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.”)
Donald Trump tweeted today that he has invited Gennifer Flowers, subject of controversies involving Bill Clinton’s infidelities when he was governor of Arkansas, to sit in the front row during his first debate next week against Hillary Clinton. This is in apparent retaliation for Hillary Clinton’s reportedly inviting Mark Cuban, anti-Trump billionaire, to sit at the debate.
Obvious time-capsule point #1: Nothing like this has happened in a general-election race before.
Head-scratcher point #2: Trump is running against the first female major-party nominee in U.S. history. And he focuses attention, in this important first debate, on a decades-old controversy? Involving the nominee’s husband? Whom she has stayed with through more than 40 years of marriage? And whom the Republican party of the 1990s destroyed itself trying to impeach?
Most campaign ads, like most billboards or commercials, are unimaginative and formulaic. Our candidate is great! Their candidate is terrible! Choose us!
With the huge majority of political ads, you would look back on them long after the campaign only for time-warp curio purposes—Look at the clothes they wore in the ’80s! Look how corny “I like Ike!” was as a slogan! Look how young [Mitch McConnell / Bill Clinton / Al Gore] once was!—or to find archeological samples of the political mood of a given era.
The few national-campaign ads that are remembered earn their place either because they were so effective in shifting the tone of the campaign, as with George H. W. Bush’s race-baiting “Revolving Door” ad against Michael Dukakis in 1988; or because they so clearly presented the candidate in the desired light, as with Ronald Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” ad in 1984. Perhaps the most effective campaign advertisement ever, especially considering that it was aired only one time, was Lyndon Johnson’s devastating “Daisy Girl” ad, from his campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964. The power of the Daisy Girl ad was of course its dramatizing the warning that Goldwater might recklessly bring on a nuclear war.
It’s impossible to judge these things in real time, but I think there’s a good chance that “Mirrors,” an ad released this week by the Hillary Clinton campaign and shown after the jump, is another one that people will look back on.
You can say what you want about Hillary Clinton’s performance skills as a campaigner, and we’ll have another important chance to assess them just two days from now in the first debate. (Preview here.)
But I think it is hard to dispute that her video-ad team is very skillful. Consider also their “Role Models” ad from two months ago:
Noting this for the record, with 44 days and a few hours to go, as one more aspect of the 2016 campaign that people may re-visit years from now.
Probably because she is so very familiar a figure on the U.S. political scene, Hillary Clinton’s pioneering role as potentially America’s first female president has attracted less sizzle than the brand-new Barack Obama did during the 2008 campaign, as potentially the first black president. But an ad like “Mirrors” may make the point more pointedly than another “glass ceiling” speech.
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.
A tectonic demographic shift is under way. Can the country hold together?
Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed.
The GOP will not be a great or a good party until those who lead it straighten their backbones.
The first day of public hearings into the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump included an explosive revelation. William B. Taylor, Jr., the senior American diplomat in Ukraine, tied Trump even more directly than we previously knew to the effort to pressure Ukraine to probe his political opponent.
But as damaging as Taylor’s testimony proved, it was merely another massive boulder in the avalanche of evidence against the president. We are well beyond the point that any disinterested person can deny the president abused his power and acted in a corrupt manner, in ways the American founders explicitly warned against.
That the president acted the way he did should surprise exactly no one, given his disordered personality and Nietzschean ethic, his pathological lying and brutishness and bullying, and his history of personal and professional depravity. The president is a deeply damaged human being—and therefore a deeply dangerous president.
A record-setting acqua alta has left much of Venice submerged, following stormy conditions blowing in from the Adriatic Sea.
Yesterday, strong winds and rainstorms pushed water levels in Venice, Italy, to the second-highest levels ever recorded. The high-water mark hit 74 inches (187 centimeters), just short of the record set in 1966. This exceptional acqua alta has flooded businesses and historic structures, sank boats, and been blamed for one death so far.
The ambassador to Ukraine detailed a previously unknown phone call involving President Trump, potentially adding to the Democrats’ case that he put his own interests above the nation’s.
It took all of about 90 minutes for the public phase of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump to yield its first big new revelation.
Appearing this morning before the House Intelligence Committee, Ambassador William Taylor told lawmakers—and the millions of people watching around the world—that on the day after his now-infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump personally asked a top U.S. diplomat, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, about the investigations he wanted Zelensky to pursue against the Biden family. Taylor told the committee that a member of his staff overheard the call between Trump and Sondland and then asked Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, what the president thought about Ukraine.
Alumni of the Obama administration love Joe Biden. But some of them think that Deval Patrick is better equipped to win the presidency.
