction.
The situation now looks less rosy for democratic government. Europe now faces a larger disease burden than China, with Italy alone exceeding the number of deaths officially reported in China, despite having one-twentieth the population. It turns out that the leaders of many democracies felt similar pressures to downplay the dangers of the epidemic, whether to avoid injuring the economy or to protect their personal interests. This was true not just of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Mexico’s Lopez Obrador, but also of President Donald Trump, who until mid-March kept insisting that the U.S. had the disease under control and that the epidemic would disappear shortly. This explains why the U.S. lost two months in preparing for the onslaught, creating persistent shortages of testing kits and medical supplies. China, meanwhile, is reporting a leveling off of new cases. Chinese students in Britain have reportedly been astonished at the lax approach taken by Boris Johnson’s government.
“This time of isolation could be a period of great growth or great struggle in your relationship.”
Humans have evolved with a drive to share life with a partner—just not all day long. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the savanna formed pair-bonds, but they parted in the morning to go about their separate tasks. So did our ancestors on the farm. For hundreds of thousands of years, even the most devoted couples have been uttering some version of that basic romantic principle: “I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”
So what happens now that spouses are staying home all day, and many unmarried couples suddenly find themselves quarantined together? The peril facing relationships quickly became obvious to the pioneers of this new intimacy on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where couples were cooped up for two weeks in their cabin during the ship’s quarantine. Ellis Vincent, a retired airline executive from Australia, told a reporter that he and his wife, Kimberly, were passing the time by having long conversations during which she displayed a remarkable memory.
“The thought of simply breathing in and out without coughing and reuniting with my children ... is goal enough. To—literally—live and let live will be enough.”
I can pinpoint the exact moment I started feeling off. My partner, Will, and I were on a bike ride on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 18, to escape our apartment and get some exercise. This was back when leaving a New York City apartment to get some exercise was still okay, or at least that’s what we’d read, or at least that’s what we thought? If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that what is considered dogma today might change tomorrow.
Ten minutes into our bike ride, I was overcome by an intense fatigue. “I think I have to go back,” I said.
Back home, I felt chilled. Took my temperature: 99.1. I’m normally 97.1, but still, not a huge deal. We’d been so careful about wiping down doorknobs, washing our hands, and keeping everyone except for our family out of our apartment. I’d been ambiently worried enough that my 13-year-old son could be a silent carrier of the virus that I’d yanked him out of his public middle school and off the crowded subways four days before Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled the plug– (far too belatedly, in my opinion). I was getting over a urinary-tract infection, so my fever, I thought, must be from that.
The president is more hindrance than help, so leaders in and out of government have to plan around him.
Beyoncé had left the stadium in triumph. Her sultry renditions of “Crazy in Love” and other hits had culminated in the surprise onstage reunion of Destiny’s Child. But just a few minutes later, during the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans in 2013, half the lights went out in the Superdome. For 34 minutes, the stadium plunged into semidarkness, complete mayhem headed off only by backup systems that kicked in to keep the stadium and 71,000 spectators in half light.
A disaster, of sorts—or at least it could have been. While the world watched a half-dark stadium, those of us who plan for worst-case scenarios saw the glory of a stadium in half light. Imagine the alternative, we thought. What had staved off a worse outcome? A fail-safe system—a set of mechanisms that activates when something goes wrong—had felt the stresses caused by some electric disruption that was turning the lights off in the Superdome. The fail-safe system had prevented a cascade of other losses.