Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

The Daily Trump: Filling a Time Capsule
Show Description +

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.”)

Show 59 Newer Notes

Trump Time Capsule #96: ‘Putin Has an 82 Percent Approval Rating!’

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

I’ve just now watched the hour-long “Commander-in-Chief Forum” on NBC, moderated by Matt Lauer. Three points that deserve note for the record:

1. Iraq. Donald Trump led off by claiming, falsely, that he opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and that this is an important sign of his good judgment:

TRUMP: Well, I think the main thing is I have great judgment. I have good judgment. I know what’s going on. I’ve called so many of the shots. And I happened to hear Hillary Clinton say that I was not against the war in Iraq. I was totally against the war in Iraq. From a — you can look at Esquire magazine from ’04. You can look at before that.

This claim is false. It is not true. It is a fantasy or a lie. Donald Trump keeps saying it. It keeps being false.

There is absolutely no public evidence, whatsoever, of Donald Trump having given any caution about invading Iraq before the war began. By contrast, there is evidence of his saying before the war that the invasion might be a good idea. For reference, a piece I did back in February. And this damning one from BuzzFeed about the same time, with audio of Trump talking with Howard Stern about the war. See this from Vox too. Even NBC’s own fact-checking department called Trump out on the lie just after the forum.

First depressing aspect: that Trump is still just proudly blasting out a lie.

Second, more depressing aspect: that NBC’s Matt Lauer did not even pretend to challenge him—not even by saying, “Wait a minute, why should a 2004 Esquire article matter, when that was a year after the war began?” Lauer, what were you thinking? If you knew this and didn’t say anything, why on Earth not? And if you didn’t know it, what were you doing in this role?  

***

Protestors in Washington this May, demanding that Donald Trump release his tax returns. James Lawler Duggan / Reuters
  1. Donald Trump has taken heat, and will take more, for refusing to release his tax information.
  1. It logically follows that whatever is in the tax returns would make him look worse than his stonewalling does.

No other conclusion is possible, unless you assume that neither Trump nor any of his advisors has any sense of what looks good and bad in a campaign. That’s a possibility, but it doesn’t ring true as the explanation in this case. And the “they’re under audit” excuse is bullshit, according to none other than the I.R.S.

This simple one-two logic has been underestimated in press discussion of the issue so far.

***

The premise of this series is to record, in real time, things about the Trump era that are outside previous norms. Here’s why the tax-return issue qualifies:

  • Post-Nixon presidential and vice-presidential major-party nominees who have agreed to release their tax returns before the election: Gerald Ford (summary statement), Bob Dole, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Geraldine Ferraro, Dan Quayle, Mike Dukakis, Lloyd Bensten, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence.
                                                                                                                                                        
  • Nominees who have refused: Donald Trump.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, at the center of a "pay-to-play" controversy involving Donald Trump, speaking at the Republican National Convention in July. Mike Segar / Reuters

Over the weekend I mentioned signs of the press beginning to “normalize” Donald Trump. This was especially so in equating “doubts,” “questions,” “clouds,” and the “atmosphere of entitlement” that surrounded Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, with the actual offenses, lawsuits, bankruptcies, unpaid contractors, anti-trust settlements, bogus-visa issues, and other legal problems surrounding Donald Trump and his enterprises. Paul Waldman of the WaPo has an eye-opening catalog of them here.

This is a for-the-record placeholder note on the past few days’ developments in two related areas: what is known or alleged about Trump-enterprises, and how coverage increasingly equates them to “doubts” and “questions” about the Clintons.

1. Yesterday Paul Krugman did a NYT column called “Clinton Gets Gored” on this pattern of “normalizing” Donald Trump through press coverage. The column was notable because the unnamed/“sub-tweeted” object of much of his complaint was the news operation of the same paper in which it appeared.

The Times is the greatest and most admirable news operation in the United States, perhaps in the world. But in my view, and apparently Krugman’s as well, from the “Whitewater” era through today its political coverage has applied an unusual presumption of crookedness to the Clintons, out of proportion to their many real-world failings. You can read Krugman’s argument, and this fascinating online discussion between Norman Ornstein and Roger Cohen.

***

Offered without comment. This video is from several months ago, early in the campaign. But I hadn’t seen it before, and it is timeless. You will not regret investing 52 seconds in watching it.

The interviewer is David Brody, of Christian Broadcasting Network. I first learned about the video via Liam Donovan. Fitting the Time Capsule theme: I genuinely can’t imagine a previous nominee answering the question this way.

Back to things requiring some comment tomorrow, when it will be exactly nine weeks until the election and the “real” campaigning begins.

