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.”)
Noted for the record: Today, August 9, 2016, was the day the Republican standard-bearer made a joke in public about his Democratic rival possibly being shot to death:
To the best of my knowledge, this has not happened before in modern times. I am in transit today and pass the baton to TheAtlantic’s David Graham for a full rundown of the episode. For instance:
The suggestion that the assassination of a presidential candidate—or the killing of Supreme Court justices, or an armed insurrection, depending on interpretation—could solve a policy dispute is a shocking new low for a campaign that has continually reset expectations. Trump’s defenders often scold the media for being humorless, or taking Trump’s comments too seriously. So let’s preemptively dismiss that counterargument: This aside was clearly intended to be a joke. It is also entirely shocking and appalling, even in that context.
At no point in recent American history has the nominee of one of the two major parties even jested about the murder of a rival.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but still I will say:
People don’t do this. If an ordinary citizen made a similar joke at a town meeting, or if someone in the media like me were to say something similar on a TV or radio show, the Secret Service would probably want to know more. Through modern times, which is to say since the assassination of John F. Kennedy (and of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the attempted assassinations of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace, and so on), “jokes” about shooting a president or presidential candidate are categorically not funny. Make a joke about blowing up a plane while at an airport, and you’ll be in trouble. Make a joke about guns as the solution to an election outcome you don’t like, and at the very least you are not showing commander-in-chief temperament.
Have you no sense of decency? Any Republican “leader” who stands with Trump after this will forever share the stain Trump is bringing to public life. This is like standing with Joe McCarthy after the Joseph Welch “Have you no sense of decency?” episode. It is like standing with Bull Connor. “Responsible” Republicans, the reputation of your party’s nominee can’t be changed at this point. Yours, and the party’s, are being set now.
Again for the time capsule: With 90 days until the election, one nominee has joked about the other being shot to death, and as of this moment his party elders stand with him.
Noted as part of the ongoing record, the extraordinary statement signed yesterday by 50 veterans of national-security policy in Republican administrations, arguing that Donald Trump would be “a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well being.” You can read the original document here, and a NYT story about it here.
Why this is extraordinary:
That it exists at all. Election-year rhetoric usually brings statements about candidates who are “wrong” or “unprepared” or “weak” or “bad choices for America” or what have you. And usually these are from people in the trenches of political warfare, not from the career policy-expert class.
This statement is not part of political-debate-as-usual. It’s one more, and in its way the most dramatic, in the recent series of unusual, “this time it’s different” statements of flat disqualification. Recent examples include: the comment by the incumbent president (Obama) that a nominee (Trump) is “unfit” to serve; the observation by a former CIA head that a foreign government had flattered and conned a nominee and turned him into an “unwitting agent of the Russian Federation”; and the warning from a former allied Prime Minister that a candidate presents “a serious threat to the security of the west.”
Who signed it. If you have followed the ins and outs of foreign policy over the years, you will instantly recognize most of these names, and you will also understand that they are bona fide Republicans and conservatives. Some mainly had military, diplomatic, or intelligence careers before rising to senior posts in (mainly) Republican administrations: for instance, John Negroponte, a longtime diplomat who became Director of National Intelligence under GW Bush. Some have had multiple policy positions in GOP administrations: for instance, Robert Zoellick, who became U.S. Trade Representative, Deputy Secretary of State, and then president of the World Bank under GW Bush. Others have been in and out of academia and government. Philip Zelikow, a scholar who was lead author of the 9/11 Commission Report and was State Department counselor under Condoleezza Rice (and whom I’ve come to know as a friend) has signed on. So has Tom Ridge, former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and first Secretary of Homeland Security under GW Bush. So has his successor at DHS, Michael Chertoff.
I could add a note about almost every person on the list, but I’ll just say: in most Republican administrations, you’d expect to see lots of these same names in serious foreign-policy jobs, and many others as part of the informal brains-trust. Why does this matter? First, it means that they have some standing to speak. Second, it means that they have something to lose.
The sympathetic view of the failures by Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, and others to separate themselves from Trump is that they can’t “take the risk.” The people signing this latest letter are taking a quite definite personal and career risk. For the ones still interested in appointive office, the next Republican administration is their next realistic chance for a job. But they’re saying: that’s not worth tolerating Trump. As someone with comparable experience, but mainly with Democratic politicians, wrote me about the letter: “Their bravery in warning about Trump—at personal risk and sacrifice—deserves to be remembered and honored.”
What they said. This is a very tough statement. Again, if you have followed the ins and outs of foreign policy over the years, you will understand that they are bona fide Republicans and conservatives. It’s worth reading the argument, not just the signatory list, because of the clarity with which they make their case. Sample:
“He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood. He does not encourage conflicting views. He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism. He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior. All of these are dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”
I don’t know whether this will change anyone’s mind, but it is one more sign that Trump, as candidate, really is different from the array of nominees the electorate has chosen from before.
So it is offered for the record, with 90 days to go until the election, and also with: no tax returns or plausible health report yet in prospect from the Trump campaign; no response from the campaign on the origins of the pro-Russian change in the GOP platform; no response to David Fahrenthold’s ongoing efforts for the Washington Post to see whether Donald Trump has ever actually made any of the charitable contributions he has publicized and promised; and on down the list.
