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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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Midterm Time Capsule, 37 Days to Go: What Trump and Kavanaugh Have in Common

Ten weeks ago, in happier times. Jim Bourg / Reuters

Brett Kavanaugh’s suitability to serve as a Supreme Court justice differs from Donald Trump’s suitability to serve as a president in some obvious ways.

Kavanaugh has long previous legal experience, versus none in public office for Trump. For the past 12 years, Kavanaugh has held a job generally regarded as the closest thing to being on the Supreme Court—namely, a seat on the D.C. Circuit—and he has been on conservatives’ list of prospective future justices for a long time. Most people doubted, even as of Election Day, that Trump would become president. Most people have assumed, even as of now, that Kavanaugh will be confirmed.

But after this past week’s hearings, and before anyone knows what job Kavanaugh will hold next year at this time, it is fair to liken the two men in one important way: By the rules of previous, pre-Trump-era politics, neither of them could possibly have made this final career step—Trump to the presidency, Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Each has done things and revealed traits that would have been automatically disqualifying in the world as it existed before 2016. Donald Trump nominated Kavanaugh; Trump’s example is also shaping him.


By the pre-Trump rules of presidential campaigning, Trump’s prospects would have come to an end numerous times along the trail: when he mocked John McCain as “not a hero,” when he similarly criticized a Gold Star family, when he refused to release his tax information, when the “Grab ‘em!” tape came out, when he talked about the “Mexican judge,” when he revealed that he didn’t know what the “nuclear triad” was—the list goes on. After all, Edmund Muskie left the presidential race in 1972 to a large degree because he cried one time at an outdoor speech, in a snowstorm, and Howard Dean in 2004 to a large degree because he screamed too exuberantly one time at a post-primary-vote rally. Joe Biden was eliminated from the 1988 race to a large degree because he passed off someone else’s family-history anecdote as his own. Excesses like these became routine for Trump on the campaign trail, yet he went on.

In Kavanaugh’s case, his afternoon before the Senate Judiciary Committee revealed three traits that previous nominees who sat in that chair have carefully avoided, because they would have been considered so damaging. They were: temperamental instability; open partisan affiliations; and a casual willingness to tell obvious, easily disprovable lies. These are apart from the underlying truth of the multiple sexual allegations about Kavanaugh, which may not ever be provable.

The details in these three categories fill the weekend’s news, and have been covered in many strong posts on our site: by Matt Thompson, by Megan Garber, by Judith Donath, by Joe Pinsker, by Adam Serwer, and many others. But to explain the grouping, and why it departs from the known past:

(1) Temperament. Positions of public power that are in the public eye are uncomfortable. People disagree with you. They criticize and even hate you. Often they twist facts and reach unfair conclusions. All of this goes with the territory of being a president—or a governor, a general, a boss, any kind of leader, or anyone who has to make high-stakes decisions that involve other people, and that some people won’t like.

What also goes with the territory, or should, is a thick skin, and a long view. Politicians can get away with the occasional public flash of anger about unfair accusations. That can be part of the personality they present to their constituents, though Trump is the first to make grievance itself such a long-running political act. But judges aren’t supposed to. There’s a reason the adjective judicious has the word-origin that it does. And by past conventions, Supreme Court candidates were supposed to present themselves as the most calmly judicious of all.

Donald Trump at the United Nations Carlo Allegri / Reuters

American presidents usually address the United Nations General Assembly in the fall—as you can see here, and as Donald Trump did on Tuesday. Sometimes they also do so in the spring*, or on other occasions as the need arises.

American presidents usually receive a respectful hearing at the UN.

-  Sometimes it is more than just respectful, as when John Kennedy made his speech in 1961 calling for a new series of nuclear test-ban treaties. (“The events and decisions of the next ten months may well decide the fate of man for the next ten thousand years… And we in this hall shall be remembered either as part of the generation that turned this planet into a flaming funeral pyre or the generation that met its vow ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.’ ”)

- Sometimes the reception is merely polite, as when Richard Nixon spoke to the UN during the Vietnam war, or Ronald Reagan while pursuing his “Star Wars” / Strategic Defense Initiative program against the Soviet Union.

- Very occasionally the reaction has fallen short even of politeness, as when Hugo Chavez, then strongman of Venezuela, spoke one day after George W. Bush, during the Iraq War. Chavez said that the dais still reeked of sulfur after Bush’s speech, because “yesterday the devil came here.”

But two things were unusual about Trump’s speech on Tuesday.

It was, to the best of my knowledge, the first presidential UN speech that challenged the very idea of international cooperation and standards. Compare Ronald Reagan, 1985:  “America is committed to the world because so much of the world is inside America…. The blood of each nation courses through the American vein and feeds the spirit that compels us to involve ourselves in the fate of this good Earth.” And Donald Trump, 2018: “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”

And, it was the only one, ever, to be greeted by openly mocking laughter, including from representatives of America’s closest allies, as David Graham described here. Criticism and disagreement, yes — they go with the territory of representing America’s enormous power. But ridicule is something new. The moment is too obvious to belabor as a symbol, so I simply note it as a fact.

Republican senators who have said anything about this performance: to the best of my knowledge, none.

Forty-one days to go.

Brett Kavanaugh, before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing, with his wife, Ashley, seated behind him. Reuters / Jim Bourg

I have been offline, traveling for actual reporting, over the weekend, and reappear to find… argh!!! There is no possible way to keep up. So as a brief time-capsule register of where things stand, six weeks before midterm election day, here are two markers of things that have changed in the past few days.

(1) There is no longer “just one.” The most significant recent development in the Brett Kavanaugh case would appear to be the dispatch from Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker, alleging an episode of sexual assault by Kavanaugh when he was an undergraduate at Yale. Why is this significant?

(a) Of all the reporters whose accounts go contrary to official Trump administration claims, from the venerable Bob Woodward to the more recently eminent Ronan Farrow, I am not aware of anyone whose decades-long track record stands up better than Jane Mayer’s. If she has had to retract, apologize for, eat crow about, or otherwise retract significant factual illustrations, I’m not aware of it.

(b) In the etiology of sexual-aggression claims, the offense history very rarely seems to be “there was just that one time.” Either the number of plausible sexual-abuse claims against a prominent figure is zero — against Barack Obama, against George W. Bush, against Kavanaugh’s fellow Georgetown Prep alumnus Neil Gorsuch, etc  — or it eventually amounts to a significant number.

Cosby, Weinstein, the gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, and the like may be extreme cases. But in general the pattern we’ve all learned to expect is: If there is one, there is more than one. Conversely: if the number remains firmly at one, it’s easier to raise doubts about that lone accuser.

With the Mayer-Farrow story, the number of specific allegations against Brett Kavanaugh broke the more-than-one threshold. No one working for Kavanaugh’s confirmation can say so, but this news substantially changes expectations, and apprehensions, about what other claims might yet turn up.

(c) On the expectations front, I’ll lay out my own.

In my reporting life and as a citizen, I’ve watched over the decades many cycles of “rumors” and “questions” about sexual misconduct by prominent (male) figures run their course. Not in every case, but in the vast majority of them, as the evidence finally comes out and mounts up, it has usually weighed on the side of the accuser, not the accused. Where there is smoke, there has usually been fire.

Members of Congress tee off at the Columbia Country Club CQ Roll Call via AP

Last night around 1 a.m., I mentioned that a fevered and insanely conspiratorial tweetstorm then online was almost certain to disappear. It was filed by Ed Whelan, a friend of Brett Kavanaugh’s and a prominent figure in conservative judicial circles; it laid out elaborate (but crazy) forensic evidence pointing to one of Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep classmates as the likely “real” aggressor in the long-ago attempted-rape case; and it was nuts.

This morning, about 14 hours after the posts originally went up, Whelan removed the several-dozen tweets he had painstakingly put together and replaced them with this:

Via Twitter

Way back in Trump Time Capsule #4, when Donald Trump was about to clinch the Republican presidential nomination, I mentioned Trump’s long-standing weakness for conspiracy theories. These ranged from his lunatic suggestion that the father of (then-rival, now supplicant) Ted Cruz had been involved in the JFK assassination, to his “a lot of people are saying ...” suspicion-mongering about the death of Vince Foster, who committed suicide while serving as White House counsel during the Bill Clinton years.  