***

The print edition of the NYT that arrived at my house two days ago, saying something very different from what the "same" story was saying online.

Twenty years ago I published a book called Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. The Atlantic ran an excerpt as a cover story, called “Why Americans Hate the Media.”

The main argument was that habits of mind within the media were making citizens and voters even more fatalistic and jaded about public affairs than they would otherwise be—even more willing to assume that all public figures were fools and crooks, even less willing to be involved in public affairs, and unfortunately for the media even less interested in following news at all.

These mental habits of the media included an over-emphasis on strife and conflict, a fascination with the mechanics or “game” of politics rather than the real-world consequences, and a self-protective instinct to conceal limited knowledge of a particular subject (a new budget proposal, an international spat) by talking about the politics of these questions, and by presenting disagreements in a he-said/she-said, “plenty of blame on all sides” fashion now known as “false equivalence.”

I could explain it more, or I could suggest you go read the article.  (It’s free, but it never hurts to subscribe!)

Through the rise of Donald Trump, I’ve been watching to see how these patterns of mind might reassert themselves, particularly in the form of normalizing Trump.

John Kennedy, who had served as a Congressman and Senator, felt he had to practice for his presidential debate in 1960. Richard Nixon, who had spent eight years as Vice President, practiced too. Donald Trump says that practicing is for losers. (AP)

A new story in the NYT says this about Donald Trump’s debate preparations:

He has been especially resistant to his advisers’ suggestions that he take part in mock debates with a Clinton stand-in….

Instead, Mr. Trump asked a battery of questions about debate topics, Mrs. Clinton’s skills and possible moderators, but people close to him said relatively little had been accomplished….

Mr. Trump, in the interview, said he saw little use in standing at lecterns and pretending to debate his opponent.

“I know who I am, and it got me here,” Mr. Trump said, boasting of success in his 11 primary debate appearances and in capturing the Republican nomination over veteran politicians and polished debaters…  “I mean, it’s possible we’ll do a mock debate, but I don’t see a real need.”

This is either extremely clever or bottomlessly stupid. It’s clever if it lulls the Clinton camp into thinking (as it won’t) that they too should just coast into the debate. It will be all the more brilliant if it masks actual preparation on Trump’s side.

It is bottomlessly stupid in all other circumstances.

I have a big piece coming out in the magazine in a few weeks elaborating on who has what to gain and lose in the debates, and why. So I’ll save the full explication for then.

For now I’ll just say: No previous non-incumbent candidate has ever applied the “I know who I am: why prepare?” approach to the general-election debates, and there’s a reason. The reason is, these head-to-head showdowns are very different from the multi-player primary-debate scrums, and doing well at them is an acquired skill. Incumbent presidents have been tempted to apply this approach to their first debate with a challenger (for reasons explained here). This is what Barack Obama did before his first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012, and it is much of the reason he badly lost that debate to Romney, as incumbents who believe themselves to be above practice repeatedly have done.

So three-plus weeks from now either Trump will show us that once again all previous rules of politics are nullified via his existence; or, as with so many other missteps he has made in the past month, he’ll show once again that he is out of his depth in a general-election campaign.

Details to come in the magazine soon, and over the airwaves starting September 26.

***

The NYT has unveiled a nice time-capsule-like feature, which matches a timeline of Trump’s outlandish statements with a list of the Republicans who have announced that they can no longer support him. It’s elegantly done.

Meantime, as the clock nears 69 days to go until the election, Trump rumbles on: with stolid support from the party’s “leadership,” and no tax return or plausible medical report on hand.

From Donald Trump on Twitter

When news broke about the horrific mass shooting in Orlando ten weeks ago, Donald Trump’s first reaction, as noted in Time Capsule #19, was to send out a Tweet saying “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”

When news broke today about the horrific fatal shooting of yet another person in Chicago, 32-year old Nykea Aldridge, mother of four and cousin of basketball star Dwyane Wade, Donald Trump’s first reaction was via the Tweet shown above.

This time he didn’t say “appreciate the congrats” on being right in his argument that life for African-Americans is so terrible that “what the hell do you have to lose?” by voting Trump. But his reaction was just as it had been with Orlando: bad news for someone else was significant mainly in being good news for him.