Let’s take this in sequence, because each step matters.
1. Two weeks ago at the GOP convention in Cleveland, the Republican platform was altered to remove any reference to arming Ukraine in its struggles against Russia (which seized Crimea from Ukraine two years ago).
2. This was notable in its own right, as a departure from a bipartisan support for Ukraine. It also attracted attention because of Donald Trump’s general admiration for Vladimir Putin, and because of the specifically Ukrainian business dealings of Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort. His past clients in his PR work had notably included the pro-Russian former Prime Minister of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. In early 2014 Yanukovych fled his country amid protests and is now in Russia.
3. Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd, who was fully aware of this background, asked Manafort whether his campaign had been involved in the pro-Russian platform change. Manafort flat-out and categorically denied it. As reported in TPM (emphasis added):
“Where did it come from then?” Todd pressed. “Because everyone on the platform committee had said it came from the Trump campaign. If not you, who?”
“It absolutely did not come from the campaign. I don’t know who everybody is, but I guarantee you it was nobody that was on the platform committee,” Manafort replied.
When asked once more if anyone on the campaign was involved, Manafort said, “No one, zero.”
I was watching the exchange that Sunday morning and immediately noted the baldness of Manafort’s statements. Shortly afterward, in installment #66 of this Trump series, I said that a claim by Reince Priebus (that he had only recently learned the schedule for Clinton-Trump debates) “cannot be true,” and that Manafort’s claim “is very unlikely to prove true.”
4. A story today in the Washington Post appears to move us from “unlikely to prove true” to plain old untrue. Reporters Steve Mufson and Tom Hamburger quote platform committee members who say that the change did in fact come at the Trump staff’s behest. For instance:
The Republican platform committee at the party’s convention was one place Trump campaign aides have promoted that view, according to national security experts who were there. They said Trump campaign staffers weakened language that would have called for military support of Ukraine.
“It was troubling to me that they would want to water down language that supports a country that has been invaded by an aggressive neighbor,” said Rachel Hoff, a member of the platform committee. “I think the U.S. should properly come to Ukraine’s aid in that struggle. In the past that would not be considered a controversial Republican position.”
I wrote to Hamburger to confirm that the source of the quote, Rachel Hoff, was also saying explicitly that Trump’s staffers were involved in the change. Hamburger said that indeed she was, and that several other people, unnamed in the story, said the same thing. (He also said that he’d asked the Trump campaign to comment but had not heard back.)
Let’s step back and consider what this amounts to. On the same day that a former head of the CIA said that Putin had shrewdly played to Trump’s vanities and made him an “unwitting agent,” members of the Republican party’s platform committee are saying that his campaign manager is flat-out lying about having engineered a pro-Russian policy change that would help his former clients.
There are two other possibilities, of course. One is that members of the platform committee have for some reason decided to lie about the Trump campaign’s role; the other, that all this happened without Manafort’s being aware, so that he was telling Chuck Todd the truth as he understood it. Take your pick. For me, the odds overwhelmingly favor Manafort being involved and then imagining he could bluff his way through a denial, Baghdad Bob-style.
By now, on this 71st step down the long Time Capsule trail of tears, you might think that I would be growing blasé. Not about this one. For any other candidate in any other campaign, what we’ve learned today would be a genuine shock. Even in this campaign, with 94 days to go and “responsible” Republicans still aboard, it should count as news.
I first met Michael Morell more than 25 years ago, when he was a young economic analyst for the CIA and I had returned from several years in Japan. It was at an unclassified meeting about economic trends in Asia. (As a reporter working overseas, you routinely meet or interview analysts from various countries’ intelligence services. Usually you can figure out who some of the actual spies in the embassies are, but my kind of work didn’t normally put me in contact with them.)
I met him occasionally since then and watched and admired his progress through the years, which led to his twice becoming acting director of the agency. I liked him and respected his coolly analytical dispassion, in comparison with which Barack Obama would seem a hothead. If Morell had partisan views of any sort, I never heard them. His book The Great War of Our Time is respectful (and respectfully critical) of the two presidents with whom he worked most directly, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Thus for Morell to write, as he does in the New York Times this morning, that he will vote for Hillary Clinton and “do everything I can to ensure that she is elected as our 45th president,” is more notable than you might think. Career CIA analysts have their preferences, like anyone else. They don’t routinely make this sort of public endorsement. This is a very unusual step for someone like him to feel compelled to take.
The details of Morell’s case for Clinton, and against Trump, are also more interesting than you might expect. This part of Morell’s description of Donald Trump’s liabilities sounds familiar, though again it’s unusual considering its source:
These [harmful] traits include his obvious need for self-aggrandizement, his overreaction to perceived slights, his tendency to make decisions based on intuition, his refusal to change his views based on new information, his routine carelessness with the facts, his unwillingness to listen to others and his lack of respect for the rule of law.
But it builds toward this, which again from a CIA veteran has a particular edge:
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated….
Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.
In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.
That is: Trump, the self-proclaimed best negotiator of all time, has been flattered and conned by a genuine pro.
