Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

The Daily Trump: Filling a Time Capsule
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People will look back on this era in our history to see what was known about Donald Trump while Americans were deciding whether to choose him as president. Here’s a running chronicle from James Fallows on the evidence available to voters as they make their choice, and of how Trump has broken the norms that applied to previous major-party candidates. (For a Fallows-led, ongoing reader discussion on Trump’s rise to the presidency, see “Trump Nation.”)

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Trump Time Capsule #115: The First Debate

Vice president Dan Quayle (left), Democratic VP nominee Al Gore (right), and Admiral James Bond Stockdale at the Vice Presidential debate in 1992. Stockdale was a hero of the Vietnam war, but he was unsuited to modern politics, and his debate performance was generally viewed as disastrous. It's the main standard for comparison with tonight's performance by Donald Trump. AP

Details later, because I start very early tomorrow morning, but: in the history of debates I’ve been watching through my conscious lifetime, this was the most one-sided slam since Al Gore took on Dan Quayle and (the very admirable, but ill-placed) Admiral James B. Stockdale (“Who am I? Why am I here?”) in the vice presidential debate of 1992.

Donald Trump rose to every little bit of bait, and fell into every trap, that Hillary Clinton set for him. And she, in stark contrast to him, made (almost) every point she could have hoped to make, and carried herself in full awareness that she was on high-def split-screen every second. He was constantly mugging, grimacing, rolling his eyes—and sniffing. She looked alternately attentive and amused.

If you were applying the famous “How does this look with the sound turned off?” test, you would see a red-faced and angry man, and a generally calm-looking woman. Hillary Clinton’s most impressive performance-under-public-attack so far had been the 11-hour Benghazi Commission hearings. This was another 90 minutes more or less in the same vein.

(Is this strictly a partisan judgment, since obviously I believe Donald Trump should not become president? I don’t think so. I  had no problem saying that for foreseeable reasons, Mitt Romney clearly bested Barack Obama in their first debate four years ago. Similarly, George W. Bush showed surprising strength against Al Gore in their 2000 debates.)

I don’t expect that this evening will change the minds of any of Trump’s committed supporters. But they have topped off at around 40 percent of the electorate. The question is the effect it will have on undecideds in a handful of crucial states. Especially undecided women (seeing Trump constantly interrupt Clinton while she was talking, and end up challenging her “stamina”), non-whites (hearing his praise for stop-and-frisk), and environmentally conscious younger and older people (hearing him say, falsely, that he had never said that climate change was a hoax engineered by the Chinese). We’ll see.

For now, a bad evening for the Republican nominee. Details soon.

Then-vice president Spiro Agnew, in sunglasses next to former president Lyndon Johnson, at a space launch in 1969. Four years later, he resigned because of a corruption scandal. Donald Trump's financial tangles are the most complex of any national-ticket nominee since Agnew. (NASA Great Images series, via Wikipedia)

In the waning moments before this evening’s first debate, let me note another remarkable story by David Fahrenthold in the Washington Post that in any other campaign would by itself qualify as major news.

Fahrenthold reports just now another entanglement between Trump’s business interests and his ostensibly charitable foundation. You should read all the details in his story, but in essence: Trump directed some of his business partners to take at least $2.3 million in money they owed him as normal business expenses, and instead send that money to the Trump Foundation as “donations.”

Why does this matter? Because at face value it’s a tax dodge.

  • The person or company paying the money gets to classify the payment as a tax-deductible charitable donation rather than a normal business expense, which in many cases would mean more favorable tax treatment.

  • Trump and his companies, which earned this money as income, never have to report it as income at all, and therefore never pay the resulting taxes on it—federal, state, city, payroll, etc. This is so even though, as Fahrenthold has shown in other stories, Trump then freely used the Foundation’s money to pay personal, political, or business expenses. As he summarized in today’s story:
    Previously, The Post reported that the Trump Foundation appears to have violated laws against “self-dealing,” which prohibit nonprofit leaders from using charity money to help themselves. In particular, Trump appeared to use $258,000 from the charity to help settle lawsuits involving a golf course and an oceanside club. Trump also spent charity money to buy two portraits of himself, including one that he hung in the bar of one of his golf resorts in Florida.

  • If Trump had reported the money as personal income, and then donated it to the foundation, he would have received some tax benefits—but because of deduction-limits and for other reasons, he almost certainly would have owed more tax than he does by not reporting the income at all. Exactly how much money he might have saved is impossible for outsiders to say, since he has refused to turn over his tax returns.

In my memory of politics, this is the closest thing we have seen to prima facie evidence of financial misconduct since Spiro Agnew had to resign as vice president for accepting cash bribes.

***

Points to reflect on:

Donald Gregg, longtime advisor to George H.W. Bush and former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, speaking to the press in Beijing after one of his negotiating trips to North Korea. He has just announced his support for Hillary Clinton. Reuters

Noted for the record, since nothing like this has happened before:

1) Business leaders. Rebecca Ballhaus and Brody Mullins of the WSJ surveyed political donation records from the CEOs of the Fortune 100 largest companies in the United States. Historically and by class interest, this is a group that would generally vote Republican and support GOP candidates.

This year none of them (zero) have made donations to Donald Trump’s campaign. Four years ago, nearly one-third of them gave to Mitt Romney. In this year’s cycle, 19 have given to other Republican candidates, and 11 have given to Hillary Clinton.

You could take this as a sign of Trump finally standing up against the elite. Or, you could take it as a sign that people who know something about business want nothing to do with Donald Trump.

***

2) Opinion leaders. It’s possible that the survey here in Wikipedia is incomplete—because, it’s Wikipedia! But it appears that of the dozen or so major publications that have made general-election endorsements so far, none (zero) have supported Donald Trump.

Donald Trump on Twitter.

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.

Flowers soon confirmed that she had accepted the invitation.

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?

Talk about impulse control.

The famous 'Daisy Girl' ad, for Lyndon Johnson and against Barry Goldwater, was shown only once during the 1964 campaign but is famous more than 50 years later. Wikimedia

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.

A large group of former diplomats is urging a vote against Trump. So is this guy. Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

Today’s harvest of things that haven’t happened in presidential campaigns before:

1. Diplomats. As the Washington Post reported 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. …

Robert Gates (center) receiving the Liberty Medal five years ago. Gates has served under every Republican president since Richard Nixon, and every Democrat since then too. This week he said that the GOP nominee was "unqualified and unfit" for office. Tim Shaffer / Reuters

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 memoir Duty 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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In detail:

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

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

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

In my current cover story I wrote:  

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

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

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

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