***

As outraged reaction built to Trump’s callous response, he put out another Tweet about 80 minutes later. It read:

Trump on Twitter

Here is the notable aspect of that follow-up message, apart from its expressing the thoughts most public figures would have begun with. The meta-info at the bottom of the message says “Twitter for iPad,” thus:

Virtually all of Trump’s countless previous messages have either been labelled “Twitter for Android,” for the more free-swinging ones he appears to write himself; or “Twitter for iPhone,” for the more policy-oriented ones that appear to come from his staff. I don’t recall seeing a “Twitter for iPad” label ever before. Some could have been there, but if so they’re rare. (The first message came via Twitter for iPhone, although its tone is more like that of Trump on Android.** See tech update below.)

Either Donald Trump has, in the course of this morning, suddenly turned to a new technology platform to express a more appropriate-sounding correction to his initial narcissistic reflex, or someone else has stepped in via iPad, to try to save him from himself. My money is on the latter.

Either way the point is, with 72 days until the election and the party leadership still standing firm behind its nominee, this is public behavior of a sort we have not previously seen from presidents or nominees.

***

** Tech update Thanks to several readers who pointed out that what I am calling the “first” message, the one shown at the top of this post and composed via iPhone, was actually not first. Trump’s original Tweet, now deleted, had the same contents but misspelled Wade’s first name as “Dwayne.” It’s impossible to know now, but I would bet that in fact it came via Trump’s own Android—with its misspelling, and with its instant “VOTE TRUMP!” reaction to tragic news. It’s the re-post, with the correct spelling of Dwyane, that was via the staff iPhone.

Thus the sequence would be:

  • Message #1, now lost to the ages, presumably via Trump on Android [update and via the Politiwoops archive of deleted tweets, confirmation that this first one really was from Android];
  • Message #2, with correct name spelling, via staff iPhone;
  • Message #3, “thoughts and prayers,” via someone on iPad who realizes that the previous ones could look bad on their own.

Of course I would never presume to offer advice to campaigners. But why not just buy a couple more Androids for the comms team, so that all the Tweets “from” Trump wouldn’t start out with such obviously different markers?

What Trump announced on Twitter, before he went to his doctor’s office and, with limo running outside, told the doctor what he would like the letter to say.

Every few entries in this series, I have mentioned that Donald Trump has departed from past norms by refusing to release either his tax returns, as all nominees since Richard Nixon have done, or a plausible medical report, an expectation that goes back even further than Nixon.

The tax return matters for Trump because it matters for everyone, let alone someone with his complex financial history. The medical report matters because, if elected, Trump would be the oldest person ever to assume the presidency; because his supporters have been recklessly suggesting that Hillary Clinton is ailing or impaired; and because Trump’s own bearing and behavior raise legitimate questions about whether he is perfectly well.  And the health report matters because the only information Trump has put out so far on the subject has been an utter farce.

The “medical” report Trump offered late last year was a one-page letter, devoid of details, and written with Trump’s favored “win so much you’ll get tired of winning!” approach to nuance. Its memorable conclusion was: “Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”  

Over the months I’ve speculated about who its real author might be. The North Korean News Agency? The Onion? The ghost of Mobutu Sese Seko? Trump himself? You get the idea. The asserted real author is a New York doctor named Harold Bornstein. Last week a doctor named Jen Gunter wrote about the many signs that made his letter simply impossible to believe.

Yesterday NBC News managed to interview Harold Bornstein in his office about the circumstances in which he wrote the letter.  You will not do better in capturing the spirit of Campaign 2016 than to watch the brief NBC video below:

Bornstein tells NBC that he took his guidance on language from Trump himself, which comes as no surprise. My favorite part is the end of the clip, when Bornstein says “I got rushed, and I get anxious when I get rushed, so I tried to get four or five lines done as fast as possible.” More from NBC is here. Other angles here and here.

***

Every so often I think: later on, people will not believe that things actually happened this way—the way they are happening around us, in real time, in late August of 2016. But thus it stands, with 72 days until the election, and neither tax information nor a plausible medical report forthcoming from one of the two people who could become the 45th president.

Hillary Clinton in Reno today Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

As with a previous “Crickets” installment, #13, this one notes something we have not heard, and whose absence is remarkable in the history of presidential campaigning.

Today the Democratic nominee for president said this about the Republican party’s chosen nominee:

From the start, Donald Trump has built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia. He’s taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over one of America’s two major political parties….

He promoted the racist lie that President Obama isn’t really an American citizen – part of a sustained effort to delegitimize America’s first black President.

In 2015, Trump launched his own campaign for President with another racist lie. He described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals….

Since then, there’s been a steady stream of bigotry.

And she went on, in detail. It amounted to as blunt a criticism as one nominee has made about another since … well, I can’t remember a comparable case.