This is where things stand with 94 days to go until the election and with Donald Trump, the “unwitting agent,” still refusing to release the tax forms or the medical report routinely expected from nominees in the modern era. And still Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and other “responsible” Republicans say: this man should be Commander in Chief.
Too much, too fast. To jot some of it down, for the long-term record:
1. There is no there there. For some reason, Donald Trump agreed to another long on-the-record interview with a major newspaper. The three previous times he has done so—two sessions with David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of the NYT in March and July, and one in March with the full editorial board of the Washington Post—the result was a long run of negative coverage about the knowledge gaps his comments revealed and the risky claims he had made. For instance, the second NYT interview was the source of his observation that under a President Trump the U.S. might honor NATO obligations to defend European allies, or might not, depending on whether the country under attack had paid up.
He’s done it again, and this newest one, yesterday with Philip Rucker of the Post, made news for Trump’s studied refusal to endorse either Rep. Paul Ryan or Sen. John McCain in their hard-fought GOP primaries. These are two people who, especially Ryan, have piled their personal dignity up in a pyre and set it alight, through their stance of “rebuking” Trump but still saying he should be Commander in Chief. And Trump says, Meh.
But the real news of the transcript is the utter void of knowledge or ability to maintain consecutive thought it reveals, on any topic other than Trump’s own greatness. Time and again, Rucker shows Trump’s attention flitting away to whatever has caught his eye on a TV running in the background. E.g., when Trump is talking about how his daughter Ivanka would not have put up with sexual harassment like that at Fox News:
RUCKER: Would you want her to follow the path that Gretchen Carlson did?
TRUMP: I’d want her to do what makes her happy. I’d want her to do, Phil, what makes her happy. [Trump looks at a nearby television, which was tuned to Fox News.] Oh, did they have another one of these things go down? It’s terrible that crash. Never liked that plane, structurally. I never thought that plane could—
RUCKER: Why should she have to change careers or jobs?...
RUCKER: Well, half the people in your rallies are veterans.
TRUMP: [Looks at the television again] Look at this. It’s all Trump all day long. That’s why their ratings are through the roof. I’d hate to say, Philip, if I wasn’t running, the television networks would be doing less than half the business.
I’ve transcribed interviews with presidents and presidential-aspirants over the years. This is not the way the rest of them talk. When listening to Trump I often think of Danny DeVito’s “Cows!” moment from Throw Momma From the Train, which you see 40 seconds into the clip below.
2. “You can get that baby out of here.” At a rally in Virginia, Donald Trump grew annoyed at a baby that was crying and asked to have it removed from the hall.
Write your own punch line.
3. I feel your pain here in—wherever you are. That rally with the baby was in Ashburn, Virginia, a DC suburb that is one of the richest tech-and-defense-areas not just in the state but in the whole country. In his speech Trump went on a litany of how Ashburn had been devastated by factory closures—mentioning factories hours away at the other end of the state or in other states altogether. This is more or less like giving a speech in Palo Alto and imagining that you are addressing drought-stricken farmers and migrant laborers in Merced. Betsy Woodruff has the delicious details here.
Obvious-but-worth-making point: if you have any experience in politics, the incompetence behind such a performance is almost impossible to comprehend. I could write six more paragraphs but I’ll just say: it’s like a junior high-school drama club appearing on Broadway. (Or, to use an Ashburn-specific reference: it's like Coach Jim Zorn’s famous “swinging gate” play.)
4. Yeah, we’re on the same ticket, but we keep our endorsements separate. After Trump studiously declined to endorse Paul Ryan, his VP pick Mike Pence made clear that he “strongly supported” Ryan, thus disagreeing with his running mate.
In the known political universe, this kind of thing does not happen. Yes, VP Joe Biden signaled his support for same-sex marriage long before President Obama did, but that was years into the administration rather than in the heat of the campaign.
5. Republicans abroad. The worldwide vice president of Republicans Overseas, Jan Halper-Hayes, told the BBC that Trump was “out of control” and therefore she could no long support him.
6. A narcissist with nuclear weapons. John Noonan, a nuclear expert who had advised Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, unleashed a long Tweet-storm arguing that Trump’s ignorant cavalierness about nuclear weapons threatened to upset the decades-long balance-of-terror that had kept nuclear weapons from being used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can read the whole thing here; sample below.
To put this in perspective: Howard Dean’s campaign for president in 2004 was dealt a serious blow by a single five-second “screaming” episode. Rick Perry was hurt badly in 2012 by one 10-second brain freeze on a debate stage. Dan Quayle never fully recovered from spelling out potatoe in 1992.
Those were single episodes, with outsized consequences. Yet in 2016 Donald Trump does something like this practically every hour.
This is part of what he did on just another average day, 96 days before the election, with tax returns and a plausible physical-exam report nowhere in sight.
Noting it for the long-term record: August 1, 2016 — four days after the end of the Democratic convention, three days into the Captain Khan disaster (for Trump), on the same day as the post-convention polls shifted strongly in Hillary Clinton’s favor — Donald Trump began emphasizing that the election this fall could well be “rigged.”
From around time 17:00 onward in the clip below, showing a discussion with the nonpareil Sean Hannity, Trump warns that something fishy is going on. The clearest statement is around time 18:05: “Starting on November 8, we better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged.”
Why this is worth noting, beyond its departure from norms:
A powerful element of the emerging Picture Of Trump is that nothing is ever his fault. For instance: When it seemed that the final-night ratings for the DNC, featuring Hillary Clinton, might have drawn a bigger audience than his own convention-acceptance speech, Trump stressed to reporters that he had not really had much to do with the convention — he had just showed up. But when the ratings came in and showed that he had actually “won” that final night (although the Democrats got larger audiences for the other three nights), he began promoting that fact in multiple tweets. Success is his; screw-ups are by losers.
Since nothing is ever his fault, then if polls seem headed the wrong way, the only explanation can be cheating. “A lot of people are talking about something going on.”
Assuming that current results hold up and Trump loses in November, it does not bode well for the country to have a rigged-election / stab-in-the-back narrative seeded so far in advance. Compare, for instance, both Richard Nixon after the 1960 results came in and Al Gore in 2000, each of whom had much stronger grounds (especially Gore) to challenge the legitimacy of the outcome, but both of whom said: let’s move on.
Thus we note one more bit of damage Trump is inflicting on the body politic, with 97 days to go until the election —and still no tax returns or medical report.
After the jump, reader comments on Trump’s “rigged” narrative.
Given the right’s multi-year/multi-pronged attacks on voting rights, I’ll be quite surprised if voting this fall is allowed to proceed smoothly. I’ve worried for some time that some of Trump’s supporters might show up at the polls on election day to ensure that the right people (and fewer of the wrong people) actually vote.
Thus, when DJT suggests that the election might be rigged, he’s (a) accusing opponents of cheating, (b) laying groundwork for possible challenges, and possibly (c) dog-whistling followers who might show up for a bit of thuggery, if needed. Earlier this summer, DJT wink-wink encouraged physical violence at several of his rallies. We also have the recent attacks on police to consider.
From an American academic in China:
I think the “rigged election” meme is worth watching. It gives him an ego-saving (for him not just paramount, but all that matters) way to escape from actually having to behave like an adult, whether as head of a serious campaign or (perish the thought) our next president.
It also has the feature—which he doesn't care about in the slightest but which appeals to me as poet’s justice—of further sundering the Republican Party, along a fault line of its own creation. Trump is the spawn of two decades of Fox and the AM radio bully boys, and Trump’s supporters will be “confirmed” in their suspicion that the national elephant leadership have conspired to keep “their” candidate out.
It just struck me that since the polls have turned against Trump, he’s stopped talking about the polls and instead is talking about his (now seen by him as possibly inevitable) loss as proof that the election is “rigged.” (If he thought he was going to win, he would be at pains to say the election is honest, not rigged at all.)
I think the moment came when he said on national television that he would keep Russia from coming into Crimea, and being told the Russians have been there for two years. Trump at that moment suddenly realized that he was going to have to actually *know* things, that he could not just make it up as he goes along, and in that moment he realized he was doomed.
Even if he has the capacity to learn (which is not evident), he certainly has no inclination to do the hard work required. He’s lived on blather so long it’s the only thing he knows and is comfortable with. Actually sitting down to study, to learn, to think things through before taking action: that must look like Death Valley in a summer noon to him. He doesn’t do that, he can’t possibly win unless he does—and OMG, the debates! The debates will be worlds more difficult than an interview by George Stephanopoulos. He’ll be a laughingstock! Everybody will see him getting things wrong, not knowing things, while Hillary Clinton knows the turf like the back of her hand.
Thus the pressing immediate priority: Get out of the debates. Save as much face as possible, but GET OUT OF THE DEBATES.
It must feel overwhelming right now. And just as a car seems to gain speed if you step on a totally nonresponding brake, the calendar also must seem to be speeding up as he approaches the debates.
I think he’s probably not very happy right now. Not even considering the whole tax returns thing. And dammit! he DID make sacrifices. It’s just hard to remember them because he’s been such an amazing success for all his adult life, everything working out for him. Sacrifices… sacrifices… they were here a minute ago. I know I saw them.
The incumbent President of the United States said today that one of the two possibilities to succeed him is “unfit to serve as president” and is “woefully unprepared” to do the job. You can see Barack Obama’s comments starting around time 13:00 in the C-Span clip below, from his press conference this morning with the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong.
To the best of my knowledge, nothing like this has ever happened before.
Presidents of one party call nominees from the other party “bad choices” or “wrong for America” or “risky bets” or in some other way second-best options to their own preferred candidate.
As far as I am aware, none of them has previously declared a major-party nominee categorically unfit.
Again we have two possibilities. Either Barack Obama, with a career’s worth of hyper-deliberate careful phrasing behind him, has suddenly made a lurch toward hyperbole. Or Donald Trump does in fact merit classification in an unfit category of his own.
Obviously I believe the latter is the truth. We’ll get to the pushback and ramifications in subsequent installments, including President Obama’s question to the Republican leaders who “rebuke” Trump but still support him: “What does it say about your party, that this is your standard bearer?”
For now, this is one more for-the-record note of how Campaign 2016 has crossed one more previously unexplored frontier.
I’ve been offline for several days writing a magazine article. (Debates!) On return, I see that Donald Trump has lit off another string of firecrackers, Chinese New Year-style. As a short recap:
His campaign against the bereaved parents of a decorated American combat casualty, Army Captain Humayun Khan, goes on. His associate Roger Stone shamelessly broadened it with unfounded slurs against the Khan family. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other Republicans (including Mike Pence!) “distanced themselves” from Trump’s criticism of the Khans. John McCain went further, in an outright denunciation of what Trump had said. But not even McCain was willing to draw the obvious conclusion: that such a man is unfit for leadership. He and the rest still say, Vote for Trump!
Trump told George Stephanopoulos that the National Football League had sent him a letter complaining that the dates for this fall’s debates conflict with two NFL games. The NFL immediately denied that it had ever sent such a letter. The Commission on Presidential Debates pointed out that the dates had been set last year, with full knowledge of all parties. As a headline in Deadspin put it, “NFL Says Trump Is Full of Shit.” More on the debate fracas and related events in upcoming posts.
Trump claimed that the Koch brothers had asked him for a meeting to offer support, but he had turned them down because he wasn’t anyone’s puppet. Koch representatives quickly said this did not occur.
Trump told Stephanopoulos that Vladimir Putin “is not going to move into Ukraine” and seemed caught unaware when Stephanopoulos pointed out that in fact he already had, via the seizure of Crimea two years ago. The next day Trump sent out a Tweet denying the plain meaning of what he had said on air the previous day.
Trump went out of his way to criticize the local fire marshal at an event in Colorado Springs, saying that the marshal “didn’t know what he was doing” and was “probably a Democrat.” Trump did not mention that 30 minutes earlier, that same fire department had rescued Trump and others from an elevator where they had been stuck for 30 minutes. Typical politicians, and for that matter typical human beings, would have found a way to use the episode to say something positive about the fire marshal, the department, the city, the spirit of service, or something similar. Or they might not have mentioned it at all. Trump turned it into an attack on the group that had just helped him.
And on the margins, Trump said he had never met Putin, after making much in the past of his talks with him. RNC chairman Reince Priebus said he hadn’t known of the fall debate schedule until just now, which cannot be true. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort said categorically that Trump representatives had nothing whatsoever to do with the pro-Russian changes in the RNC platform, which is very unlikely to prove true. And so on.
“Big lies” are in a sense safe, because no one can disprove them. “We’re going to win so much you’ll get tired of winning!” But when you say something that is who-when-where specific — they sent me a letter, they asked for a meeting — you run the risk or someone saying, No they didn’t. As the NFL, the Kochs, and others are now saying about Trump’s claims.
There are two possibilities:
Trump is aware. That is, he knows he is lying and does not care. This is an extension of his old “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and not lose any votes” observation. Or
He is unaware. That is, he thinks these things are true while he is saying them; or he thinks that if he says them this way they will become true; or he remembers them this way and therefore believes they are true. Yes, they sent that letter …
I can’t know, but my money is on the latter. I believe that Donald Trump is telling the “truth” as he perceives or remembers it when opening his mouth, which is one reason he sounds so insistent. Unfortunately what he believes does not match the contours of our real world. Update On CNN today, Fareed Zakaria has a blistering denunciation of Trump’s Crimea comments. He puts them in the definition of bullshit from Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit treatise, in which the difference between lies and bullshit is that bullshit artists are indifferent to whether what they’re saying is true or false.
I want to steer clear of “medicalizing” discussion of Trump’s fantasies, his microscopically thin skin, his seemingly uncontrollable outbursts. I have no idea whether we’re seeing his basic personality and temperament, or something else. And from a civic perspective, it doesn’t matter. Either he doesn’t know the difference between truth and falsehood, or he knows it and does not care. Either is a big problem in a president.
Update: several more installments ahead, on debates, the Khans, reader response, and other themes. Also, I’ve just seen this new post by my Atlantic colleague (and friend) Ron Fournier, “Why Can’t Hillary Clinton Stop Lying.”
As Ron would know, because we’ve discussed these things frequently, I think the headline (while attention-getting) is unfortunate if readers take it to mean that Hillary Clinton’s worst, crabbed, letter-of-the-law evasions are remotely comparable to Donald Trump’s wholesale re-invention of reality. (The closer parallel would be if Clinton’s most notable pure-invention, “we landed under sniper fire” in Bosnia, were one of a thousand such instances, as is the case with Trump.)
As Ron’s piece makes clear, he is exasperated with Clinton for the unforced errors that give the grossly unqualified Trump an opening at all. So, read his piece; put pressure on Clinton to stop trimming; and meanwhile recognize that Trump is operating in a wholly different sphere.
This is what the we know about Donald Trump, with 98 days to go until the election, and while Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, and even John McCain still say: make this man Commander in Chief.
The most personally moving, and most fundamentally patriotic, moment of the Democratic National Convention was the appearance by the bereaved parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, and the statement about the meaning of their son’s life and death, and about the Constitution, by Mr. Khizr Khan.
After Khizr Khan spoke, politicians and commentators on most networks said they were moved, humbled, inspired, choked up. (Commentators on Fox did not say these things, because their coverage cut away from the Khans for Brit Hume and Megyn Kelly, plus a Benghazi ad.)
Dowd’s quote doesn’t render Trump’s tone, but it’s become clear since then that he was implying that, as a Muslim woman, Ms. Khan was not allowed to speak.
The truth is that she was overwhelmed by grief. If you’d like to hear “his wife” say something, you can do so starting at time 5:15 of the clip below. Lawrence O’Donnell asks Ms. Ghazala Khan about her final talk with her son, before his death while protecting his troops and numerous civilians. She begins, “He called me on Mother’s Day.” Then watch for the next minute. Or watch it all. (There is some pre-roll ad in this clip.)
If you go back and start at time 2:30, you will hear Ms. Khan saying that her son felt a responsibility to “take care of my soldiers, because they depend on me.” She told him, “I begged my son, don’t be a hero. Please come back as my son. He came back as … [after a sob] a hero.” The last word is delivered with a tone of bottomless tragedy.
Why do I mention this? I am not imagining that even an episode as heartless as this will necessarily change any committed Trump supporters’ minds. Although the accumulation of Trump’s offenses should increasingly shame the “respectable” Republicans standing up for him. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, this starts with you.
But it is important to document the starkness of the two conceptions of America that are on clear view, 100 days before this man could become president. The America of the Khan family, and that of Donald Trump.
A reader gives the background for the hymn you hear performed above by the London Philharmonic Choir. (The singing starts about 35 seconds in.) It has an Atlantic angle, in that the lyrics are by one of the magazine’s founders and editors, James Russell Lowell. There’s a modern-day angle too:
I’ve had an ear-worm on and off for the last few weeks and finally identified it as the hymn “Once to every man and nation”. (The lyrics are by James Russell Lowell, as you probably know.)
I think I can thank Donald Trump for putting this in my head.
Once to ev'ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Off'ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
'Twixt that darkness and that light.
Ryan, McConnell, Pence, Giuliani, Christie, Rubio, and others on the sidelines or on the wrong side: once to ev’ry man and nation. You are making a choice that matters and that you will regret.
For the record and in case you missed it, it is worth seeing the Lawrence O’Donnell interview last night with the extraordinary parents of Capt. Khan, a Muslim immigrant who was killed in Iraq. They also speak to Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. For me, the Khans have offered as close as we have come to a Joseph Welch moment in this campaign. The link to the show is here; an embed is below.
Mark Salter, former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain, has written an essay for Real Clear Politics on why he cannot vote for Donald Trump. It deserves note for the long-term record because this is not how associates of a party’s former nominee usually talk about the current one, and because of its insistence on the importance of tax returns.
Salter concludes (emphasis added):
Could it be that a major party nominee for president is beholden to Russia’s leader and might compromise the security interests of the U.S. and our allies to maintain that relationship? We don’t know the answer….
We can’t begin to answer the question until Trump releases his tax returns for the last several years. The media should make this the focus of every interview with Trump and senior Trump staff. The Republican Party chairman should urge him to release his returns. The Republican leadership in Congress should insist on it. Every American voter should demand it.
There are legitimate suspicions about whether Trump’s business relationships could compromise his loyalty to our country. Unless and until he puts them to rest, not by dismissing them but by disproving them, he should be considered unfit to hold the office of president.
To bear in mind, with 101 days to go until the election:
The Trump campaign’s standard response is that it won’t release the returns because they’re “under audit.” The IRS says, No problem! It’s just fine with us for you to release them. Trump’s excuse is a total crock, and one that has not been accepted from any previous nominee — although, as a lawyer has pointed out, Trump’s clinging to it may be a clue as to problems in the returns.
There’s already an established record of Trump putting his business interests above other concerns, from his flying to Scotland to tout his golf resort during the Brexit vote to turning a campaign appearance into an infomercial for his steaks.
Since the time of Richard Nixon, most serious candidates from both parties, and all nominees, have released tax and medical reports as part of their fundamental bargain with the public.
This is yet another norm that Trump is breaking — as Republican figures like Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, and the rest cement-in their position on the wrong side of the Character Divide.
Last night, in her overall very successful acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton said with ruthless precision about her opponent:
Ask yourself: Does Donald Trump have the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief?
Donald Trump can't even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign.
He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. When he's gotten a tough question from a reporter. When he's challenged in a debate. When he sees a protestor at a rally.
Emphasis added, as it was in her delivery:
Imagine—if you dare, imagine—imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.
I can’t put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis. She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started—not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men—the ones moved by fear and pride.
And here is Donald Trump’s response this morning, after some apparently-staff-generated tweets last night whose grammar and syntax were more stately than his norm (and whose message ID said “iPhone” rather than the Android Trump seems to use personally):
Think of the strategic outlook you are seeing demonstrated on Trump’s side. On national TV, a woman has said that it is easy to get under his skin — after a much richer real billionaire has made fun of him with, “I’m a New Yorker, and New Yorkers know a con when we see one.” And Trump’s response is … to take the bait and show that it has gotten under this skin.
Something is wrong with this man, if in no other way than in simple impulse-control.