Joe Biden rarely goes anywhere without mentioning “my friend Barack.” Pete Buttigieg has a line in his stump speech about how he first went to Iowa to campaign for another “young man with a funny name.” Even though Barack Obama will not endorse in this primary, he has made a point of meeting with almost all the candidates, and he looms over the race.
But the politician personally closest to Obama is Deval Patrick. As several people in Obama’s inner circle have been saying to me for months before Patrick’s potential presidential candidacy leaked out on Monday, Biden originally came into the Obama fold as a matter of transactional politics, picked to balance the 2008 ticket; Patrick is an actual longtime friend based on mutual affinities. That Patrick seems poised to jump into the race at the last minute is the clearest sign yet of how much anxiety there is among Obama’s inner circle about Biden’s campaign. “Deval is a lot like Obama,” a former Obama aide told me. “People who were drawn to Obama would be drawn to Patrick.”
Suppose that the biblical story of Creation were true: God created the universe in six days, including all the laws of physics and all the physical constants that apply throughout the universe. Now imagine that one day, in the early 21st century, God became bored and, just for fun, doubled the gravitational constant. What would it be like to live through such a change? We’d all be pulled toward the floor; many buildings would collapse; birds would fall from the sky; the Earth would move closer to the sun, reestablishing orbit in a far hotter zone.
Let’s rerun this thought experiment in the social and political world, rather than the physical one. The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance.
HONG KONG—For months now, I’ve been told that Hong Kong’s protests would end soon. They’ll end when school starts, I heard during the summer. School did start, but the protests wore on, only now I saw high-school students in crisp school uniforms joining the protesters’ ranks. Next, the mask ban of early October was supposed to slow protesters down, but the very first day after that ban, I watched streams of protesters in masks and helmets make their way to their usual haunts on Hong Kong Island.
The government shut down many of the subway lines that day, a practice that has become a de facto curfew, because Hong Kong’s über-efficient subway system is the way most people get around. No matter; the protesters ended up walking, sometimes a lot, and I walked with them, asking some of the same questions I had asked for months: Do you think you will continue protesting? What would it take for you to stop?
On rare occasions, congressional hearings beat gritty HBO dramas in entertainment value.
They’re both silver-haired septuagenarians, Vietnam veterans, Ivy League–educated public servants for Republican and Democratic presidents alike, with reputations for unswerving rectitude. But Robert Mueller and William Taylor could not have made for more different congressional witnesses. On July 24, in the glare of television lights, Mueller, the former special counsel, came across like a statistician, a dry reciter of data. But Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who testified this morning, was a storyteller, the natural-born narrator of a compelling tale. Both witnesses talked about President Donald Trump, but only today’s was made for TV.
As a concept, the Capitol Hill hearing may no longer be quite the same riveting spectacle it was in the days of Watergate, Iran-Contra, Clarence Thomas’s contested Supreme Court confirmation, or Bill Clinton’s impeachment—if only because today’s media environment is so fragmented and fractured. But it is still a time-honored ritual—“true history unfolding” as Wolf Blitzer put it on CNN today—and to one degree or another, America stopped to watch.
The forces of hatred that Trump stoked to benefit himself politically are spiraling out of control.
Donald Trump is 73. Mitch McConnell is 77. Rush Limbaugh is 68. The median Fox News viewer is 65. For good reason, observers of the American right often focus on folks who already qualify for Medicare and Social Security. But anyone wanting to understand the right’s future would do well to study the public-speaking appearance that Donald Trump Jr. made Sunday at UCLA.
Don Jr. expected leftist protesters.
As it turned out, he and his girlfriend, the former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, were drowned out and forced off stage by chanting alt-right activists.
Understanding the unexpected turn requires a bit of background. But the effort is worth it. Few events better illustrate the complex interplay of ideologies, tactics, and hypocrisies that are influencing the right’s youngest activists, who’ll ultimately decide what to do with the Birchers of their generation.
Today’s impeachment hearings depicted a president whose interest in Ukraine was personal, not policy-based.
In his opening statement at today’s first public impeachment hearing, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee argued that the real story of the Ukraine scandal is not any inappropriate behavior by Donald Trump, but rather the actions of a deep state that hates the president and is determined to subvert his leadership.
“Elements of the civil service have decided that they, not the president, are really in charge,” Representative Devin Nunes charged. “After expressing skepticism of foreign aid and concern about corruption on the campaign trail, President Trump acted skeptically about foreign aid and expressed concerns about foreign corruption … Officials showed the surprising lack of interest in the indications of Ukrainian election meddling that deeply concerned the president at whose pleasure they serve.”