Context point #1: “A lot of people are saying” is Trump’s trademark way of floating usually false information, as in “A lot of people are questioning [Obama’s] birth certificate.”

Context point #2: When Brett Kavanaugh, now Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, was an aide to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr in his investigation of Bill Clinton, he personally led efforts to unveil the “real” story of Foster’s death. The historian Sean Wilentz said more about this effort in the New York Times, here.

On Thursday, the modern equivalent of the “Cruz’s dad did it” theory, or the “real” story of Vince Foster, entered the midterm politics of 2018. It did so in the form of a deranged-seeming several-dozen-elements-long Twitter storm by a very prominent conservative figure, who set himself the task of figuring out who “really” waged a sexual attack many years ago on Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who says that the teenaged Brett Kavanaugh did so.

The tweet-storm came from a man named Edward Whelan, and here’s why it merits notice today:

Border Patrol agents taking a Central American child into custody, this past June, in McAllen, Texas. John Moore / Getty

Here are some items from the news that barely break the consciousness-barrier, amid the Kavanaugh confirmation fight and other chaos, but that I expect will be considered significant in the history of our times:

(1) Children. Starting back in the Clinton administration, U.S. immigration authorities have been under court supervision for handling any children who are caught with parents or other adults during border crossings. Together the rules for treating children are often referred to as “Flores standards” or “the Flores settlement,” after Flores v. Reno, a case filed back when Janet Reno was attorney general.

The rules are complicated, and you can see more here and here. Apparent violations of Flores, along with basic cruelty, were at the heart of the controversy about separating children from parents at the southern border this past summer.

One important part of current Flores standards is that children apprehended along with adults can’t be held for more than 20 days. Having lost a long sequence of court rulings about its “zero-tolerance” approach and other immigration policies, the Trump administration is now proposing essentially to de-impose the Flores limits, through new regulatory guidance. You can read more about what the changes would mean here. (The new approach is likely to be challenged in court, too.)

(2) The future. Human activity produces roughly five times as much carbon dioxide as emissions of methane. But methane is vastly more powerful as an agent of climate change. You can see the details here and here, but as an approximation methane is at least 80 times stronger than CO2 in its short-term climate effect, and as a recent article put it, “its impact is 34 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period, according to the latest IPCC Assessment Report.”

Statement from the White House, with Donald Trump's order that closely protected secret information be made public. Screenshot from White House Press Office

Because these details tend to get lost in the froth, let’s pause to note two extraordinary steps Donald Trump took in the past 24 hours.

One of them is literally unprecedented; the other is a sharp departure from modern norms. I’m not aware of any member of the governing GOP majority objecting to either of them.

They are:

(1) Declassifying FISA warrants and messages from FBI agents. Presumably because he thinks these messages might embarrass people he considers enemies, on Monday Trump ordered the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice (which includes the FBI) to make public “without redaction” a variety of text messages, reports, and even FISA warrants all involved in the Russian-influence probe.

Why did this matter? Because the FISA warrants, the FBI reports, and these other documents presumably contain details on how the government knows what it knows. Who its sources are, what informants and moles it has developed, which surveillance systems work, which enemy codes have been broken. Recall the familiar (though disputed and even disproved) claim that in World War II Winston Churchill let the Luftwaffe bombing of Coventry proceed — rather than evacuate the city, which could have tipped off the Germans to how much the British knew. Whether or not that story is correct (probably not), as a parable it illustrates how important protecting “sources and methods” can be. And in this case Trump decreed: I don’t care.

The “Gang of Eight” within the Congress is supposed to be the bipartisan bulwark against misuse of the intelligence system. Today a “Gang of Four” — the Democratic half of the full-scale octet Gang — protested bitterly against Trump’s decision, and appealed to the FBI and intelligence establishment to ignore it, or slow it down.

From a cartoon by Kal, of the Baltimore Sun, after the Anita Hill hearings in 1991. Courtesy Kevin KAL Kallaugher, Baltimore Sun

At the moment, in mid-September—with no way of knowing how the midterm elections will go, or what legal entanglements lie ahead for Donald Trump—we do have one possible gauge of how far the politics of 2018 have actually deviated from previous norms.

It involves the prospects for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Through post-World War II political history, there have been distinct moments when a nomination curdles, or sours—and when the assumption shifts from likely approval, which is the starting point for most selections by most presidents, to likely failure.

  • In 1987, Ronald Reagan’s pick to succeed Lewis Powell on the Court, a 41-year-old federal judge named Douglas Ginsburg, withdrew from consideration less than two weeks after he was announced, because of an (unbelievable in retrospect) controversy about marijuana use. The complications of sticking with him were piling up too fast. (Previously Reagan had named Robert Bork for this seat; that nomination went down, after a bitter fight, by a 42-58 vote, with 58 voting against him. After Ginsburg bowed out, Reagan turned to Anthony Kennedy—whose retirement this year opened the seat Kavanaugh would hold.)
  • In 2005, George W. Bush’s pick to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor on the Court, a 60-year-old White House staff official named Harriet Miers, withdrew from consideration three weeks after she was announced, in the face of Democratic criticism about her lack of judicial experience and Republican doubts about her policy views. The fight to defend her seemed not worth the cost. (Samuel Alito was eventually confirmed for this seat. )
  • In 2009, Barack Obama’s pick as the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, withdrew from consideration two weeks after Obama was sworn in, because of (again penny-ante in retrospect) questions about his failure to declare use of a private-car service as taxable income, and related personal-finance issues. Losing him hurt Obama badly, but at the time the fight to keep him seemed likely to hurt more.

Anyone who has been around politics has seen similar episodes, when opposition starts cresting, and one of three outcomes is in view:

(1) A nominee fights bitterly—and hangs on, as Clarence Thomas did for his seat on the Supreme Court in 1991.

(2) A nominee fights bitterly—and loses, as Bork did in 1987.

(3) a nominee sees defeat impending, and decides to get out of the way (or is moved out of the way) to cut losses and minimize the public humiliation.


If these were normal times, we’d say that option (3) is in view for Brett Kavanaugh.

Senator Jeff Flake, of Arizona, shown while seated, but standing up today. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

According to the Washington Post just now, Senator Jeff Flake, of Arizona, who is a Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, has said that a vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court should be delayed, until his latest accuser (Christine Blasey Ford) can testify.

As the story says:

In an interview with The Post, Flake said that Ford “must be heard” before a committee vote.

“I’ve made it clear that I’m not comfortable moving ahead with the vote on Thursday if we have not heard her side of the story or explored this further,” said Flake, who is one of the committee’s 21 members. Republicans hold an 11-to-10 majority on the panel and Flake’s opposition to a vote could stall the nomination….

“For me, we can’t vote until we hear more,” he said.

Good for Senator Flake. (Assuming he backs this up.)


On the merits, this is not even a close call. As I argued in a long post last night, as David Frum argued today, and as Garrett Epps explained with rich legal-political detail, a rush to judgment is the last thing the Senate should be contemplating with Kavanaugh.

He is being considered for a lifetime appointment to one of the most powerful, and least accountable, roles in American governance. Two very experienced senators (Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein) have directly accused Kavanaugh of lying under oath about his past political activities. If the accusations of sexual aggression are true, then he has lied to investigators and senators about this as well.

I don’t know the underlying truth of any of these matters. But neither do the senators. There is simply no defensible argument, on any front, for rushing to an irrevocable decision whose consequences could last for decades.

(Irrevocable? As I explain in this piece, once a justice is sworn onto the Supreme Court, he or she is effectively above the law. The last impeachment of a justice was in 1805—and that justice, Samuel Chase, stayed on the Court. The evidence about Clarence Thomas has mounted since his rushed confirmation 27 years ago, but it doesn’t matter. Decades? Kavanaugh is 53 years old. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85. If he lasts as long as she has, he could be there for eight more presidential races. )

Donald Trump hardly knew Paul Manafort. Except when Manafort was running his presidential campaign. Here they are, with Ivanka Trump, at the Republican convention, in a scene I witnessed personally from the convention floor. Rich Wilking / Reuters

Two days ago, Paul Manafort made his plea-bargain deal with Robert Mueller’s federal investigators. As part of the terms, he says he will cooperate fully and truthfully with the federal team—knowing that his sentencing can be delayed until his “efforts to cooperate have been completed, as determined by the Government.”

As an example of a subject on which he might have useful information to share, I send you back to Trump Time Capsule #71 from the original campaign-cycle series. You see its headline below.

The Atlantic.

What we know now, and could only assume and guess and infer then, was that Manafort was lying — and so were many other people in the campaign.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court, whose retirement opened the seat Clarence Thomas now holds. Thomas J. O’Halloran, via Library of Congress

The most cynical decision George H. W. Bush made as president was to nominate Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

The choice was cynical because of Thomas’s race. In 1991 Bush had a vacancy to fill when Thurgood Marshall—the first African American ever to sit on the Court, the man who had successfully argued the historic Brown v. Board of Education case before the Court as a lawyer for the NAACP—decided to retire.

Clarence Thomas’s views were the opposite of Marshall’s on just about every front, as Juan Williams (then of the Washington Post, now best known from Fox News) explained in an Atlantic profile several years before Thomas’s nomination. But Bush knew that liberal critics of Thomas’s conservative views would be in a bind. If they opposed him—a graduate of Yale Law School, who had started out as a poor child in the segregated South—they would of course be blocking a black successor to America’s first-ever black justice.

Thomas himself left no doubt about this framing of events, saying in his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee that criticism of him had amounted to a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”

Bush’s cynicism came through in his announcement of the Thomas choice,  implausibly claiming that “the fact that he is black and a minority has nothing to do” with the selection. The only reason for the choice, he said, was that Thomas was “the best qualified [candidate] at this time.”

The “best qualified” claim was risible. Thomas was 43 years old and had spent only a year-plus as a judge. In an editorial opposing his confirmation, The New York Times said:

If the Thomas nomination is to be judged on the merits, it fails.

The fault, in the end, is not that of the nominee but of the man who nominated him … By nominating this black conservative, President Bush serves a narrow partisan interest when the public has a right to expect him to nominate a lawyer or judge of proven distinction.”

But of course Thomas made it through a bitter confirmation process. He won approval from the Senate on a vote of 52-48 and took what had been Thurgood Marshall’s seat at age 43. He is only 70 years old now and conceivably could be on the Court through several more presidencies. Already he has been a fifth vote in such history-changing 5-4 decisions as Citizens United in 2010 (which ushered in nearly limitless money in politics); Heller in 2008 (which ushered in the novel concept that Second Amendment protection for a “well-regulated militia” extended to any individual who wanted to own firearms); and Bush v.Gore in 2000 (which ushered in  … )

General Joseph Joffre, in the center, around the time of his successful command of French troops at the First Battle of the Marne in World War I. Behind him is General Philippe Pétain, revered for his service during that war, later reviled for his figurehead leadership of France's 1940s Vichy regime. Marshal Pétain is the guiding spirit of this Midterm Time Capsule series. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

As I write, the national news is dominated by the arrival of Hurricane Florence, and the political news has emphasized Donald Trump’s reaction to this event and last year’s Hurricane Maria. Other Atlantic pieces lay out some of the problems with Trump’s response: for instance, one by David Graham here and others by Vann Newkirk here and here. My purpose this evening is to contrast the way this president is reacting to a natural-disaster challenge with what his predecessors have done.

Let’s review the chronology:

  • On Tuesday, September 12, Donald Trump awarded himself “A pluses” for his administration’s hurricane-response efforts in Florida and Texas. In a tweet he also said that his team “did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent Mayor of San Juan). We are ready for the big one that is coming!” That big one is of course Hurricane Florence, which as of this writing is beginning its landfall on the Carolina coast.
    Via Twitter
  • This morning, September 13, Trump sent out Tweets asserting that reports of large-scale casualties in Puerto Rico were hype and faked—and that the fakery was part of a scheme to “make me look as bad as possible.”
    Via Twitter