After the jump, a reader on the implications of episodes like these:
I found myself reflecting this morning on what ought to rank as Hillary’s most crucial argument of the evening [the one I have quoted above, about his temperament]. It beggars belief that charges like these have to be levied against a major party nominee. I genuine worry that the gravity of the situation isn’t registering with large swathes of the voting public. ...
Imagine Trump in the Situation Room. Imagine him in the press briefing room responding to any fast-moving major geopolitical or economic crisis. Now bring all the available evidence of his conduct to bear—for instance, using the transcripts of unprepared remarks in interviews or his rallies. They read even worse than they sound. This man—in his native environment of unshackled stream-of-consciousness, staggering ignorance, and immunity to facts—cannot maintain a coherent thought longer than 8 or 10 words. He interrupts himself constantly. He can contradict himself in the space of 30 seconds.
The signaling done by the President to our allies and foes alike is incredibly important, and the President needs to have an understanding of how we came to be on whatever footing we’re on with regard to another country. Trump won’t know any of this, won’t care to learn it, and will he even pay sufficient attention if he's briefed by all the “best people” he says he would hire? We can’t have a President freestyling in front of microphones and then trying to pass it off as something he didn’t mean or was intended as sarcasm when things go sideways.
I am beyond convinced that the case has been made that he is manifestly, historically unfit for the office. But does the press have the ability (or staying power) to keep this central issue on the front burner? Almost every day brings another barrage of Trump inanity, many of which in isolation in any other election would be widely agreed to be disqualifying—and the news cycle homes in on it, fact-checking away and getting reaction from the pundits.
Depressingly, we are being inured to Trumpism. We’re at risk of the forest being missed for the trees.
Critics are letting their disdain for the president blind them to geopolitical realities.
When a new coronavirus emerged in China and began spreading around the world, including in the United States, President Donald Trump’s many critics in the American foreign-policy establishment were quick to identify him as part of the problem. Trump had campaigned on an “America first” foreign policy, which after his victory was enshrined in the official National Security Strategy that his administration published in 2017. At the time, I served in the administration and orchestrated the writing of that document. In the years since, Trump has been criticized for supposedly overturning the post–World War II order and rejecting the role the United States has long played in the world. Amid a global pandemic, he’s being accused—on this site and elsewhere—of alienating allies, undercutting multinational cooperation, and causing America to fight the coronavirus alone.
The U.S. may end up with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the industrialized world. This is how it’s going to play out.
Three months ago, no one knew that SARS-CoV-2 existed. Now the virus has spread to almost every country, infecting at least 446,000 people whom we know about, and many more whom we do not. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed. Soon, most everyone in the United States will know someone who has been infected. Like World War II or the 9/11 attacks, this pandemic has already imprinted itself upon the nation’s psyche.
A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk. In 2018, I wrote a story for The Atlantic arguing that America was not ready for the pandemic that would eventually come. In October, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security war-gamed what might happen if a new coronavirus swept the globe. And then one did. Hypotheticals became reality. “What if?” became “Now what?”
Widespread social-distancing measures have produced some jarring effects across land, air, and sea.
From inside her living room in London, Paula Koelemeijer can feel the world around her growing quieter.
Koelemeijer, a seismologist, has a miniature seismometer sitting on a concrete slab at the base of her first-floor fireplace. The apparatus, though smaller than a box of tissues, can sense all kinds of movement, from the rattle of trains on the tracks near Koelemeijer’s home to the waves of earthquakes rolling in from afar. Since the United Kingdom announced stricter social-distancing rules last month, telling residents not to leave their home except for essential reasons, the seismometer has registered a sharp decrease in the vibrations produced by human activity.
With fewer trains, buses, and people pounding the pavement, the usual hum of public life has vanished, and so has its dependable rhythms: Before the spread of COVID-19 shut down the city, Koelemeijer could plot the seismometer’s data and see the train schedule reflected in the spikes, down to the minute. Now, with fewer trains running, the spikes seem to come at random.
Far from making Americans crave stability, the pandemic underscores how everything is up for grabs.
Fear sweeps the land. Many businesses collapse. Some huge fortunes are made. Panicked consumers stockpile paper, food, and weapons. The government’s reaction is inconsistent and ineffectual. Ordinary commerce grinds to a halt; investors can find no safe assets. Political factionalism grows more intense. Everything falls apart.
This was all as true of revolutionary France in 1789 and 1790 as it is of the United States today. Are we at the beginning of a revolution that has yet to be named? Do we want to be? That we are on the verge of a major transformation seems obvious. The onset of the next Depression, a challenge akin to World War II, a national midlife crisis—these comparisons have been offered and many more. But few are calling our current moment a revolution, and some have suggested that the coronavirus pandemic—coinciding as it has with the surge in Joe Biden’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and the decline of Bernie Sanders’s—marks the end of any such possibility. “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” declared the headline of a recent essay in The Atlantic by Shadi Hamid, who argued that the COVID-19 crisis makes people crave “normalcy” over deep structural change. As a historian of 18th- and 19th-century France, I think claims like these are mistaken.
Local officials and health-care workers are losing faith in the national response, and struggling to improvise their own solutions.
The federal government’s stockpile of medical supplies, gloves, and masks is nearly exhausted, President Donald Trump admitted at a White House briefing on Wednesday. Meanwhile, individual states are scrambling, bidding against one another for the equipment they need.
“The coronavirus pandemic is a damning indictment of this country’s health-care system,” Joseph Kantor, the assistant state health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health, told me. “The richest country in the world is scrounging around for ventilators” and personal protective equipment.
Kantor is one of a dozen health professionals across the country with whom I spoke this week. Taken together, those conversations reveal a federal government that has failed to protect, supply, and prepare the country and its cities. These health-care workers are looking with horror at the chaos in New York City, as evidence of what can happen to a vibrant city in the absence of national strategy and preparedness. As they struggle to avoid a similar crisis, they’re losing faith in the federal government, and resorting to their own improvised solutions.
How the coronavirus travels through the air has become one of the most divisive debates in this pandemic.
Updated at 7:22 p.m. ET on April 4, 2020.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many people are now overthinking things they never used to think about at all. Can you go outside? What if you’re walking downwind of another person? What if you’re stuck waiting at a crosswalk and someone is there? What if you’re going for a run, and another runner is heading toward you, and the sidewalk is narrow? Suddenly, daily mundanities seem to demand strategy.
Much of this confusion stems from the shifting conversation around the pandemic. Thus far, the official line has been that the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could be transmitted only through close contact with infected people or contaminated surfaces. But recently, news reports have suggested that the coronavirus can spread through the air. After 60 choir members in Washington State rehearsed together, 45 fell sick, even though no one seemed symptomatic at the time. Now people who were already feeling cooped up are worrying about going outside. Many state guidelines are ambiguous, and medical advice can muddy matters further. When the writer Deborah Copaken came down with COVID-19 symptoms, her doctor chided her for riding her bike through New York City a week earlier. Going outside in the city wasn’t safe, the physician implied, with “viral load everywhere.”
The coronavirus outbreak may last for a year or two, but some elements of pre-pandemic life will likely be won back in the meantime.
Updated at 4:40 ET on March 30, 2020.
The new coronavirus has brought American life to a near standstill, closing businesses, canceling large gatherings, and keeping people at home. All of those people must surely be wondering: When will things return to normal?
The answer is simple, if not exactly satisfying: when enough of the population—possibly 60 or 80 percent of people—is resistant to COVID-19 to stifle the disease’s spread from person to person. That is the end goal, although no one knows exactly how long it will take to get there.
There are two realistic paths to achieving this “population-level immunity.” One is the development of a vaccine. The other is for the disease to work its way through the population, surely killing many, but also leaving many others—those who contract the disease and then recover—immune. “They’re just Teflon at that point,” meaning they can’t get infected again and they won’t pass on the disease, explains Andrew Noymer, a public-health professor at UC Irvine. Once enough people reach Teflon status—though we don’t yet know if recovering from the disease confers any immunity at all, let alone lifelong immunity—normalcy will be restored. (It may also turn out to be the case that people who are immune to the disease can still pass it on under certain circumstances.)*
More young people in the South seem to be dying from COVID-19. Why?
In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has gone from a novel, distant threat to an enemy besieging cities and towns across the world. The burden of COVID-19 and the economic upheaval wrought by the measures to contain it feel epochal. Humanity now has a common foe, and we will grow increasingly familiar with its face.
Yet plenty of this virus’s aspects remain unknown. The developing wisdom—earned the hard way in Wuhan, Washington, and Italy—has been that older people and sicker people are substantially more likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19 than their younger, healthier counterparts. Older people are much more likely than young people to have lung disease, kidney disease, hypertension, or heart disease, and those conditions are more likely to transform a coronavirus infection into something nastier. But what happens when these assumptions don’t hold up, and the young people battling the pandemic share the same risks?
Trump is utterly unsuited to deal with this crisis, either intellectually or temperamentally.
For his entire adult life, and for his entire presidency, Donald Trump has created his own alternate reality, complete with his own alternate set of facts. He has shown himself to be erratic, impulsive, narcissistic, vindictive, cruel, mendacious, and devoid of empathy. None of that is new.
But we’re now entering the most dangerous phase of the Trump presidency. The pain and hardship that the United States is only beginning to experience stem from a crisis that the president is utterly unsuited to deal with, either intellectually or temperamentally. When things were going relatively well, the nation could more easily absorb the costs of Trump’s psychological and moral distortions and disfigurements. But those days are behind us. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions that can catalyze a destructive set of responses from an individual with Trump’s characterological defects and disordered personality.
The Trump administration has just released the model for the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic in America. We can expect a lot of back-and-forth about whether its mortality estimates are too high or low. And its wide range of possible outcomes is certainly confusing: What’s the right number? The answer is both difficult and simple. Here’s the difficult part: There is no right answer. But here’s the simple part: Right answers are not what epidemiological models are for.
Epidemiologists routinely turn to models to predict the progression of an infectious disease. Fighting public suspicion of these models is as old as modern epidemiology, which traces its origins back to John Snow’s famous cholera maps in 1854. Those maps proved, for the first time, that London’s terrible affliction was spreading through crystal-clear fresh water that came out of pumps, not the city’s foul-smelling air. Many people didn’t believe Snow, because they lived in a world without a clear understanding of germ theory and only the most rudimentary microscopes.