And here is a list of the first ten senior Republican party officials who sprang to their nominee’s defense. These were the senators, governors, cabinet secretaries, former candidates who rushed to say that of course he’s not a bigot, of course he’s not playing on prejudice, of course he’s not legitimizing racism:

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

***

One-time wrestling-world figure Jesse Ventura, shown while he was governor, won the support of voters in Minnesota. One-time wrestling-world figure Donald Trump might miss the chance to get Minnesotans' votes. Eric Miller / Reuters

The sample ballots recently sent out by the Minnesota Secretary of State included, as presidential candidates: Hillary Clinton of the Democrats, Gary Johnson of the Libertarians, Jill Stein of the Greens, Dan Vacek of the Legal Marijuana Now Party, and a variety of others. But neither Donald Trump nor any other Republican candidate was listed.

Why? The GOP had apparently missed the deadlines and procedures for getting on the ballot—deadlines that the Legal Marijuana Now Party, to name one, had been able to meet. The story from City Pages is here.

Presumably the Republican party will figure out a last-minute workaround. And anyway, Minnesota has a modest total of 10 electoral votes, which have gone Democratic in every single election for the past 40 years. (The estimable Walter Mondale carried two states when running against Ronald Reagan in 1984: the District of Columbia, and his own home state of Minnesota.) So maybe it wouldn’t make a difference one way or the other.

But once again, I’m not aware of anything like this having happened with a major party before. Managerial excellence is of course central to Donald Trump’s promises of what he would do in office. What he’s managing now is his campaign.

Early this month, a group of 50 national-security officials who had served in Republican administrations—Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II—released a statement opposing Donald Trump and saying that he would be “the most reckless President in American history.”

A few days before that, a former head of the CIA formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, saying that Trump had become “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” That was a day after President Obama declared Trump “unfit” for the presidency, and a former prime minister of Sweden said Trump was “a serious threat to the security of the West.”

Today Ben Leubsdorf, Eric Morath, and Josh Zumbrun of the WSJ published the results of a survey of all living former members of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, with service dating back to the time of Richard Nixon. Not one of them expressed support for Donald Trump. All of the Republicans who expressed a preference opposed him.

From today’s WSJ

The story quoted a post by Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the CEA under George W. Bush:

“I have Republican friends who think that things couldn’t be worse than doubling down on Obama policies under Hillary Clinton. And, like them, I am no fan of the left’s agenda of large government and high taxes,” Mr. Mankiw wrote. “But they are wrong: Things could be worse. And I fear they would be under Mr. Trump.”

I’m not aware of anything like this having happened before. Noted for the record, with 74 days to go until the election, and with no tax returns or plausible health report yet on public offer.

Donald Trump in Jackson, Mississippi this evening, with Nigel Farage. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The previous 84 items in this series cover developments that might concern Donald Trump’s opponents. Tonight we have one that might concern his most fervent supporters.

In an interview aired Wednesday evening with his supporter Sean Hannity, Trump showed that he understood the logic behind immigration-reform proposals like that of Marco Rubio’s “Gang of 8.” The starting point for such proposals has been the reality that millions of people are already in the United States without legal permission. Some are ordinary criminals, who if they’re caught are usually jailed or deported. But many others are parents, students, workers, or others who lead regular law-abiding lives except for their illegal immigration status.

What do you do with them? From George W. Bush to Barack Obama to the bipartisan members of the Gang of 8, the answer was: you don’t pretend you’re going to round them up and expel them. It can’t and won’t happen, and shouldn’t. But Donald Trump’s answer since the start of his campaign has been: Yes it can! And will and should! Find these illegals and send them home. That was the basis of his attack on softies like Rubio (who ended up renouncing the Gang of 8) and Jeb Bush. It was the logical complement to his talk about the wall. It has been to his campaign what standing up to the Soviets was to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

But in the interview tonight Trump said, in effect, Never mind! You can read the whole extraordinary transcript of his talk with Hannity in this Twitter post by Sopan Deb of CBS News. Here is a crucial passage:

Transcript via Sopan Deb of CBS.

“It’s a very, very hard thing.” It’s so tough to think of throwing a family out. These are exactly the real-world concerns behind decades’ worth of reform efforts. They’re the same concerns Trump has until now mocked as weak and loser-like. His hard line on deportation is what has attracted his most devoted supporters. One of those, Ann Coulter, had a pro-Trump book published this very day, in which she says: “There is nothing Trump can do that won’t be forgiven. Except change his immigration policies.”

Will his supporters still forgive him? Has his policy changed? Is it a policy at all? We’ll see. One way or another, this is a moment to note.

***

Three more details about the pivot: